All over the country, people’s physical and mental health is destroyed by the deliberate inaction of landlords putting profits before their legal responsibilities.

There is a huge power imbalance between tenants and landlords, but things are changing: Unionising and taking collective action are winning improvements in people’s lives.

Our story so far from Birmingham.

Summary of key lessons

  1. Warriors in waiting are everywhere
  2. Direct action gets the goods
  3. Conflict is inevitable when you campaign for the costly stuff

2008

When my little sister turned 18 she moved in with me. I found a great flat for us to share above a carpet shop. The walls were paper thin but the floor space was huge, and the rent was very affordable. We had a dream home as our base for work, fun and friendship. We grew so fond of this place. A place where we spent night after a happy night chilling together in front of sci-fi. We named our home Flatty.

But there was a problem with Flatty. Flatty leaked … a lot. The whole block leaked.

The building looked nice enough, but it didn’t have proper drainage. Each winter, more and more water seeped through the roof, down the walls and between the floors.

I tried to bring this up with the letting agents. Some work was done but it didn’t stop the leaking. Meanwhile, neighbours came and went from the other six flats. No tenants stuck around that long – and I saw them all come and go.

2014

I join forces with one of my neighbours.

We tell the local councillors and the council private tenancy department about the worsening issue. Our walls were becoming wet and black with mould. My neighbour had a little child.

We were told that because there was one freeholder responsible for the external and communal parts of the block, and five different landlords for the seven flats, it was “too complicated” to expect anything to get done.

The freeholder of the building was the owner of the carpet shop directly downstairs. It was simple, not complicated. He was literally underneath us.

At the time of the leaking, we had also asked the landlord to sort out the broken door control intercom. We were told he wasn’t willing to spend the money to do this. A few weeks later, he bought a giant statue of a gorilla for his shop roof.

The Gorilla was getting a lot of publicity in the local paper – it had cost him £7.5 grand. This was likely over three times the cost of us having a working doorbell to keep us all safe.

2017

Fast forward to a new set of tenants. The same issues are causing us all sickness and shame.
We’ve all had enough of being fobbed off while looking at the £7.5k gorilla’s butt.

My friends in other cities launched a UK version of ACORN, an organisation that exists to help low and moderate income families and working-class communities build their power and win change.

In response to need, ACORN has morphed into a renters union.

We talk it through with my organiser friend Sam and my neighbours are up for joining. To organise you also need resources. We are willing to pay the small amount of dues to win important changes.

Our demands

  1. An independent inspection by a surveyor to determine the source of all water entering the block
  2. Tackle unbelievable flytipping behind a wall constructed by the freeholder next to our entry stairs
  3. Address vermin that the flytipping was attracting
  4. Properly secured entrances to the block including doorbells and intercom
  5. To meet with us to discuss the above matters

We notified the freeholder that we were now unionised, gave him a timescale to begin the required works and advised him that without movement by that date, he could expect more actions from ACORN.

Wrapped in ACORN flags we marched downstairs and served him with our demands. It was a powerful buzz!

Image Becca Kirkpatrick
Image Becca Kirkpatrick

We had an early victory right away.

The freeholder started to clean out the pit of fly-tipped rubbish. Under pressure, he also reluctantly agreed to meet with us. Our local councillor arranged an environmental health inspection. The environmental health officer agreed with our demands and instructed the freeholder to carry out a number of steps.

Left is before union action. Right after union action, Image: Becca Kirkpatrick
Left is before union action. Right after union action, Image: Becca Kirkpatrick

People power

It was so exciting to see my neighbours who had never been politically active before stepping up to take on an equal share of the campaign work. We are accountable to each other. If someone wasn’t pulling their weight we would call them out: Behaving like we had been life-long union members. The accountability we showed to each other meant we were serious about making each other’s lives better.

The result? Well, the freeholder slapped around a bit of damp-proof paint and drilled random draining holes in the balcony. We have not been shown an inspection report to date: the most expensive demand.

Just before the deadline given by the environmental health officer, ACORN held a family-friendly picket outside the carpet shop and we succeeded in getting some great coverage by the BBC. One of the freeholder’s landlord buddies called the police on us, but they said they had no concerns and wished us well.

Taking what's ours!

One of our members has made a nice promo video of our community picket of JJ's Flooring Services in Stirchley, the business run by the freeholder of Emperor CourtWe had a great turnout from all around Birmingham and from the local community and an action with good vibes and community spirit. Believe in greater togetherJoin the union https://acorn.fundraise.tech/

Posted by ACORN Birmingham on Saturday, 26 May 2018

The tricky bit

Here’s where things got sticky.

The council environmental health officer came back and decided that the freeholder had completed the necessary works to his satisfaction.

We launched into a long drawn-out process of disputing this, basically by emailing the most senior figures at the council and submitting Freedom of Information requests. We have now managed to get our case to progress, but it’s lost us valuable momentum. The freeholder also knows the value of entangling a campaign in red tape. He’s currently using lots of legal terminology and obscure words at a prominent journalist who is ready to run a big feature on our campaign.

The law is not always just

A friendly lawyer who has been helping us was very clear – there are times when the law, and the capacity of the authorities, will fall short of being able to deliver justice. At these moments, it’s direct action that will get the goods.

Action doesn’t mean asking nicely: It means causing a headache or cost to the target so they see meeting your demands as a preferable relief.

Action at our block is set to resume…we will keep you up to date with our next wins!

Key takeaway lessons

  1. Warriors in waiting are everywhere: People will get involved and step up if the work brings direct benefit to their lives.
  2. Direct action gets the goods: Sometimes the law is powerless or toothless. Momentum is crucial, both for impact and morale, therefore bureaucracy is not always our friend.
  3. Conflict is inevitable when you are going for the costly stuff: Your target will resist spending money. You need them to feel the nonviolent equivalent of a twisted arm.

Contact ACORN Birmingham on Facebook or here.

Becca Kirkpatrick is a community and union organiser. For the past four years working as part of the Citizens UK Birmingham organising team, she has been a UNISON West Midlands activist and leader for over 12 years, and most recently, is organising with ACORN. Becca has now taken the plunge to go solo, already working with the Ella Baker School and Save the Children alongside running her personal training business.

Contact Becca at becca.kirkp@gmail.com

2 comments

  1. Reuben Jacob Abraham

    Nice article. Great feature with pictures, and all. Incisive and insightful. Would make a great podcast too?

    Reply
    • Stephanie Leonard

      Thanks Reuben. Becca and the ACORN Birmingham team are amazing.

      You’re absolutely right, a podcast would be brilliant and something Act Build Change will be hoping to explore in the near future!

      Reply

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