A sharp, clear demonstration by Renters United in Wellington over the weekend injected some much-needed class demands into the election campaign. Renters United focus on the one-sided class war that’s been waged over the last decade or more not in our workplaces, but in our homes: rent out of control; power tipped massively to landlords in law and even more in reality; far too many workers in old, cold, damp and unhealthy homes. Around 40% of Wellington residents are renters, and yet local politics is weighted in representation and interest towards home owners, and richer home owners at that.
After years of drift, recent years have seen a revival in campaigning and reform around housing rights. Labour’s law reforms last term, although not enough, were welcome (small) improvements, and debates over Wellington’s spatial plan have brought unusual levels of interest to local politics, with City for People pushing for housing development that makes the connections between the need for affordable housing, climate change and democratic control of the city. They’re facing opposition from deep-pocketed private interests using ‘heritage’ to justify inaction, gentrification and prices keeping working people from the city. It’s a developing space for struggle.
Into this Renters United’s demands incorporate immediate, short-term demands (limits on rent increases) with a key claim – tens of thousands of state homes built for human need, not developers’ profit – that can be used to put pressure on the next government, whatever parties it is composed of after October. The housing issues fuses practical, basic, bread-and-butter political questions, advocating for tenants’ rights, with much bigger issues that throw up important questions about why ‘the market’ should be so dominant in an issue of social reproduction (the right to decent, safe housing) and why property prices are treated as such a sacred object in politics currently. It’s a campaign, in other words, that’s good on its own terms as well as setting us up for bigger, wider-reaching struggles. When housing has set up so much anti-immigrant scapegoating (from Labour in 2017 to the Māori Party today), it’s all the more welcome that Renters United focus squarely on landlords and renting as class questions. A brilliant statement from the Migrant Workers Association read to the rally underlined this.
Politicans from Labour, the Greens and TOP were there to receive Renters United’s open letter and answer their questions, but rally organisers had the priorities right: the politicians answered questions on the group’s terms, and weren’t given a platform without pressure.
You can find out more about the campaign at the Renters United website.