2pm, I wake up groggy after another gruelling night shift. The landlord’s about to show up for another inspection, the ritual where I pretend to be something I’m not – the type of person my boss would like – clean, simple and efficient. The ritual is designed to remind me that the place where I live isn’t mine, that it isn’t in fact my home, it’s not a place where I can express myself freely or feel secure in. This is the type of landlord that makes you feel like you should just lean palms against the wall with your legs spread.
“..Small landlords are sometimes better than large ones because they tend to want to minimise turnover more than they want to maximise rents. If they immediately raise the rent in response to changes in the housing market, they risk tenants leaving and having their apartments sit vacant for a month or two. The risk of vacancy compared to the benefit of increased rent is much higher for the landlord who rents out three or four apartments than for the landlord who rents out three or four hundred. Of course a smaller landlord will also be more likely to live nearby and to constantly snoop around and spy on us at home.”
My housemates know the drill, we play respectable music, take everything off the walls and hide all the extra beds from friends and comrades who aren’t supposed to be living there – We pull out a board game, our ‘extra tenants’ get cleaned up and sit around as if they’ve come over to watch. Like our parks, high-rises etc, our home life is supposed to look like it’s not used – it’s to be kept pristine & fluid, flexible, casual, temporary, something alien, just like our work environment.
“..In cities with strong tenants rights that are enforced, renting can be somewhat more secure, and we might take some initiative to paint the walls or do other minor repairs or improvements ourselves. In places where tenancies are less stable, improving the apartment just feels like doing unpaid work for the landlord. Whatever the quality of rental housing, the house is someone else’s property… It’s a paradox that an old squat can feel more homely and lived in than some of the so called ‘luxury apartments’ where it’s only possible to to set down the furniture and get the décor just right while waiting for the next move.”
The landlord comes in and looks at the game in progress ‘looks serious’, he says – I greet him and guide him through the house to make sure he doesn’t snoop around where we don’t want him to. He asks probing questions about our personal property, our books and things sacred to us. All goes well, and he ends it with the usual crushing declaration that’s announced at every 6 month lease renewal – ‘I’m thinking of raising the rent another $10, you’s should have no problem splitting that, right?’. I stumble back, acting shocked ‘has something changed?’ – I at least want him to admit he’s a grub that just wants more money. ‘I mean I can live in the simplest conditions but since you’re raising the rent, the cupboards have still got cockroaches breeding behind them, the hot water system’s still fucked, the taps are still leaking and half your shit is still in the garage.” He’s taken aback, ‘well I have to keep up with the rising cost of the area, this area’s changing quickly’. I endure his ramble about getting some ‘quiet Asian students’ in the unit below us. ‘That thing starts next week’ he says as he leaves making his way down the stairs.
“..The decay and development of neighborhoods are both automatic market processes and the result of conscious action by developers and city planners. The same things that make us want to live in a neighborhood are what make it attractive to developers. Capital doesn’t care if we feel at home somewhere. That feeling is a barrier to investment. It’s an uncompetitive use of land to have cheap housing where you could have luxury hotels. At a certain point, the image of the ‘neighborhood community’ becomes just a blurb on propaganda. Since capital can’t create real community, it creates imaginary ones. But being part of an imaginary community doesn’t make someone any less isolated. Real, authentic, traditional communities are a valuable commodity, but by being organised for sale they lose their reality and authenticity… Living in a neighbourhood targeted by developers is eerie. You can almost feel how the built-in assumption in the land prices is that we will leave the neighbourhood.”
There is a reason why landlords aren’t very motivated to spend money on repairs. In a capitalist society, the goal of housing is not to give people shelter, but to generate a profit. We’ve seen this with the latest economic crisis: when a homeowner can’t make their mortgage payments, even if those payments no longer have anything to do with the value of the house, they are no longer allowed to live in that house: the bank would rather see it sit empty. The same principle of profit-generation applies to rent. Rent is not determined by what a person can pay, or what kinds of amenities an apartment has, but by what a landlord can command for their own profit.
With the buildings that they do operate, landlords always try to squeeze as much rent as possible out of tenants while providing as little in terms of living conditions as they can get away with. That makes us our interests opposite to the landlords’, and if they have the upper hand, we are vulnerable.
There’s no rent-capping in Australia’s private-rental market, and the fact that our unit complex is split and owned by different landlords makes it difficult to express any sort of tenant’s solidarity. We’ve had minor successes in meeting with other tenants in the building, generalising our experiences and have even taken minor collective action in opposition to some of the landlords whims, but I’ll save those stories for another time – I just want to briefly flesh out his justification for raising the rent.
Now the landlords who own our complex and the ones around us are all in cahoots with each other – they have their own association, have meetings etc. Come every 6 months they raise the rent not because anything’s different, but because they can – they’re aware (consciously or not) of their status as a class. They won’t be swayed by argument or reasoning (not that we should have to rely on the good nature of individual landlords), because from such a position of solidarity, strength and Power (as a class) all arguments can be safely ignored.
The following is a good extention of this point from Solidarity Federation’s article Winning the Argument or Winning the Fight? (in the context of funding cuts):
“..The reason that reason gets us nowhere is that politics is not based on good arguments but on power relations. Democracies institutionalise power struggles to a certain extent, since it’s rather disruptive to have periodic coups and civil wars every time there needs to be a change of government. But only certain interests are institutionalised. Here’s a clue: they’re not ours. If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn’t cut it. It’s a matter of power. A case in point: it is true that the Welfare State was founded at a time when the national finances were in a far worse state. But it’s worth looking at what the ruling class were saying when the welfare state was founded. For the avoidance of any doubt, let’s hear from a Conservative: “We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution”, said Quintin Hogg in 1943.
When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of social-revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever’s in government. They’ll no doubt claim it was their ‘responsible’ protests which got them there.”
Our society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups and classes with competing and opposing interests. We want a stable home; they want an asset that will make them a lot of money. Yes, building more housing might make things more affordable and alleviate some of the effects of a market where competition and high demand allows landlords to pick and choose exactly what they want, but ultimately the landlords are raising the rent because they have the power to do so pure and simple. Applying for a rental is already getting to the point where it’s just like applying for a job. Anyone who works in housing knows of Brisbane slumlords who straight up go into questionnaire mode — Are you Aboriginal, have you had a drug history, are you in a relationship, what are your friends like, who would you have visiting. ‘White and Over 30’ I’ve heard one say over the phone as if it were a slogan.
“..Ownership of the land, is ownership of the right to collect rent payments from the land. When a landlord loans his land out to a corner store owner, he is expecting a cut of the corner store owner’s future profits. If a new subway line is built with a stop near the corner store, this will bring more people by the corner store, and the landlord will raise the rent. If a new book about the city gets internationally popular and people come from all over the world to visit the city (and therefore pass by the corner store), the landlord will raise the rent. Private property in land is a social relationship between the landowner and other capitalists–the landowner profits off development and progress in society without having to do anything to contribute to it.”
An inspection playlist:
The Police – “Landlord”
Bob Dylan – “Dear Landlord”
Christ on Parade – “kill your landlord”
Half pint – “mr landlord”
Black Uhuru – “rent man”
Junior Delahaye – “working hard for the rent man”
Gladys Knight – “landlord”
Low – “Landlord”
D.O.A – “Slumlord”
Kevin Kinney – “Hey Landlord”
X – “We’re desperate”
Bob Dylan – “Dear Landlord”
Dead Kennedys – “Lets lynch the landlord”
Ray Charles – “Hit the road Jack”
Bomb The Music Industry – “Slumlord”
D.R.I – “Slumlord”
The Coup – “Kill your Landlord”
The King Blues – “Lets Hang the Landlord”
The legacy of rights and social gains which we enjoy today weren’t granted as gifts from above or because we asked nicely through reports and funding proposals— they were won and forced upon the system through popular struggle and have to be maintained through struggle. Now that we’re weak – the State is able to take away things we’ve won in the past: The tenants rights sector, public services, the right to strike, abortion rights, schools, the health of our communities and environment. This goes way beyond housing – If we don’t get organised we basically give those in power a blank cheque to do as they wish. There’s no point talking about rent strikes, general strikes or anything of the sort since we have no power as tenants as it is.
The essence of anarcho-syndicalism (and unionism in general) is about association – ie communities, neighbourhoods, tenants and workers getting together directly to form organisations to defend and extend their interests. Trade Unions today, much like the official ‘Tenants Union’ on the other hand are purely representational – operating as service orientated lobby groups and NGO’s do, over and above the people, with all the rotten fruits of bureaucracy, parliamentary politics and hierarchy, far removed from the collective self-organisation and real empowerment of tenants/workers. Don’t get me wrong – it’s good to have people who can remind us of the few “rights” we have (or don’t have), lobby and help us navigate the confusing world of the Law, but it’s not unionism and it encourages people to approach these issues as individuals through the disempowering legal system – nearly always weighted in favour of those in power.
We need to re-learn basic nuts and bolts organising and begin to form the types of relationships, networks, social life and fighting-unions that will serve to express, sustain and encourage a culture of class-solidarity between tenants and workers – one that can’t be demobilised from above or used as springboards for bureaucrats and career politicians. Start talking to your neighbours and get something going! If things are getting bad where you live, there’s no excuse not to chat to your neighbours and see if that experience is a generalised one – start a facebook group to discuss issues, meet the landlord together instead of individually, start up a notice board – there are plenty of small things you can do to set up a foundation for a collective response if things get hairy, but first we have to get up off the couch.
If you’re interested in some starting points on organising your neighbourhood or workplace check out the pamphlets & resource list at the back of this paper. (all available in hardcopy from us or online on our website):
How to build a solidarity network: http://libcom.org/files/seasol-pamphlet-expanded-A4.pdf
Brisbane Squatters Handbook: http://www.zinelibrary.info/files/squattershandbook.pdf
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Direct Action Casework Manual: http://ocap.ca/node/322
101 Workplace and Neighbourhood Organising Guide: http://www.solnet.co.nr
The Housing Monster http://www.prole.info/thm.html
Our social-memory is one of defeat and ignorance, from the recent failed anti-war movement to the broader social-amnesia around Aboriginal resistance, general strikes, mutiny’s and uprisings throughout the past 200 years. There’s a whole period of people’s history which needs to be reclaimed, dissected and recovered, from the workers/neighbourhood council movements across Europe, to the wide scale attempts at reorganising society from the bottom up which have occurred throughout history (eg: in Spain 36′-38′, Oaxaca 05′, Chiapas 94-..) that demonstrate that another world is possible and necessary. As struggle and solidarity movements escalate and widen, so do our imaginations and realms of possibility.
During the 60s in Australia rent strikes were not unheard of – but today that concept isn’t even in people’s vocabulary. Eviction blockades were not uncommon in 30s Australia either. Many of those people organised were in and around the Unemployed Workers Movement, a short lived organisation which was highly successful in preventing landlords, real estate companies and bailiffs from evicting families, but which also facilitated a broader culture of class struggle. In May 1931, for the first time, the police became actively involved in evictions across NSW which often esculated into open class warfare. In the words of those who remember that time, and those who have had the stories passed down to them, Forever Striking Trouble, a folk song from the Bankstown eviction fight, recounts a little known aspect of Australian history:.
“I’m forever striking trouble,
Striking trouble everywhere,
the landlord came, the landlord went,
I said no work, no rent,
The butcher wants his money,
Baker, grocer too,
I sent all the bills to Jack Lang,
Cause he said he’d pull us through,
which he never!
..For we met them at the door,
And we knocked them on the floor,
Bankstown and Newtown, we made the cops feel sore,
They outnumbered us ten to one,
And were armed with stick and gun,
But we fought well, we gave them hell, When we met them at the door.”
“Calling something a monster is admitting that you don’t understand it. There are plenty of bosses, bankers, landlords and developers that probably deserve to be severely beaten in an alley somewhere, but demonising them only covers up how the system continually recreates repressive police, asshole bosses, and two-faced politicians–not to mention weak, timid, prejudiced and isolated workers. More often though, those who explain the system only by its worst consequences just play into the hands of the politicians who denounce these consequences in the name of the system. Capitalism means suburbs and slums, condos and ghettos. It means evictions and bond deposits, cold, moldy, infested apartments and high rent. It means repetitive, boring, dangerous work, unemployment and homelessness. It means isolation, imaginary togetherness and real conservative communities, prejudice, racism and political correctness. It means speculation and regulation, growth and stagnation, crisis and war. It means landlords and loan sharks, police and politicians, bureaucrats and bosses.”
Another piece of people’s history we should celebrate and learn from: Green Bans.
“The Green Ban’s movement is of worldwide significance; it signifies the refusal of workers to build socially or environmentally destructive projects.”
Workers across Australia were the first in the world to use the strike weapon for ecological & environmental purposes. The culture of ‘Green Bans’ was influenced by and spread way beyond the union structure, for example, Resident Action Groups like the ‘Carlton Association’ were formed, which rallied professional planners and architects in the neighborhood to draft alternative proposals to the urban renewal programs of the Victorian Housing Commission. This was an example of an attempt towards grassroots popular control over housing and development which unfortunately didn’t go far enough.
During the 1970s a grassroots political movement was under way in many neighbourhoods across Sydney and other Australian cities. There was widespread disenchantment with local government failure to resist private developers inducements and state government sponsorship of high rise public housing aand massive expressway construction. Small pockers of neighbourhood people – like the Hunters Hill trust and the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush – were beginning to resist. As at Kelly’s Bush, they first used traditional political and planning channels, but became frustrated when that seemed not to work. They became known as Resident Action Groups (RAGs). In the wake of the Green Ban at Kelly’s bush. Group after group approached the Sydney Builders Laborers Federation, and pushed for the base of the union to build on the Green Ban concept. The BLF quickly adopted two principles (1) a neighbourhood group had to first request help and (2) the request for a BLF green ban had to be approvied at a public meeting in the neighbourhood. This had the effect of countering the inevitable charges that a green ban was a Commie tactic with no real popular support.
The Green Ban movement fought both private developers and the State of NSW. Requests from Green Bans also came from the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of Architects, who for example opposed plans that would ruin the Botanic Gardens. All throughout the 70s the Green Bans movement took on a whole range of issues:
~Preservation of historic buildings, hotels and live theater
~Bans on development in the inner city
~Retention of parkland, environment and open space
~No demolition for expressways
~No demolition of homes for car parks and other uses
~Inadquate compensation paid on compulsary purchase
~Miscellaneous social issues.
~Air and water pollution
~Preservation of recreational facilities and wholesale markets
The ‘social issues’ which the green bans movement took on, such as Aboriginal & women’s issues, are particularly interesting and demonstrate the type of political-economic organisation that Anarcho-syndicalists point towards. In 1973 for example workers imposed a green ban supported by university students when the university discriminated against a gay student. In the same month, a similar ban was imposed at Sydney university when the philosophy department refused to allow a course in feminist thought and issues. Approximately 50 Green bans which stopped an estimated 4.0 billion in construction projects were declared in sydney within three years of the first one at Kelly’s Bush.
Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo, was the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia. In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows
of houses in historic Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo. Theeman developed plans to demolish the terrace houses and build massive office and apartment towers. It
wasn’t until March 1973 that Theeman gained council approval for his plans, and in the following month he began to institute a mass eviction of over 400 tenants. While
some tenants left ‘voluntarily’, others defiantly stayed in their homes and the Victoria Street Residents Action Group (VRAG) was formed. Street patrols were organised to protect the remaining tenants from intimidation by Theeman’s security company, and to protect the empty houses from vandalism. The ‘Squatter’ residents quickly gained the support of the National Trust, which classified Victoria Street as an area of national importance. Most importantly, VRAG approached workers involved with the Sydney BLF Union, who immediately placed ‘green bans’ on the threatened houses, effectively preventing them from being demolished. Green Bans were active mainly across Sydney and Victoria, though Perth, Adelaide, WA, Hobart and Queensland also had a few bans, including one on the export of uranium from outback QLD mines.
Apart from State repression, the green bans movement was unforunately ultimately demobilised by their own trade-union officials and their links to parliamentary politics. In QLD for example even if affilitated union representatives supported a Green Ban, the secretary of the Trades and Labour Council could effectively veto a motion for a green ban, which frequently happened. The government announced increased powers and repression, starting with thwarting the green ban active on Frazer island. The struggle to defend the environment was slowly shifted into the courtrooms where strike action was replaced by disempowering injujnction processes; the ‘Black Robes’ of the lawyers took over the Green Bans of the Workers.
Once a jolly resident living in his bungalow
Found he was threatened by redevelopment;
And he cried as he watched his city slowly crumbling
“Who’ll come a green ban defending with me?”
Green Ban defending, green ban defending,
Who’ll come a green ban defending with me?
And he cried as he watched his city slowly crumbling
Who’ll come a green ban defending with me?
Down came developers to profit from their residents
Up jumped the people to fight for their homes
And they sang when the B.L’s started up their green bans
“We’ll come a green ban defending with you!
Up rode the wreckers mounted on their dozers
In came the paddy-wagons, six, eight, ten;
“Where are all the stirrers duping all the residents?
Who’ll come a green ban defending with us?
Up rose the residents and said unto the government;
“Now we have green bans and so we are free;
Take your crazy plans and stick them up your jumpers
All come a green ban defending with us!
-1976 the Green Ban Tabernacle Choir