ACORN: Growing a mighty oak in Bristol

ACORN, the union for private renters, is making anyone involved in Bristol’s housing provision sit up and think.

ACORN are not an advocacy group or campaign organisation, although they share many characteristics in common. National Organiser Nick Ballard describes them as a fighting organisation of the working class. “If that sounds old-fashioned,” he says, “then that might be because it is! We’re of the mind that if we and our members are going to get the quality of life that we’re entitled to and that we need, then we have to be ready to fight for it. It won’t be handed to us on a plate.”

Its members are mostly people affected by high-priced or low quality housing

Drawing lessons from the rich histories of unions, community organising and direct action, ACORN is building a classic movement. Its members are mostly people affected by high-priced or low quality housing. They pay a membership fee (depending on what they can afford) but more importantly, they are expected to turn out to support each other. Whether to oppose an unlawful eviction or protest against banks’ lending policies, it is communities supporting each other that counts.

“We follow the iron law of organising,” says Nick, “’Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.’ This means supporting our communities to realise the power they already have, if only they were organised. And that means that we are ready and able to campaign in ways that others won’t – using direct action to apply pressure to private and political targets to get the best deal for our members.”

The proportion of privately rented homes in Bristol has more than doubled in the past twenty years. They now account for more than a quarter of the total. As rents soar, and restrictions on who will even be considered become more commonplace, it is no surprise if many people have felt compelled to accept lower standards and poor treatment by landlords.

Paul Smith has worked in social housing for most of his career, and he’s currently Councillor & Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. He’s had the opportunity to watch housing activism evolve over the decades. He says:

“There has been a big shift in Bristol from activism being focussed on council tenants’ associations to the tenants of private landlords. Tenants groups in Bristol saw off several attempts at privatisation of council housing but disinvestment has seen those groups close…ACORN has led a growth in private tenant activity, focussed on bad landlords, poor housing standards and illegal evictions.”

But like all good movements, it also looked for the systemic causes of that injustice

ACORN could have become a tenants’ rights union and left it at that. There are more than enough housing injustices occurring every day to keep it busy. But like all good movements, it also looked for the systemic causes of that injustice.

A more traditional organisation might have jumped straight to calling for legislative change. Perhaps that is part of the answer. But Acorn is powered by the experiences of its members, and that’s where it finds its solutions.

They called on TSB to stop banning landlords from renting to housing benefit claimants, asylum seekers, and students. TSB backed down on the first, but the fight is still ongoing for the next two groups. Similarly, they want Santander to remove its ‘rent maximisation’ clause in buy-to-let mortgages, which forces rent levels as high as the local market will bear.

It will be interesting to see whether housing professionals, who are looking to learn from social movements in this respect (through projects like HouseParty!) will be able to expand their thinking in a similar way.

Politicians and the public largely ignored private renting for decades, arguably because it didn’t affect enough people with enough power. Maybe that is the very reason why movements like ACORN are now destined to succeed – private renting can no longer be characterised as ‘temporary’ or small-scale, and tenants are organising.

No longer on the margins, they are using the media and powerful storytelling to spread knowledge. ACORN groups can now be found across the country, in Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

Fairer housing provision isn’t the only end ACORN has insight. Nick Ballard says, “Housing is the current battleground but jobs, income, healthcare, education, public services and the environment are all issues that intersect and that we have to be prepared to organise around…If we’re serious about social change, we need to make sure that our organisation is of, by and for the people and that means our leadership and membership being in the driving seat.”

“No one will do this for us, we have to do it ourselves.”

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