Humans of Brighton: Meet housing campaigner Paul Williams
This week, for our ‘Humans of Brighton’ feature, we met up with Paul Williams, Head Organiser of the Brighton branch of ACORN, the community and renters union fighting for improved rights and conditions for renters across the country. So far, the Union has enjoyed huge success in Brighton, and we wanted to find out more…
Hi Paul! How did you get involved with ACORN?
I joined the Union a few years ago hoping to help build a branch in Brighton and give renters a way of fighting rip-off landlords in the city. I’ve lived in Brighton for almost 10 years, and anyone who has rented here for that long will have experienced high rent increases and bad treatment from landlords. The council wasn’t doing anything, so myself and a few other renters joined ACORN and set up a local branch.
How does ACORN seek to help renters?
Simply put, our Union uses the main resource that we have to fight for better conditions, which is each other. Our Member Defence teams use peaceful direct action to confront bailiffs and landlords, stopping evictions and preventing homelessness as well as winning vital repairs and money owed to our members. On top of that, our Union has been campaigning for policy change at both a local and national level, including fighting for a ban on agency fees which we saw implemented earlier this year.
Direct action and solidarity are the lifeblood of our union, and up and down the country we’re providing the support that people need to take back control of their lives, tackle their own problems and engage in grassroots community politics.
Can you tell us about some of your current campaigns?
ACORN have been organising our ‘Renters Vote’ campaign to mobilise those most excluded by the voting system at the 2019 General Election, including homeless people, private renters and temporarily housed people. This means hitting the streets, knocking on doors and visiting soup kitchens and homeless shelters to help people register to vote. It’s shocking to know that only 50% of private renters voted in the last General Election and many homeless people never get the chance at all. This is particularly important in Brighton where a third of people live in private rented accommodation and there are over 4,000 people who are homeless or temporarily housed.
Our Brighton members have also recently voted to campaign for Brighton and Hove City Council to adopt more effective regulations for private landlords.
How successful has the Union been in Brighton so far?
Very successful. Our Union has managed to give power to people who previously had very little. Anyone who has rented in Brighton knows that when you have a problem with a landlord there is almost no help available. In Brighton alone, ACORN has won thousands of pounds in compensation and stolen deposits for renters from landlords, stopped several evictions and won countless repairs. Our branch now has well over 200 members who are now able to have a say in decisions that affect their lives where they didn’t before, whether that is disputes with their landlord or changing local and national policies. We know we can win because we have already started and we are on our way to rebuilding democracy in our local communities.
Do you have a recent success story that the Union is particularly proud of?
We’ve won loads of really important campaigns locally including stopping families being evicted, but the campaigns that I’m most proud of are when we have taken on the banks. Most recently we ran a campaign against NatWest who had policies in their buy-to-let mortgage contracts which discriminated against those renters claiming housing benefit and disability benefit. ACORN members across the UK occupied local NatWest branches and forced them to shut down for the day. This ended with NatWest changing their policies. For me, this campaign demonstrated the power and potential of our Union and why it is so important for working-class people to be organised and united.
How have things got so bad for renters?
It basically seems like we’ve had 40 years of housing policy being decided by property developers, landlords and banks. This has been accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis which resulted in huge levels of inequality and millions of people ending up in insecure housing. At the end of the day, it’s all about power, and at the moment those with money have the power to set the rules. Housing is just like any other issue that affects working class people, such as low wages, rip-off energy bills and expensive transport. We get done over so that the rich can get richer and the only way we’ll see meaningful action is if we can counter the power of money and establishment politics with the power of collective action.
What could a government do to improve the situation for renters and help solve the housing crisis?
ACORN’s Renters Manifesto lists policies that would massively shift the balance of power from landlords to renters. These include secure tenancies, rent controls and more publicly-owned housing. I am pleased to see that the Labour Party has adopted most of these demands in their housing manifesto after some really good talks between ACORN and Shadow Housing Minister John Healey, but whatever happens in the General Election, working class people and renters need to be organised to fight for our interests and hold the government to account.
How can people get involved with ACORN?
Join the union! The more members we have the stronger we are. Membership is only an hour’s wage a month, with different rates for part-time and unwaged people. People can join ACORN on our website at www.acorntheunion.org.uk. If people want to find out when the next meeting is they can contact email@example.com.
Thanks for answering our questions, Paul! It sounds like you’re doing great work to ensure that everyone has access to a safe, warm and affordable place to live. You certainly have our support!
Featured image: © ACORN