Organising tenants, improving buildings, sticking it to landlords

Buildings, like most other things, age badly if they’re not maintained. Some of the best mass housing projects in the UK have disappeared because of terrible maintenance.

Part of the issue is that decisions about buildings are rarely made by the people that live in them. Maintenance, like landscaping, cleaning, or fixing the lift, is the responsibility of a property management company or a distant freeholder. This means that buildings get worse over time and tenants find it hard to make meaningful improvements.

It used to be a big deal for architects. Span Developments, for example, placed as much emphasis on how the housing was going to be managed as on the design of the houses themselves. But funding models and shrinking margins mean that it doesn’t really happen anymore.

To counter this, tenants need to organise!

There are a few mechanisms for this, including tenants and residents associations (TRAs), co-ops, Dark Matter's neighbourhood unions or renters unions. TRAs are the most straightforward, so I set one up for the building that I live in. The main thing that it gives you is an ability to make decisions collectively: a way of saying “we don’t like this thing, let’s do something about it” as a group, rather than individually.

Broadly, we followed these steps:

  • Identify a clear, shared need, like lack of bike storage or a high service charge, that will help convince your neighbours that it's a good idea
  • Get at least 50% of flats in your building to support it and inform the people you will have to work with
  • Set up some simple ways of working that make it easy for everyone to contribute, meet and check what's happening. Common Knowledge are working to help organisers choose the right tools for things like this
  • Write a simple constitution, for some reason, and name some key people
  • Continuously reduce barrier to entry and make sure you are working on things that your neighbours actually care about

Maintenance is cool and not at all boring. Some of it is about making sure that a building does not fall apart, but it can also be about drastic, radical improvement. Architects can only plan for one possible future and tenants need to be empowered to shape the places they live in. In our building, we have a shared courtyard and are working with an agency called Light Follows Behaviour to make the lighting and landscaping better.

Obviously, finance and legislation and the housing market at large are against you, but that doesn't mean that improving things through organising is impossible. One of my favourite examples are pages 14-20 of this guidebook to an estate in Buckinghamshire, which go through all of the materials that make it up. From doorbells to lettering on gate numbers, it's an amazing piece of work and probably makes the whole estate look stunning (or claustrophobic, depending on how you look at these things). Isn't this intersection of community organising and architecture and taking power away from landlords fun?!

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