‘Not just a lockdown hobby’: the making of the Renters and Housing Union

The unaffordability of housing in Australia has emerged as one of the major issues of the 2022 federal election. While decades in the making, the housing crisis faced by those locked out of home ownership and subject to the precarities of the rental market has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In the absence of systematic governmental policy to address the crisis in its full scale, the last two years have seen an upswing in renters’ activism. Noteworthy among this has been the formation of the Renters and Housing Union (RAHU) in Naarm/Melbourne.

The following interview with Eirene Tsolidis-Noyce and Zachary Doney, foundational members of RAHU, was conducted by historians Rachel Goldlust and Stephen Pascoe, in the context of larger research project on Australian housing histories. The transcript is an abridged record of the conversation conducted on 25 October 2021.


The impetus for activism

Rachel: Could you tell us about your background? What brought you to this activism?

Zachary: I’d just been working my bloody job. Keeping my head down, living in share houses. I’d attended some lefty protests. I never knew what the hell to do about how to get a repair. I thought the broken sockets in the walls were something you’d just live with. And then the pandemic happened.

I remember leaving work that first day and thinking, ‘What the fuck is going to happen?’ And then I saw that the rent strike was out there, so I jumped on board.

Eirene: I have always been a renter and you got used to maintaining really old houses and having possums living with you and roofs falling out.

As to my political background, I joined the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] in 2017 or 2018. This informed my sense of how to organise with other people, and where we have our power as workers, and how we can act on that on that power collectively.

When the pandemic hit, I was working as a cleaner in a cooperative. I was already on an extremely low income. I was in and out of the dole because none of us had enough work, so when it hit, I didn’t know if I’d be able to make rent. I joined the petition and immediately started organising based on the principles that the IWW uses for issues at work.

Thinking about issues at home is how it shifted.

I stopped working as a cleaner because it was unsafe to do so and stayed on Jobseeker and contacted people who’d signed up in that petition. But my background isn’t in tenancy, or law, or consumer rights: it’s come from personal experiences that I shared with thousands of other people. And I feel like that’s a really good motivation. If you’re affected, you’re going to be the most motivated to change it.

Stephen: It seems like both of you had a ‘click moment’ of realising that the time for action had come. Did you feel concern about what was likely to happen as the pandemic unrolled, or was it that you saw an opening for action that wouldn’t have been there in the past?

E: For me, it was both.

I remember reading an article about the rise in unemployment in America and seeing the spike. My immediate thought, from an organising perspective, was okay, this is capitalism completely eating itself.

This moment was perversely exciting because things had collapsed to such a degree, which presented an opportunity.  I say ‘perverse’ because does it take this to get people to take action? And at what cost?

So, it was kind of both: there was an opportunity we were motivated to continue utilising, but also, we knew the cost was so significant to people.

 ‘COVID normal’ doesn’t make sense to me because normal wasn’t good enough. I was still unable to afford the rent, whether I’d had the COVID supplement this last year or not, and it was still going to be unaffordable when that supplement ended.

Z: I thought this society was maybe going to collapse and if society didn’t collapse, the housing market was definitely going to collapse.

Seeing 20,000 people hop on to a set of demands was extremely powerful. To say: ‘we can’t pay the rent, we’re not going to pay the rent,’ and then start organising around that was the real shift. The idea that we would just go back to work was ludicrous to me.


Becoming a union

R: As you were transitioning from the Rent Strike into what has become RAHU, were there conversations about where it could go? In other words, is there a bigger goal?

E: That’s an ongoing conversation.  There are lots of big goals. We started with 10 demands; a manifesto that will take us years to achieve. Our internal goals are to grow locally. If you’re a renter, you should be in the union. To keep our structure allows for being representational so that people can be in a syndicalist model, as a group feeding into the goals of the union.

We don’t aim to stay only in Victoria. We have members in other parts of the country. I’d like to see as many people involved in the union in an engaged way, because then that allows us to create our shared goals together.

Z: Rent Strike attracted tens of thousands of signatures. What if all those people were already in the union, had already talked to a delegate, attended a local branch meeting, or already had a handful of interactions and then the rent strike was called?

When I was a low-information renter, people were trying to pull the wool over renters’ eyes. And people were tough-guying renters out of their homes. But we had rights. So, if you even knew a small amount of your rights and you saw thousands of people standing up for them, or dozens of people standing up for those rights, what are you going to do? You’re going to stand up for your rights. You know, you’re not going to self-evict when someone sends you an email asking you to self-evict when you can only make partial rent or something like that.

The experience of the initial few weeks—the level of panic that things were going to collapse, and then watching poverty overtake people and the outcomes of lockdowns—that really hammered home.

Not only do people need educational resources, they need some level of empowerment to act on or to make good with those resources and I think that organisation is the renter’s union.

S: As you were developing the program and the activities of RAHU, were there any models that you consciously tried to emulate? Or did it develop on an as needs basis as you saw the crisis unfold?

E: I’m an anarchist, but not everyone in the union is. We borrowed the IWW’s constitution in terms of our structure.

That said, we looked at tenant unions in other countries, particularly the US. A few of us were in touch with movements in the UK, US, mainly, and South Africa and Aotearoa. But there are some distinct differences in the Australian landscape, particularly having less large-scale property investment in the form of massive corporations and high-rise buildings.

We don’t borrow from other organisations for our structure or for our demands. The constitution is like a skeleton for how to organise in a non-hierarchical and representative way, but our demands are based on what people in our union, want to pursue.

They look similar to other countries because they’re the systemic problems that we’re all facing, but it was all done as locally as possible. Because governments responded in the ways that they knew, to smash that kind of activism as quickly as possible. You saw the same, or similar, moratoriums on eviction in most western countries.

S: Do you see those moratoriums as being fundamentally a recognition of the potential power of renters? Do you think that they were cynical or defensive moves?

E: Yeah. Defensive capital, right? It was a real shock that people were mobilised so quickly to take direct action. And Australia was very similar to other countries, like the US, dividing it down by state, and by class as well:  the legislation really put in further risks to people who had money, as opposed to those who didn’t.

We’ve never seen welfare rise in thirty years and suddenly it does. The rent strike movement informed some of that but it’s not really a concession, because it still upholds the economic status quo.

They knew that increased welfare payments were going to go to landlords. They know that rent stress is well above 30 per cent of income and has been for a long time. They’ve known that your welfare increases so that landlords’ pockets don’t decrease. So, in that sense, we haven’t hit at a systemic level yet. But a lot of the work we did last year was to keep people in their homes and to make sure that people that don’t have any money weren’t made homeless or placed into further debt.

Z: If I could just return to the models for RAHU question, some international models were looked at. Rent Strike circulated some anti-eviction movement documents, mostly pamphlets. It was pretty invigorating reading them, and learning about historical anti-eviction movements from the Depression era, but those kinds of tactics are mostly inappropriate for resurrection in 2020. There are good organisational models in there but they’re not appropriate for every type of renting or every type of dwelling.

If we compare our actions to the anti-eviction committees of the thirties, or the idea of shop floor organising and the syndicalist model of the Wobblies, it is important to remember that the 1930s is not the 2020s.

For instance, cell phones make things different. How you get your welfare is different. It is important not to forget that we were locked down when we began to crystallise all of the activities from the rent strike into a union. A lot of tactics that would have worked really well if we could have moved around freely were unavailable to us at the time. The histories were there, and we were aware of international models, but we were locked down in Victoria.

R: The other major difference is about class. Do you think that generationally, the advocacy is from a class that is better educated and more empowered?

E: To be honest, I don’t know how much education gets you when your stuff’s being thrown on the road. I still don’t subscribe to legalism being the answer.  When people talk about doing direct action and anti-eviction movement stuff and barricading houses to keep people in their homes that is Step 20.

Of course, there’s a place for making sure people know they have a right to representation. They have a right to go to [the The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal] and challenge and the fact that their rights already have been exploited: yes, there’s a place for that legalism. And yes, education is key. But I don’t know if that changes the material circumstances for people; whether it’s the sheriff, the police, or the landlord physically doing it themselves, they’re still at risk.

It doesn’t matter what their rights are. VCAT is the landlord’s court. People in elected positions of parliament own multiple properties, and most people at VCAT are not renters. So, I don’t know how different we are to a hundred years ago. Maybe we have a higher proportion of people who have better economic standing because they have a job, but they’re a renter, and their security of work and their ability to buy a home is still crap.

Work hasn’t been secure for a very long time and being casually employed is a layer of class as well. The way that I was putting it [through 2020] was the idea of ‘paternal capital’.

You’ve got this paternalised idea and policy that says ‘we’ll give money to your boss so that you can stay employed after the pandemic.’ And that totally won’t get exploited! [sarcastically] And we only have enough for some of the population. But we don’t trust you to get a universal income.

We trust your boss to hand it to you in the same way that we’ll give you welfare. But we know that most of that’s going to go to your landlord, or we’ll give your landlord a rent reduction grant, rather than give you extra money to live. All of these methods, subscribing us to our employer or our landlord, are differences with the policies that were created back in the thirties.

[Back then] we had a social securities act. We had measures that said that payment was inalienable. We had a housing policy that was national, and we had public housing and things that actually didn’t do the trickledown theory that most economic policies are based on now.

R: Could you reflect on what you think has been RAHU’s most significant achievement or contribution to the space of rental activism?

Z: For me, we created the platform for organising renters in 2020. If we think about moving into the future, what types of actions are going to be necessary? Do these actions require organisation?  Even though it may be mundane, the fact that we still exist is a big achievement. This wasn’t just like a lockdown hobby for some bored people in the northern suburbs!

E: That’s a good point. Like, we built a union! That’s a huge achievement.  For me, a big success is how broad it is, because Melburnians are renowned for their inability to organise with each other.  Out of all of the individual cases as well, it’s hard to not mention the amount we’ve been able to win back for people. It’s not about the money, but money is real. It has helped a lot of people to have debts waived. To have more than $126,000 waived through the work of a group of people who aren’t trained is pretty phenomenal.

RIs there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention?

E: There is one thing that we need to mention. When we all got involved in the rent strike, a huge part of the initial stages of organising was to get to the conversation of stolen land. And we haven’t acted as much as we would’ve liked to on that, but there have been junctures where we have.

Djab Wurrung was part of that. Talking about paying the rent has been part of that for the existence of the union. It was all set up in mind to talk about the fact that this whole system has been set up on stolen land. That’s the precursor—before you talk about your landlord and the fact that they are in your property—it’s about whose land it all takes place on.

Z: And also, Join the union!


Image: RAHU on Twitter

Rachel Goldlust

Rachel Goldlust is a historian and urbanist living on Dja Dja Wurrung country in Castlemaine. She's an Adjunct Fellow at La Trobe University Department of Archaeology and History.

More by Rachel Goldlust ›

Stephen Pascoe

Stephen Pascoe is a historian and urbanist from Naarm/Melbourne, and a lecturer in History at UNSW.

More by Stephen Pascoe ›

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