Framework sections highlighted: Action, Leadership, Strategy

Lambeth community organisers rise up against damp

The community of St Martin’s estate in Lambeth have been suffering with problems of damp in their homes for years. In 2016, at the well attended general meeting of St Martin’s Tenants and Residents Association (TRA), the committee members facilitated a space for residents to share the issues that meant the most to them, to help the TRA choose its priorities for the year ahead.

An overwhelming majority of those at the meeting were badly impacted by damp and wanted something to be done, but they weren’t sure what action they could take against Metropolitan Housing Trust, the housing association responsible for managing the properties on the estate. For some years, local councillors had been helping individual residents to escalate damp issues to the housing ombudsman once the internal complaints processes with Metropolitan had been exhausted, but with limited success.

The TRA decided to survey their neighbours to see if others in their blocks were impacted, with a view to getting people to take collective legal action on the issue.  Through the survey the TRA found that many people in specific blocks had the same kinds of damp issues and, where they had complained, received similar responses from the housing association.

Despite the TRA having identified a collective concern, they realised that collective legal action wasn’t possible because this kind of action against a housing association could only be taken on a case by case basis.

Deciding a strategy

Graham Weston, a community organiser at the High Trees Community Development Trust Social Action Hub, had been supporting St Martin’s TRA with their work on and off for the past six years, helping them to build and leverage their collective power.

In 2018, one of the key leaders in the TRA, Chris Blake, returned to the group as Secretary after some time away and reached out to Graham to find out what was happening with the damp campaign and to explore what possible routes forward the group may be able to take. They knew that a new approach needed to be taken on this long-standing issue of damp.

Graham sought advice on what collective action the St Martin’s community could take from fellow organiser Jonny Butcher of Sheffield’s ACORN Social Action Hub, a community union primarily working with renters. Jonny suggested they demand Lambeth council to commission an independent environmental inspection of all of the affected housing stock in order to put pressure on the housing associations to do the repairs they are legally obliged to.

Chris Blake, Terry Cooper, Terry Curtis, and several others from the TRA had been on the doors in St Martin’s speaking to residents and getting those with damp issues to fill in pro forma damp complaints, while building relationships with a base of community members who were all concerned about the damp problem.

Chris and Graham met to run through the options for the TRA. Two possible routes for action had emerged – for the TRA to support community members to take individual legal action against Metropolitan Housing on a case by case basis, or to take collection action around an independent environmental inspection.

The TRA decided to hold a meeting for all of those impacted to hear about the two options. A local councillor who had been in talks with the TRA around using a law firm they knew to take individual legal action, brought their solicitor to explain what this process would involve. Graham brought the other proposal of taking collective action to the meeting.

Hearing from the solicitors, the residents and tenants became aware of the liabilities they would have in getting individual housing condition surveys and the potential costs incurred if they decided to pull out of the legal process once it had started. They also learned that they could only take legal action on a case by case basis and that there was no class action lawsuit that they could use. The solicitor explained that they would need to do an inspection for each case and that the costs for this would be high. They also confirmed that the alternative, collective strategy for an independent inspection on all of the blocks, was sound.

After considering the resources they had available to them and what their ultimate goal was, the residents, tenants, and councillor all agreed that the best strategy for them was the route to collective power and action through demanding an independent environmental inspection.

It’s about getting comfortable with seeing and feeling people’s anger, and then channelling it into a collective action rather than towards individual action.

Taking action together

The group grew, bringing on board more people impacted by damp, to continue to door knock in order to find more people willing to fight and build up their numbers, though years of being ignored made it difficult for many to be convinced, explained Graham: “It’s a challenge to win people over because they have seen nothing change for so long. Lots of people have said they’re going to do stuff in the past, but nothing’s happened. Housing associations have repeatedly said they’re going to do things, and the TRA, unfortunately, have to challenge all that, and then shift people to a point where they’re acting – it’s about getting comfortable with seeing and feeling people’s anger, and then channelling it into a collective action rather than towards individual action.”

In the end 65 households submitted complaints. Working closely with their community organiser and local councillor, the group made a deputation to the local authority to share their concerns and seek support from Lambeth Council to secure an independent inspection of the blocks impacted by damp.

Winning over the council

As well as building their power base of local households, the TRA’s strategy included leveraging the power of their local councillor, who had become a key ally of the group due to their consistent determination for collective action, to get on the council’s agenda at a meeting in July 2019. During the meeting they won the backing of Paul Gadsby, Lambeth’s cabinet member for Housing, and on 17th July 2019, Lambeth Council publicly agreed to appoint an environmental inspector to look at the affected blocks.

The environmental inspection is due to be carried out over the coming months, and St Martin’s TRA are confident that whatever the outcome of the inspection, the power that has been and is still being built within the St Martin’s community will mean a positive outcome for those demanding action on damp issues in their homes.

“The core leaders in the group have known each other for about five and a half years. They’ve had their differences and gone their separate ways at points, but now they are more in sync and their relationships have enough grounding that they have the resilience to overcome the challenges that they face,” says Graham, reflecting on the group’s progress.

“It’s been quite an impressive thing to see how far the leaders have come and the development of their skills and strategy. There’s now a consensus around building power and taking action that hasn’t been present in the TRA for a long time and is more advanced than it ever has been.”