Grace from Housing Rebellion, tells us about the new movement and how it works at the intersection of the climate and environmental and housing crises to bring true justice for people and planet.
This article is intended as a contribution to discussions taking place among climate campaigners, as we all become increasingly desperate about the deepening crisis, but strive for ways to be most effective in building a movement that can stop it.
I will look at our reasons for setting up a new group specifically targeting housing and look in some detail at our recent experience of a housing action in south east London to draw out some lessons that might be useful for other climate activists looking at connecting with housing or other community campaigns.
Housing Rebellion was launched to build and strengthen the fight for housing and climate justice. Housing is a key part of any transition to a post fossil fuel society because the built environment – what we build, how we build it, how we power those buildings – accounts for 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions. We created an action pack which takes people through the details of what sustainable and fair housing policies would look like.
But linking housing and climate campaigning was not just a case of taking 2 disparate ‘issues’ and tacking one on to the other. It was about recognising that the climate crisis now frames every other problem we face and also that having a warm, dry, affordable and safe place to live is a fundamental tenet of social justice. Housing is a major faultline in UK politics, dividing the people for whom this society ‘works’ and those for whom this system leaves them in a constant state of insecurity – where periodic homelessness and inadequate, overcrowded housing is a daily reality for millions; where most people fear that losing their job or getting sick or old could mean they lose their home. In the context of climate breakdown destroying homes through flooding etc and whole areas of the world becoming literally uninhabitable, demanding housing and climate justice is another way of saying that we need system change to meet everyone’s basic need for a place to call home on a livable planet.
In practice, when we connect the struggle for housing and climate justice, we have an opportunity to raise demands which show how the climate movement can address fundamental issues of inequality, but we also have an opportunity to engage much wider layers of society in a type of climate activism which resonates more directly with their own lives than some other forms of protest.
If the climate movement is to pose a real threat to the system which promotes climate chaos then the truth is we need more than a committed minority, no matter how brave – we need active opposition, challenging the warped priorities of our system, in every part of society. We need grassroots leadership that is capable of moving large numbers of people into direct conflict with this system where they live and work, not just intellectual leadership from media commentators, academic policy writers or political lobbyists. Working with grassroots housing campaigners is one avenue to building such power in communities, and infusing that movement with an understanding of the climate context in which we wage our struggles on all other social justice issues.
Housing campaigns often emerge, usually in working class communities, as a grassroots response to immediate housing issues such as the threat of demolition on social housing estates or housing disrepair, or as community campaigns based on mass direct action such as eviction resistance or rent strikes. Many housing campaigners have a wealth of experience in community organisations like residents associations or community/tenant unions and already have an organic leadership role within their communities which enables them to lead more people into action, in a way which even the most knowledgeable and inspiring climate campaigner would struggle to emulate coming from ‘the outside’.
Housing Rebellion is attempting to link these housing campaigners with climate campaigners in a way which allows for a cross pollination of ideas, tactics and activism that strengthens us all. One example of this kind of attempt at building power in a working class community, to fight for housing and climate justice, was the recent protest occupation in the Lesnes Estate in Bexley. The rest of this article is about recounting and reflecting on that action from the perspective of the housing rebellion campaigners involved in organising it.
Building power in communities – the Lesnes estate
First some quick background. Housing Rebellion was initiated by climate campaigners who already had existing links with resident-led housing campaigns via groups such as the Radical Housing Network. One such group were residents from the Lesnes estate in Bexley who had approached the RHN for support in their campaign to stop demolition of their homes.
These residents were centrally involved in designing the first launch action of Housing Rebellion in March 2023 which included a direct action protest at the head office of their landlord, the Peabody Housing Association, in central london. This was followed by residents joining the Housing Rebellion presence at ‘The Big One’ in April which generated some interest among wider numbers of XR supporters and led to calls for a national day of action on July 8th in collaboration with other housing campaign groups.
From the outset Housing Rebellion raised the prospect of using ‘protest occupations’ as a tactic for the day of action (a tactic which had been used quite successfully by housing campaigners in London about 8/9 years ago after squatting residential buildings was made illegal) and we organised planning meetings with experienced housing campaigners who were involved in those occupations, including squatters, as well as climate campaigners with very little direct experience of housing campaigns who were interested in taking part in this kind of direct action.
The meetings, and the discussions around these meetings, proved very useful in teasing out real and potential conflicts between different groups and perspectives, and in building relationships, as well as ultimately forging a specific team of people to work together for the action in Bexley. Even where people didn’t end up participating in the action these conversations with people who didn’t start from (or end with!) an XR perspective were really valuable in keeping us focussed on the aim of our action – building power in this community rather than just putting on a show for the media, or branding a stunt with our logo (obviously logos are useful in providing a shorthand way to link any action we take with the arguments around climate change which XR has helped to popularise – but we do need to be aware of the danger when logos are just used to promote the organisation itself, in place of promoting it’s message or aims).
In the run up to July 8th we held organising meetings on the estate to include as many of the core resident campaigners as possible in developing the strategy for the day of action, and also included housing campaigners from other areas who had organised successful resident campaigns themselves and could speak to them from their own direct experience. We also invited people with research skills, connections to legal support and an architect who were all able to make practical and tangible contributions to the residents campaign. We also began to draw in new residents by holding a further organising meeting with a group of residents who were property guardians after meeting some of them while leafleting the estate. And we had many individual telephone conversations with residents we met, to get a feel for what kind of actions people would be willing to take, as well as develop a deeper understanding of the specific issues residents on the estate were facing.
Talk, listen and listen some more…
It is very rarely the case that simply putting up a poster or posting leaflets, in and of itself, can make an action successful, unless the residents in an area are already fully aware of and very engaged with the campaign. When any campaign is starting out, the key thing is one-to-one conversations and listening to what people tell you are their concerns, so that you can hone the demands of the campaign to the arguments that will really resonate with the audience you are trying to reach. There’s no endpoint in this process! You need to try to be as informed as possible before taking any action but every action also leads to more conversations, where new issues emerge that hadn’t arisen before or require new emphases or reformulations of tactics. So in the process of supporting the residents to leaflet for the day of action on the 8th July it became clear that many of the residents themselves were not really aware of the different tenures and issues that other residents were facing, which is why we moved from thinking about the occupation as a way of raising the profile of the campaign to a focus on using the occupation as a base to have hundreds more conversations and ‘map’ the estate in terms of who actually lives there and how they could be best represented by the campaign.
Once we had fixed on this aim for the occupation the logistics fell into place. We identified a house that was easily accessible (both to occupy and to use by residents once we had occupied it) and we agreed to only advertise the occupation publicly once we had done one full day of door knocking and holding meetings with residents, so as to minimise the likelihood of being arrested/evicted before residents had a chance to use it.
At the community gathering which was advertised to take place for the day of action we were able to support residents running the event, with materials to make banners and window posters, and collecting contact details for everyone who attended. We also helped coordinate the impromptu march from the meeting around the estate to the Peabody sales office and organised a 10 metre banner drop off one of the high towers due for demolition. We provided a megaphone for residents to lead the chanting on the march and speak outside the Peabody office. It was important to balance our role in supporting and shaping the politics of the day – a housing rebellion member who is an architect gave a powerful speech about the climate impact of demolition and the urgency of the situation we face – with the importance of local residents being at the fore of the campaign.
Beware false friends
It was also important for us to support the residents dealing with politicians and other campaigners who we know from experience can be both a hindrance and a help. For instance the local councillor who insisted she should be allowed to speak at the end of the meeting, had to be politely reminded that she was in fact a guest at the meeting and had no entitlement to insist on any such thing. She clearly wanted to show she supported the residents, which could be seen as positive, but when she was invited to join the residents marching to the Peabody office and make a speech there, she said she couldn’t because she had to go to another community event. This would not have been a problem if she hadn’t then castigated us for the rude way we treated her when we got back to the hall after marching to the peabody office, without an iota of embarrassment at being caught out in a barefaced lie!
It is important that campaigners are not intimidated into being deferential towards every politician who offers support (or just being too polite to refuse them!), because politicians often see campaigns merely as a platform for self promotion and it can demoralise and demobilise people when those same politicians shy away from, or discourage, any kind of action which is seen as radical or disruptive. Or it can outright discredit the campaign if many residents already have a negative view or experience of local politicians so it is important their role is carefully managed.
Doing the detailed work
After the public action we arranged a meeting time to suit the core resident campaigners the next day at the occupied house and, once we had successfully occupied it, residents put the callout on their whatsapp chat and we texted everyone who had attended the meeting that day (no small task), to let them know the location and invite them to come down and get involved.
The logistics of occupying the house are pretty self-evident and needn’t be recorded in detail here, but it’s worth saying we had made plans with residents for access to toilets, showers, phone charging etc so many residents were directly involved at every stage in organising the occupation even if it was mostly Housing Rebellion campaigners who slept overnight for the 3 days. We also immediately informed close neighbours of the occupied house about what we were doing so they weren’t frightened or suspicious. We did include a call for cleaning materials in our first message to residents and our first supporter arrived with a mop bucket and jif which was very welcome!
Taking the conversation off-line
It is worth emphasising how overwhelmingly positive the reaction to our occupation was for anyone who is worried about doing a similar action. Firstly it is a good thing to worry about people’s reaction because we must start with some humility. We are moving into someone’s neighbourhood and people are entitled to question or be wary of our motivations. But the most common reaction was not to question what we were doing, but to immediately engage with the issues we were raising, the question of whether the campaign could win, their experience of Peabody as a landlord or their experience of homelessness and many other wider political issues. Having a huge banner ‘For Communities For Climate’ on the occupied house served as a constant reminder of the link between climate and social issues and the many conversations we had which flowed between local concerns about disrepair to the existential questions of our time about capitalism and climate collapse were a reminder that the mainstream media does not in reality represent or reflect the true ‘national conversation’.
Even when one man was demonstratively negative towards us as he walked past, the fact that we were there in-person meant that, rather than the polarisation that social media encourages, when he stopped to talk to us on his way back, he ended up wishing us well. His initial anger was a measure of his frustration that nothing ever changes, and the simple fact of our being there and being willing to listen and engage meant that he not only softened towards our intentions but we also learned a lot from hearing his experience in dealing with Peabody over many years.
During the three days occupation we organised 4 specific meetings – a residents organising meeting on the Sunday eve, a meeting with the architect from ACAN about an alternative sustainable refurbishment plan for the estate, a meeting with a lawyer about possible legal challenge to the regeneration scheme and another resident meeting to launch a residents association. It would have been great to have had the foresight to arrange all these meetings in advance but it was even more fortunate that we were able to call on such expertise to organise these meetings off the cuff! The value of being right on people’s doorsteps is that the residents meetings were made up of key workers on their way back from long shifts and mothers with small children, people who we know might baulk at heading into central london for a protest rally but were happy to join these local meetings at just a few hours notice.
It was useful for campaigners who often attend meetings with people who are predominantly full-time activists, or who hear other activists complaining that most people who don’t come to our protests are apathetic or ignorant, to hear the powerful speeches of these residents who spoke with a deep knowledge of the issues and an inspiring determination to resist. At one point there seemed to be a bidding war for who would be the most difficult for Peabody to remove from the estate!
Occupying Space as a means of asserting power
Residents who took part in the 3 days of the occupation told us they were really energised by the experience and had renewed optimism about the possibilities to win the campaign. The campaigners who came to support the residents were equally effusive about the sheer life-affirming joyfulness of it all – meeting so many new people, making common cause, learning so much new information and skills, understanding practical solidarity, having stereotypes or expectations upended, laughing and developing friendships, experiencing the fear and exhilaration of defusing difficult situations, thinking and strategising on our feet, facing our own fears to knock on a stranger’s door or face potential arrest.
Just as people revelled in taking over Oxford Street with a pink boat in the first Rebellion, every time we take control of a space that is ostensibly forbidden to us by powerful authorities, backed by all the force of the law, we create a small but important crack in the dangerous illusion that those in power are unchallengeable.
The lasting impact of community action
So what did we learn? There were many weaknesses in the action in the Lesnes estate which I have chosen not to dwell on. For instance, we didn’t get huge amounts of media coverage or mobilise large numbers of supporters from off the estate. But the media coverage we did get was notably different in tone from the negative coverage of other climate activism and the people who did come from off the estate were hugely positive about it. We didn’t get arrested or thrown out of the occupied house, which meant we didn’t get those shareable social media videos that could highlight our demands. But what we did get was the confidence boost and sense of shifting power dynamics, from residents realising that when we called Peabody’s bluff and went on the offensive they actually ran for cover – defensively claiming in media statements that everything they are doing is intended to benefit the residents – and they did not have the moral authority to even criticise us for taking over the empty house let alone call the police or try to evict us. This has provided residents with a huge morale boost to push their campaign further and provides all of us with an example to emulate in other places.
Building power in communities is about organising on a grassroots basis and crucially using that organisation to shift the balance of power away from those in authority to achieve changes that will improve all our lives. Building power must involve exerting power through direct action and winning demands, otherwise it is simply an exercise in propaganda and will ultimately backfire if people are convinced of the need for change but can’t see a way to practically and effectively bring that change about. This is why it was important to use the occupation to talk to residents about building an organisation that can challenge Peabody’s overall plans for the estate as well as win immediate demands for residents on repairs, communal services, community spaces etc and enable residents to feel that Peabody is not an all-powerful machine.
Challenging structures of oppression through struggle
The final point I want to address is about how we infuse our activism with an awareness of other social justice issues in a way that strengthens rather than undermines our primary purpose of building power through unity. We live in a society riddled with prejudice and inequality but we want to achieve a society which is run truly democratically in the interests of all. I don’t believe we can get to that society by purging our movement of everyone who holds views we disagree with, and I make no presumption that ‘we’ all hold the same views ourselves. What we do need is a recognition that the vast majority of people hold generally tolerant and compassionate views and spend most of their days rubbing along quite nicely with people who hold a variety of views and beliefs that they do not share. We also need to understand that where people feel empowered and optimistic about the possibilities to change society for the better, they are less likely to feel threatened or in competition with someone who also just wants to have a decent life for themselves or their family.
Sometimes it may be necessary for campaigners to argue overtly against racist or sexist behaviour for example, but in my experience in Lesnes, as in every other campaign of collective action I have ever been involved in, it is much more likely that inspiring acts of solidarity emerge from the organic desire for unity when people are working together, rather than from creating a checklist of inclusion and diversity rules. In Lesnes for example a migrant family with no recourse to public funds, who are facing imminent eviction from their private landlord on the estate, joined the residents meeting and were able to get support and advice, and the meeting agreed unanimously to fully support them if they chose to move into one of the empty flats in protest. This is social solidarity in action, not charity or liberal anti-racism. Migrants facing racist exclusion rules can and should be part of the practical struggle for social change not merely seen as victims to be protected from racist discourse.
It shouldn’t be a point worth remarking on, but the women in the occupation also got a good response when they challenged more of the men to take over the cleaning and shopping while the women fronted up to the Peabody manager and handled the media. Overcoming divisions based on any form of oppression or prejudice should not be a prerequisite but rather an integral part of the process of challenging the most fundamental division we face – between the people (of any race, sex or sexual orientation etc) who would pull all life on earth over a cliff into oblivion rather than give up their wealth and power… and everyone else!
Building on our experience
There is a lot more we could write about the general as well as the specific lessons from the work Housing Rebellion is engaged in, and the challenges we face in doing so, but hopefully this reflection on our recent experience will spark discussions among other climate campaigners about the practical process of building power in communities and how we acquire the skills and knowledge we need to do that most effectively.
We hope to organise a series of in-person workshops at the end of August to develop our tactics and extend our network of activists. If you would like to take part in any way please get in touch with [email protected]