Before joining a local renters’ union, Tom Maher was already watching the progress of tenants’ unions in other cities.
He saw that organisations in New York, Los Angeles, Glasgow and London were often successful in defending members from eviction. He was impressed “seeing the work that they have done over the last few years in terms of protecting people in a very direct way,” he says.
At home, Maher wanted to apply pressure to the government to be more proactive in addressing the housing crisis and homelessness. “You can’t walk down the street without seeing a homeless person,” he says.
He counts himself fortunate because he still has a job but with rents rising faster than wages, “in that sense, we have all been affected,” he says.
A lot of his friends are paying high rents but living in poor conditions, with dampness or other basic maintenance works outstanding, he says.
“They are too scared to push them [their landlords] on it because maybe their rent was slightly less than it would be if they went out on to the market,” he says. “Or maybe their landlord was just ignoring them.”
So when some of his friends joined the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) in Inchicore and Drimnagh he decided to get involved too, he says.
Community Action Tenants Union
Founded in October 2019, CATU calls itself a community-based union for tenants, including those who live in emergency and precarious accommodation according to its website.
CATU saw an increase in its numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic, says Rachel Kiersey, a member of the union’s communications team.
At the moment, CATU is calling for an extension of the current eviction ban, which is set to expire on 20 July as well as an amnesty for those who have fallen behind with their rent during the Covid-19 crisis.
The union will defend members from eviction as well as offering advice and education about rights and legislation, says Maher.
The only barrier to joining CATU is that you can’t be a landlord. “If you are directly profiting from a stake in housing it is not appropriate for you to join CATU,” says Kiersey.
So far around 200 people have signed up and paid their dues to four local committees in Dublin — Mountjoy and Dorset Street, Crumlin and Drimnagh, Phibsborough and Glasnevin and Inchicore and Kilmainham, she says.
Once a committee reaches 80 members it will become an autonomous branch of the union, says Kiersey. Each branch can then decide what issues to campaign on in their local areas within the rules of the union.
Taking out the Trash
Kiersey got involved in housing action after her son joined the Take Back the City protests in 2018, she says.
The protests involved occupying long term vacant homes in Dublin city centre, including a high-profile occupation of a house in North Frederick Street, from which they were evicted.
That house is still boarded up today.
After the campaign ended, many of the activists went back into their own local areas and took up advocacy work, says Kiersey.
Together with others, she founded Louth Housing Action, she said. In time a number of housing activists wanted to move beyond advocacy and start organising tenants “so people would get involved themselves and fight for their own rights”, she says.
Last summer they started looking into models of community and tenants unions in the UK and elsewhere.
Some of the organisers then travelled to Glasgow to shadow an existing tenants union called Living Rent in order to gain practical experience, says Kiersey.
Living Rent works out of an area called Govanhill in Glasgow. It’s similar to Dublin 1 where CATU started out, in that it has a high proportion of renters; many of these are migrants, she says.
There was a serious problem with rubbish on the streets in Govanhill, which the Glasgow City Council wasn’t collecting so Living Rent carried out an action to highlight that problem, she says.
“They brought the rubbish to the council offices and made it into a giant rat,” she says.
It was a “novel example” of a protest, and it also illustrates that Living Rent works on issues that affect the community in general as well as renters specifically, she says.
As well as getting help from international counterparts, the group was influenced by the work of the National Association of Tenants Organisation (NATO), which represented the interests of tenants in Ireland, starting in 1967, according to Dáil records.
NATO negotiated with the government on behalf of council tenants in relation to rents and organised several large rent strikes.
When CATU launched last year, they started out knocking on doors in Dublin 1, an area where some members were already active through a group called Dublin Central Housing Action, says Kiersey.
A lot of people they called in to were interested but some were still reluctant to get involved, she says. “A lot of people feel threatened by landlords and high rent to the extent that they don’t want to rock the boat.”
Others were keen to sign up. There is a general sense of anxiety among renters about what the future holds, says Kiersey. “That is why during lockdown we gained a lot of members, people want to have a way to fight back,” she says. The idea is building community power and tenant power, says Kiersey.
Those tenants unions have toolkits like templates for letters to write to landlords or local authorities and resources that they are happy to share , which is very helpful, says Maher, who recently joined CATU.
Since Covid-19 the situation is getting worse for many renters, he says. Unless the eviction ban is coupled with a rent arrears amnesty, it is merely a “band-aid solution”, says Maher.
At the moment the ban on evictions is in place until 20 July. Any tenants who cannot pay their full rent are running up arrears and that is a ground for eviction at a later date.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond in time for publication to queries about the eviction ban and rent arrears.
Activism can be draining and often people get burned out, says Maher. “The idea behind it being a union is that some people can take steps back and other people can step forward.”
Often activists end up paying for things like printing out of their own pockets, which is ultimately not sustainable, says Kiersey. So CATU is charging a membership fee starting from €5 per month.
“It’s like a trade union in your work, you pay membership dues to resource the campaigns,” she says.