- Category: Campaigns
- Published on Tuesday, 8 July 2014
- Written by Rich T
Rich T from Bristol reports on Acorn, a grassroots community campaign currently taking on private landlords and letting agents.
You often hear it said how things aren't the way they used to be, back when communities really were communities, where you knew everyone on your street by their first name and you had no qualms about leaving your door unlocked when you went to the shop. For residents in the area of Easton in Bristol it's time to reclaim that sense of community.
Easton has recently become the location of the latest chapter of Acorn International, an organisation that builds grassroots community unions that seek to bring communities together in solidarity as they campaign in their local areas around issues that matter to them. Armed with a will for change a group of local residents hit the streets of Easton going from door to door talking to the people they met about their experiences and concerns and asking one simple question: If 100 of their neighbours would agree to the same, would they commit to attending a local forum hosted by Acorn? And they said yes!
On Friday 16th May, 70 residents gathered in a local social centre where they spoke of their concerns around local schools to properties left as junkyards by absentee landlords, and from rip off tenancy fees to zero hours contracts. Through this discussion the first campaign was launched. The campaign has three clear goals:
- Eliminate tenancy fees
- Stop monthly rolling contracts for renters
- Have letting agents and landlords give tenants the option for 3/5 year tenancies
Since that meeting ACORN members have been back out on the streets canvassing residents for support for their campaign to fight exploitative tenancy fees in the BS5 area. These fees, which are already illegal in Scotland, are used to fleece those already most vulnerable to the present housing crisis for work that would have to be provided anyway. Elsewhere in Europe the cost of paperwork is covered by the landlords who are able to make the money out of the transactions, but increasingly agencies are using gaps in the legislation to squeeze tenants for everything they can get.
Easton has nearly twice as many privately rented homes than other parts of the city, and in 2012 more than ¼ of complaints to the council about privately rented homes came from Easton. But with only 6 months security and rip-off letting agent fees of up to £500, many tenants are intimidated out of complaining or campaigning by the threat of eviction.
Letting agents are key to this problem. Over 60% of tenancies involve a letting agent and 1-in-4 people in England feel they have been charged an unfair fee. In Easton fees are often £250-400 and some agents charge new fees of around £30 every 6 months. Not only that, but some letting agents encourage landlords to only sign contracts for 6 months to make it easier to evict tenants or hike-up rent at the drop of a hat. It also means that the agencies are able to charge a new batch of fees whenever a contract needs signing or renewing. Only having housing security for 6 months is not a decent way to live. Across Europe standard tenancies are 5 years long! Shorter tenancies lead to people moving house often and not being able to put down roots in their community.
The timing for this campaign couldn't be better. The issues it raises are currently all over the national media. The Labour Party are putting an abolition of tenancy fees and 3 year fixed-term tenancy agreements in their manifesto. The current government have drafted a tenants' charter aimed at increasing the rights of all renters. Shelter are running national, high publicity campaigns on exactly the same issues and Bristol Mayor George Ferguson has publicly backed them saying "Bristol City Council is serious about tackling poor standards of accommodation and poorly managed properties in Bristol’s private rented sector."
Things are already looking positive in Easton too, one local agent already does not charge fees and another has suggested that they are receptive to it. As part of the campaign to fight exploitative tenancy fees a petition has been launched which campaigners hope will reach 1000 signatures. This petition will be presented to local agencies inviting them to scrap fees and drop the exploitative 6 month contracts. They will also be invited to explain themselves to residents at a public meeting. ACORN members and other residents will also be invited to give testimonies explaining how they have been exploited by agencies in the past. Campaigners are confident that the meeting will lead to a deal that works for the community not for private profits, but are committed to continuing to apply community pressure on those agencies that refuse to work with them.