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Housing activists are uniting, in Manchester – and beyond

ALLISON FEWTRELL, from the rapidly expanding Greater Manchester Tenants Union, reports back on a weekend of activism, solidarity and determination in the housing movement

HOUSING activism in Britain has been gathering pace over the last 10 years, with tenants increasingly squeezed by rising rents, while the availability and quality of rental properties plummets. 

Manchester has more than 15,600 households on its social housing waiting list, and at least 2,700 households in temporary accommodation. Instead of heralding an increase in social housing, investment in the city has resulted in a proliferation of luxury flats and purpose-built student accommodation, filling the offshore coffers of corporate landlords.

Last Friday, along with extreme heat and occasional thunderstorms, Manchester saw the arrival of housing activists from London, Dublin, Liverpool and Edinburgh to attend a full programme of events as part of an ongoing exchange between Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU), Community Action Tenants Union Ireland (Catu), Acorn, Scotland’s Living Rent and London Renters Union (LRU). 

Tickets for Joe Malamed’s film, Block 2 Block, sold out a fortnight before its premier at the Contact Theatre on Friday. Among the audience were local Labour and Green councillors, university researchers and local activists. 

The film examines the private rental takeover of Manchester, gentrification of the city and the displacement of well-established communities as it follows two community-led campaigns either side of the city. 

The Save Ancoats Dispensary campaign inspired a six-year vigil by residents to prevent the 200-year-old, grade 2 listed building being demolished when it was sold to Urban Splash in 2011.

Hulme’s Block The Block campaign, which was supported by GMTU, was set up by residents of Hopton Court to block proposals by London developer, Curlew Opportunities, for a 13-storey purpose-built student accommodation block on the site of the nearby derelict Gamecock pub, effectively hemming them in and blocking sunlight from their only green space.

In March it seemed they had not only succeeded, but with the help of London architectural design collective, Unit 38, had developed an alternative plan for the site.

But when I greeted Sally Casey, one of the lead activists of the campaign, she said: “Have you heard? The developers are back!”

Earlier that day she had discovered Curlew’s plans were being resubmitted to the council, so the group would have to start yet another round of campaigning.

Sally was on the discussion panel after the film along with fellow campaigner Emma, and despite the news they remained defiant.

“We’re ready for them!” Sally told the audience. Prompting rapturous applause and cheers, Emma said: “They are not taking another hectare from our community. The fight goes on!”

After attending the screening, Hulme councillor, Annette Wright, said: “The film highlights the strength of feeling locally and residents’ determination to seek improvements to their community, not developments that will have negative impacts.

“The Hulme Labour councillors will continue to stand alongside residents and oppose developments that do not serve our community.”

Joe told me later: “The outpouring of positivity from the film showing on Friday has been inspiring. I knew that showing the profiteering in Manchester’s housing market and introducing people to the incredible individuals that have devoted their time and energy to fighting it, was always going to be a winning format. It’s a remarkable situation that deserves more attention.”

Saturday’s event at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, “Fighting for Housing Justice” was hosted by the Housing Justice Network — a new collaboration between GMTU, Greater Manchester Law Centre and Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit

During the lunch break a delegation from the event took the new handmade GMTU banner and joined the Anti-Deportations Campaign for a rally in Piccadilly Gardens, returning for the session on race, immigration and housing. 

Black communities are more likely to face overcrowding, disrepair and general poor housing conditions, so there’s an urgent need for tenant unions to be truly representative of the communities where they are campaigning, to challenge the racial inequality that is starkly apparent in our housing system. 

We listened to asylum-seekers, including a teenage boy, speaking about what life is like for them in the Serco-run hotels. They told us about frequent room checks, which are more like a cell search, poor-quality food and the effect on mental health of living long term in one room.

As Unite Community activist Sandy Broadhurst said during the lunchtime rally: “These are people who have been through more horrors than we can imagine — wars, human rights abuses, prison, torture, trafficking, enslavement, climate disasters, and they deserve our love, friendship, support and solidarity.”

The last session of the day asked the question “What would it look like to actually win?” with panellists from LRU, GMTU, Living Rent and Catu.

Suggestions from the audience and the panel ranged from the very tentative “build more social housing” to the very bold “complete revolution!”

The idea of rent control remains a favourite, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility as many European cities already limit the amount of rent their tenants are expected to pay.

Despite the Renters Reform Bill finally being introduced to Parliament last month, everyone agreed that it didn’t go anywhere near redressing the balance of power between landlords and tenants, and there was still much work to be done. 

The final words of the day came from Catu delegate, Jack: “We may be far away from each other, but when we fight, we fight together, and when one tenants union has a win, we all celebrate!”

Sunday was mercifully cooler and GMTU organiser Isaac Rose led around 20 of us on a walk from the iconic Engels statue on First Street towards Hulme, discussing examples of gentrification along the route.

The latest housing model is “co-living.” Councils and developers are insistent that this is how young urban professionals now want to live; in en-suite bedrooms with shared communal areas, but as the profit margins on these developments are huge, with quick returns on investment, it seems these rabbit-hutch dwellings are of more benefit to corporate landlords.

Co-living is a brand-new type of development, that isn’t subject to the same restrictions as traditional housing, and like students in purpose-built student accommodation, the tenants have fewer rights. 

Some don’t even have cooking facilities, with tenants expected to use the on-site restaurants for every meal, further maximising the landlord’s income. Instead of keys, tenants have electronic key fobs, making it much easier for the corporate landlord to evict by simply deactivating them.

At one point, we were confronted by local resident, Michelle, walking her dog. Spotting us wandering through her neighbourhood, pointing at buildings, she assumed we were from the council planning department.

When we explained that we were from tenant unions, she relaxed and explained how worried people in the area are. She’d just had heard about plans for yet another large development nearby and had already started speaking to her neighbours to oppose it. 

“I’ve been here 26 years and they are ruining Hulme. They got rid of all our pubs because the pubs are our parliament! They don’t see us as people, we’re just commodities.”

We gave her GMTU contact details so we could get involved and support her campaign, and as we left, she shouted after us: “We don’t give up — we stick together!”

We ended the walk at Hulme Community Garden Centre for a workshop on corporate landlordism presented by Jonathan Silver and Rich Goulding, authors of a recent report questioning the transparency, accountability and ethics of Manchester Life, a joint venture between Manchester City Council and the Abu Dhabi United Group.

We picked up lots of tips for researching corporate landlords, who, in Manchester, are frequently permitted to build without making the required provision of 20 per cent affordable housing in their developments, and used the Companies House website to examine the profit margins of several corporate landlords.

Local activist Bernie said that the really shocking thing wasn’t the huge corporate landlords and developers extracting wealth from the city, but the fact that our elected council is helping them.

When I left the garden centre, storm clouds were gathering overhead. As the first drops of rain splashed onto the parched tarmac, I couldn’t help thinking of Sally, Michelle, the asylum-seekers in their hotel cells and all the rest of us, renting in Greater Manchester. 

I think there is a new storm brewing, and it bears the anger and determination of a united housing movement, across our city and beyond.


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