There are not many people who will claim that the housing situation in the United Kingdom isn’t broken, or at least in the need of some serious repair. First-time buyers are getting older, social-housing stock is down and more and more working households are receiving housing benefits. The private rented sector has doubled in size since 2002, from 10% to 19%, and 40% of properties bought through rent to buy are now in the private rented sector. More and more families are renting privately, putting social stability and children’s education at the mercy of a renewed contract, and fewer and fewer private renters believe they will ever own their own home.

Once you find a property, there are the extortionate letting agency fees, deposits and first month’s rent to pay in advance meaning that before you even move in you can have spent upwards of £1,000 – a figure that is just not feasible for many. Private renters, myself included, feel powerless, none the less so when complaints about faulty appliances or mould fall on deaf ears, or worse: lead to eviction.

The future certainly looks bleak and it can often feel like you are on your own when faced with this multitude of woe. Local authorities are overstretched and not able to tackle every landlord complaint, meaning many get away with their illegal activities and continue to provide sub-par accommodation. But there’s a new organisation who’ve begun to take up the slack: Acorn. If you’ve not heard of them, Acorn are a tenants’ union and anti-poverty organising group. They’re a national organisation with local groups in, amongst others, Sheffield, Bristol, Brighton and Manchester.

I spoke with Imogen, the interim recruitment coordinator of Acorn Manchester, to find out a bit more about the group, as well as what it is that they’re doing to help tackle the issues facing those living in rented accommodation today.

How did Acorn Manchester come about?

Acorn Manchester started as a group of friends. We’d heard about the work that the Sheffield group was doing with eviction resistance and decided it was a good idea to start one here. Manchester’s rents are rising incredibly quickly and there’s around 120,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. As well as that, all of us have had an experience with a dodgy landlord, whether it was our deposit being stolen, a mouldy house or just generally paying a lot of money for a dire situation, so it just made sense really. We’ve been going for around three months now and already we’ve expanded well beyond our initial friendship circle.

What type of successes have you had in Manchester?

We’re still in the early stages, but we’ve got a couple of cases in the pipeline against some letting agents and we’ve also got some member defence cases prepared too. We’ve had complaints about people having their deposits stolen, some people having items stolen and also a house that was being illegally let to too many tenants.

What have been the big victories for Acorn nationwide?

In Bristol, we stopped 16,000 of the poorest people getting their council tax raised and we won £64k back for students in Brighton after going on rent strike because their accommodation was so abysmal. But the individual, smaller victories, like getting repairs for people, are just as important. In Manchester, we managed to get a new boiler for someone.

How can people get involved?

The best way is to contact us on our Facebook page. Then we can get you up to speed so you’re not overwhelmed when you turn up to one of our meetings. You can also sign up as either a Free Associate Member, where you get added to our mailing list, or you can sign up as a volunteer.

As a volunteer you’d get involved with press stuff and the media side of things and also door-knocking – so speaking to tenants directly and letting them know about the union. We also go to events and talk to people about what we’re doing there. A lot is obviously recruitment and this is a really central part of the union. You can also get involved with designing posters and flyers, sending out letters and also the more boring admin stuff like chasing volunteers. It’s all important though! Then of course there’s member defence, so directly helping tenants with their issues.

What types of things do Acorn do?

The main thing we do is member defence, similar to a trade union, and this can be talking to tenants who’ve had a problem or picketing landlords and letting agents. But there’s also wider issues and campaigns. In Sheffield, they’re campaigning against universal credit evictions and the rollout of universal credit. So it is bigger than just member defence cases, although this is really important, because there’s a lot of rogue landlords out there.

A lot of people accuse us of waging a war against landlords, but this is only half true: we’re waging a war on bad landlords. We see ourselves as correcting a power imbalance. This is people’s lives, health and homes being messed with and there’s simply not a substantial enough system in place at the moment to combat this.

Why do you think Acorn resonates with people?

We’re something beyond an activist group. We’ve tried to move towards something a bit more substantial, something that builds power for tenants.

Activism doesn’t always tap into or appeal to people’s consciousness, whereas I think a tenants’ union goes beyond that. It appeals to your average Joe who lives in a bad property and whose landlord is being a bastard and not doing their repairs – it’s important to have those kind of organisations.

I do a lot of street stalls and talk to a lot of people about the union, explaining what it’s about, and a lot of people are like, “That’s amazing, why hasn’t anyone done that before?” and it does have a mass appeal. It’s an issue that resonates with a lot of people. If we want to change policy or change things on a national level, we need that mass base. That and a lot of hard work.

acorntheunion.org.uk
facebook.com/acornmanchester

David Ewing