Izzy Parrott reports on Hackney Housing Group’s fight against housing cuts
Unless we stop the changes, in April and October of this year we will see cuts to housing benefit make thousands of families homeless and effectively cleanse inner London boroughs of poorer households. We will also see the nature of social housing change, with government plans to allow social landlords to charge 80% of market rent and permit social tenancies in place of life-long security of tenure. Sadly these cuts will also be coming to a sector, which has already suffered from under-investment, poor quality and over-crowded housing and harsh ‘gate keeping’ practices at Homeless Person’s Units.
Hackney Housing Group plans to keep fighting for affordable housing, winning housing for its members and to fight the cuts at a local level. The group has been meeting regularly for the last two years and members have supported each other to win housing from the council through a range of tactics such as marching down to the housing office and refusing to leave until demands are met.
One member of the Hackney Housing Group, Janinha, found herself locked out of her temporary accommodation and the locks changed while she was looking after a relative in hospital. She decided to by-pass the council’s official complaints procedure and, accompanied by a large group of supporters, took a letter down to the town hall. In response, she was told she had no grounds for complaint – but in the same envelope found an acceptance letter for social housing. By having the support of a group of people, rather than facing the council as an individual, she had managed to win her case.
Many of the people in Hackney Housing Group have taken direct action to resolve difficult housing or benefit problems. They have gone on to support other people, learning from their own struggles and continuing as part of the group. Through mutual support and wider campaigns, they have gained a political awareness that comes from understanding that ordinary people have the power to make changes. Moving from personal victories, group members have turned to wider campaigns for more social housing and rent controls and, of course, against the housing benefit cuts.
Being part of a sustainable support group is very important to members of the group. It allows people to break with the culture of the legal system where action is taken simply on an individual basis. Through tackling their cases people learn new ways of circumventing the system and then go on to share their knowledge with new members. ‘When I first came to the group I didn’t take it very seriously,’ Zhana Pazeraite says. ‘Now I think it is really important to support each other.’ One year later, she is an active member of both the Hackney Housing Group and London Coalition Against Poverty.
Its experiences over the past couple of years means that Hackney Housing Group is well placed to know what people need and how to fight against the current cuts. As group member Ellie Schling puts it, ‘If we can’t stop the cuts then we need to stop the evictions. To get people involved we need to be campaigning to change our own situations, to defend our homes and to win housing for ourselves.’ The group believes that any campaign must involve the people who are facing the housing benefit cuts and that the anti-cuts movement should help people change their own lives in the present as well as in the future. In the case of housing, people need support to keep their homes, as well as participating in a bigger campaign.
The group is currently establishing an emergency phone tree with other existing groups and activist networks in Hackney to provide an emergency number for people worried about losing their home. Members hope that the phone tree will provide a way for people to stop evictions, through advice, information about group meetings and call-outs to physically stand in the way of evictions.
The group’s approach combines mutual support and direct action with a local publicity campaign and is linked up with other groups that are more experienced at lobbying. Together with Defend Council Housing, the group are lobbying Hackney council to agree ‘to campaign against cuts in housing benefit and refuse to implement cuts in housing benefit where this is under local control and to promise not to evict tenants who get behind with their rent as a result of the new cuts in housing benefit.’ Defend Council Housing has already got Barking, Dagenham and Islington councils to sign up to this demand.
The lesson from past campaigns, such as that against the poll tax, is clear. The anti-poll tax movement gathered momentum on a ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ basis, and included actions such as trying to keep non-payment court cases going as long as possible. Widespread involvement with the campaign only occurred because of the use of direct action by ordinary people to meet people’s immediate, practical needs. It was this that finally won the battle.
Today, we need to recognise that the anti-cuts movement will remain limited to people with experience of political involvement if it does not attempt to help people address their immediate needs. While important, marches and rallies will neither build the movement far beyond ‘the usual suspects’ nor win the campaign against the cuts. As groups such as Hackney Housing Group have shown, by winning individual victories, people’s personal struggles become a collective fight.
«Hackney Housing Group is part of the London Coalition Against Poverty along with Islington Welfare Action and Hackney Welfare Action. Haringey Housing Action and Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group also work with LCAP. LCAP started as an organization that supported individuals with housing and benefit problems to take direct action. It has now developed into a more sustainable and political organization whereby members support each other through local groups and collectively run campaigns. If you would like to come to a local group meeting please see http://www.lcap.org.uk for details and email LCAP if you would like support to start a local group or if you would like to be included in an anti-evictions phone tree. LCAP is also issuing an appeal for funds so it can have a more child-friendly and accessible office. Standing orders of £2 a month from 100 people would allow LCAP to do this.
«This article is adapted from a longer article in Red Pepper magazine.