Maria and Martha, two Member Defence Representatives, report back from their work fighting for rent reductions and suspensions during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Over the past few months, Living Rent’s Member Defence teams have been working tirelessly alongside tenants across Scotland to support them in crucial negotiations with landlords. With so many renters taking significant hits to their income, tenants are finding that keeping up with already exorbitant rent is impossible. In Living Rent’s survey released in April, 1 in 4 tenants reported that their ability to pay rent had already been affected, while as many as 48% feared their ability to pay would be affected soon. Across the UK, 1 in 5 renters are having to make the impossible choice between rent, food and other basic necessities.
With this dire situation in mind, Living Rent’s Member Defence teams have equipped our members with tried and tested rules of negotiation. Prepare your demands, leverage and evidence. Always return your opponent to the demands and the issue at hand. Get everything in writing!
The Member Defence teams have created templates and guidelines for negotiating, and platforms for sharing lessons learnt. We have linked up tenants who rent from the same landlord and created networks of tenants who are currently negotiating.
And we have secured some fantastic victories. These victories show how effective union power can be in protecting tenants from precarity and poverty. Our member in Edinburgh, Ben negotiated a 50% non-repayable rent reduction, noting “Living Rent provided us with a network to support ourselves and others in achieving some semblance of justice in our rent payment", showing how Living Rent protects its members by providing collective solutions to the collective, systemic challenges they are facing. Muireann, a member active in the Gorgie Dalry branch, pointed out “Being active in Living Rent meant that we knew we had back-up if we needed it, but it also meant that we didn't see our problem as just ours - it is a collective issue facing tenants across the country and we need collective solutions and actions to address it.”
The Scottish Government has provided assistance to landlords through interest-free loan schemes and mortgage holidays, leaving renters to flounder. The government has told landlords and letting agencies to point renters in the direction of Universal Credit, which in many cases does not come close to covering rent and many tenants are simply not illegible. Our member Jessica is a worker who has fallen through the cracks of public assistance. She works on multiple zero-hour contracts and was not eligible for the furlough scheme, and even with Universal Credit could not meet her rent payments. Yet, despite the initial pushback from her landlord, Member Defence reps supported her in negotiating a 25% non-repayable rent reduction.
The government has defended its decision to aid landlords by urging them to use it to act with compassion towards tenants. However, as the responses of landlords have shown, government support is not having the trickle-down effect intended. The financial benefit of mortgage holidays and loans are not being passed on to tenants, and despite the government's appeal to goodwill, landlords are often inflexible, unempathetic and sometimes downright aggressive. The power imbalance between landlords and tenants forever underwrites our work in the Member Defence teams. Without government protection, tenants are left to grovel for their basic right to a safe, secure, affordable home from landlords who generally have no interest or expertise in housing other than an incoming bank transfer.
Our member Ellen told us that her initial attempts to negotiate with her landlord were unsuccessful. She was told “On the rent reduction I am not able to negotiate on that, the terms are agreed in the lease and I have to be firm”, while many other members have been met with similar inflexibility: “I am following Scottish Government guidelines that if you are able to pay rent, you should do.”
Many landlords in the private and social rented sectors continue to harass tenants for unpaid rent, demanding repayment plans or threatening to recoup lost rent from deposits and guarantors. One member initially agreed to repay any arrears accrued, “I accepted the deferral at the time as they said we will later discuss a repayment plan. After reflections I have realised I’m simply putting myself into debt that I will not have the money to pay back.” It is for this reason that every agreement that Living Rent has negotiated has been non-repayable - we cannot predict or assume that our lost income will be recovered in the months following lockdown.
So far, our Member Defence representatives have secured around £30,000 worth of rent reductions. This is thanks to our hard-working team members, template letters and negotiation sessions giving tenants the strength and clarity to negotiate. Maria stated that “I got in touch with Living Rent to see if they could help me word an email to my letting agency. They assigned me a Member Defence Representative and made the process a lot less daunting.”
Despite successes, what has been reiterated during the negotiation process is that it is not the way you negotiate that determines success, but the position you negotiate from. That is why, in everything that we do, we need to build power. Every case we take on must feed into future cases, by using lessons learnt and by creating avenues for tenants with negotiating experience to contribute to other tenants’ cases.
It is clear that the government’s advice to negotiate with landlords is woefully ineffective in protecting tenants from poverty, eviction and rent debt. This crisis is far from mitigated as vast numbers of renters will continue to face an uncertain financial future, plunging many tenants into debt they are unsure they will be able to repay. In Living Rent’s open letter to the UK Government, we have outlined that in the post-lockdown period, Scotland could see a rent debt crisis, a rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness and mass evictions once the six-month extension period ends. As we continue to campaign nationally to prevent this looming crisis, Living Rent Member Defence teams continue to defend tenants, working case by case to secure rent reductions, suspensions and repairs, and our work is far from over.
If you are struggling to pay rent, need the backing of your tenants union, or want to join a member defence team, join Living Rent (livingrent.org/join) and get in contact with our member defence co-ordinator at [email protected]. There is only one way to negotiate with your landlord, and that is with your union by your side.