Pearl moved to London this year, to study Politics at UCL. Last week, the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign announced an indefinite rent strike, when university management did not respond to concerns about money. Over 150 residents in UCL accommodation are collectively withholding £250,000 until demands for a 40% rent cut are met. I called her up to ask her what’s going on.
How did you get involved in the campaign?
I attended a meeting in freshers week of the Cut the Rent Campaign. All that week, I attended political meetings and there were these guys that attended all these meetings, Angus and Pascal. And it turned out they were running the Cut the Rent campaign and they seemed pretty sorted; the meetings were really short and concise and they seemed to know what they were doing, so I thought it would be a good campaign.
Can you give a brief outline for the campaign. Like, what bitesize bits do you feed to the media?
UCL makes 45% profit off rent each year, which is 16 million, while the rents are too high for much of the student body to be able to afford and live a comfortable student life.
Are you withholding rent?
I am part of the campagin. I helped to organise the strike, which we decided would be in Max Rayne halls. I’m in Schafer halls (so not withholding rent).
How does it tie into the wider struggle for affordable housing? Does UCL Cut the Rent coordinate with other campaigns?
The campaign has always stood on a platform of solidarity with other housing struggles. We’ve believe that rent is everybody’s problem. The way that UCL tags its rents to market rents is symptomatic of the wider housing crisis in London. We haven’t spoken to many other campaigns directly before our strike. The escalation of the strike was inspired by these other campaigns. We’re grateful for their support.
Am I right that rent strikes have been done before at UCL?
Yes. That one was not that many people, in Campbell West. About 60 people. They withheld their rent over conditions. We’ve slightly changed the direction of the campaign now, to broaden it, because all halls are too expensive but only some have bad conditions. And because rent is about numbers, so easier to put a figure on.
So, have you broadened the campaign to prioritise the issues you care about or is it tactical?
No, it’s kind of about value for money. So the conditions are still important but it’s a difficult campaign to run because with bad conditions, you’re on a graduated scale whereas a 40% cut is a 40% cut.
Student activism, like most activism, tends to stick to certain formulas. but do you think the rent strike, which is more direct, will push the student movement to work in new ways?
I think the tactics of this has been the most interesting thing for me. We had a petition in the autumn and that got about 1000 names and nothing happened. We didn’t think it would. We had a few demonstrations and a mini-occupation and they were quite poorly attended but the since the strike has been happening and since payday, they (the people on strike) have been so, so good at the media, better than we have. They’ve been so eloquent and knowledgeable.
Do you think this campaign will inspire people to use different forms of protest?
Yeah I think it has to. It’s not even a normal strike. I mean, normally with strike you go stand on a picket line as a symbol of solidarity with each other. And with a rent strike you don’t necessarily have that safeguard. So we set up a bank account where students would put their money instead of paying it to UCL.
What are the potential repercussions for those involved?
They appear to be very minimal. The strike in the summer was threatened, some of the strikers were threatened with sanctions of being kicked out of university and all of them were fined £25. But then subsequently, the academic sanctions were deemed illegal.
How does the campaign cope with threats like these?
Well, I’m not sure. Not all of the strikers paid into the bank account so there’s an interesting partial safety net. But morale appears to be very strong.
There has been a fair amount of media picking up the story, how do you think that affects the campaign?
The media coverage was quite a surprise to the campaign. We weren’t expecting it to that extent. It’s not enough in itself to win but it has bolstered the campaign. Reputation is very important to UCL, so this has damaged how it sees itself.
How and also why should other people get involved in these kinds of campaigns?
Various people, like Sian Berry’s campaign have been extremely keen in contacting us, to try and use us to launch their London Renters Union. I’m not too wised up about that. I know that Plymouth is trying to set up a Cut the Rent campaign and LSE has been working on it. I heard that York ran quite a successful campaign in 2013.
What about non-students, for example? How can they help?
Yeah, I think it would be helpful for people to turn out on demonstrations, but it is quite a UCL focused campaign. It’s really tricky to figure out how decisions are made within UCL, like who to be lobbying. That’s taken up quite a lot of energy so we haven’t made connections and reached out to campaigns outside of UCL.
So, the campaign has a lot to do with accountability and transparency as well.
Yeah, I feel like it does. It’s not one of our main talking points, but for me, in terms of campaigning, who to lobby is quite an important issue.
I’m guessing some people would be concerned about the risks of being involved in campaigns like these. How does the threat of sanctions affect you, or those on strike?
The sanctions are impossible and illegal. The importance of a large amount of strikers is that they have safety in numbers. I don’t myself, feel particularly accountable in relation to the university accommodation sanctions because I haven’t really done anything. If anyone, it would be the members of the campaign who are in the Student Union but they’re not on strike either.
How are you finding activism in London? Is it quite different to what you had at home?
I was thinking about his before I came and found what’s really interesting is that the university is a nice, medium access point. It’s not the Government or an MP who’s whipped but it’s not a council who can’t do much and it feels a bit personal. So yeah, for me personally, the thing I didn’t factor in was for this campaign and the Fossil Free campaign as well, is who to be lobbying and who to talk to, rather than just the University. The democratic structures are very opaque and it’s difficult to try and break in and work that as an outsider.
Rent strikes are not a new tactic and have a great history of success. Particularly inspiring is the Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915, led and organised primarily by women, such as Mary Barbour. There are plenty of inspiring housing campaigns, such as Focus E15, which began in 2013 when a group of young mothers were due to be evicted from their hostel. They were advised by the council that due to cuts to the housing benefit and London’s lack of affordable homes, the women would need to relocate to other cities. Focus E15 has organised effectively to demand social housing, not social cleansing!