People struggling to find somewhere decent to live in Bristol fought back the tears as they told an unofficial renters’ commission of their anguish this week. People living in rented or council accommodation gathered at City Hall to hold the conference – which took place outside the front door after they were barred from being represented on the official council Living Rent Commission.
And in response to being barred from having a representative on the commission, the renters’ organisation ACORN pledged to collect and submit the experiences of anguish in finding an affordable place, spiralling rents, poor conditions and bad treatment by landlords to the council themselves.
One woman with fibromyalgia told the gathering how she had been left homeless a year ago, and had struggled in vain to find a landlord or letting agent willing to take on a person in a wheelchair on disability benefits. In a passionate speech, Jean Stone said: “I was literally told by four landlords they would not accept me because I was in receipt of disability benefit. I was very lucky I was able to sofa surf.”
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“Looking for somewhere to live becomes a full time job. I was in temporary accommodation for a while, and with all the rules and the way it is set up, it feels like a punishment for being homeless. It doesn’t make any sense because my rent is guaranteed – my housing benefit won’t stop, I can’t be fired from having fibromyalgia,” she added.
She and other speakers at the commission told how trying to find somewhere to live – whether that’s battling with 100 other people for a room in a shared house or a flat, or through the council’s HomeChoice system – becomes ‘demoralising’. “It’s so draining to be competing for a place to live. I didn’t have the energy, time or money to compete. You go to vieweings and they say ‘oh we’ve had 100 people message us about this room’.”
Another renter taking part in the commission, which saw dozens of people gather at the front door of City Hall, spoke of how the housing crisis was destroying Bristol’s communities. “I’m seeing previously affordable areas of Bristol becoming unaffordable, and the communities are being pushed out. I have a reasonable budget to find somewhere to live, but when I go to see a room in a shared house, there’s parents with children looking and a room in a shared house is all they can afford. It’s an impossible situation, and that’s just for me,” she added.
“Marvin Rees wants this city to be somewhere businesses come with jobs, with growth and regeneration, he loves all that, but will he create a system that will house all the people who come here?” she added.
ACORN, the largest group of renters in Bristol, said that it decided to hold an unofficial Renters’ Commission after they were controversially denied a place on the council’s own commission – even though it was part of their package of suggestions to the council last year. ACORN were not invited to send a representative to the first council commission meeting in July, so instead decided to dramatically storm the meeting and shut it down in person.
After that, there was a bitter falling out between the renters’ union and one of its former leaders, Tom Renhard, who is now the cabinet member for housing at Bristol City Council. ACORN accused Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees of personally blocking ACORN’s involvement in the commission, and accused Cllr Renhard of being a ‘traitor’ for agreeing, while the council hit back saying that ACORN’s actions to disrupt the first Renters Commission showed why they had not been invited in the first place.
Rose Whitehorn, from ACORN, said they organised the unofficial Renters Commission because they were barred from the official one. “Of course they have invited the landlords for their opinion. We ask whose interests are they serving? In a time when real change and reform in the private rental sector is imperative, they show that they do not want real change,” she said.
“Ordinary people cannot afford to live, they cannot afford the extortionate rising rent in Bristol, they are having to make decisions no one should have to make, choosing between bills and food, they are being displaced and losing their homes. As costs keep rising, they need to show that they care about the needs of the renters and give real solutions,” she added.
“We were promised a seat at the table but the council turned their back on us and blocked ACORN because we pushed for real change. They say we don’t work well with others – well, we worked closely side by side with the charity Shelter and 18 other organisatins on the Renters’ Reform Coalition, to lobby the Government for rent controls and real reforms. The need for a renters’ commission was our idea – we don’t need their sham of a commission, we have created our own real renters’ commission,” she added.
People attending the commission meeting wrote their experiences down on card, and then symbolically posted it through an ACORN letterbox, with the union pledging to include them in a written report which will be submitted to the council.
A spokesperson for Bristol City Council said after the confrontation in late July: “The Living Rent Commission is being set up to explore the administration’s commitment to making Bristol a Living Rent City. Our aims are to ensure that renters across Bristol have access to good quality, affordable and secure homes and that we take action to put a stop to the spiralling rents that are destroying communities.
“The commission pools expertise and knowledge from many sources to explore solutions available to us and includes voices from across the housing sector including renters. We undertook an expression of interest process to select partners to join the commission with those selected demonstrating commitment to work in partnership for the city.
“ACORN Bristol has a track record of campaigning but has not expressed willingness to work with the range of stakeholders necessary to deliver the aims of the commission. Today’s actions are an indication of ACORN’s behaviour.
“This is a groundbreaking attempt to make a positive impact on rents in the city and the views of all will be sought and considered.”
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