What Home Can Really Mean

Esmond Sage surveilles the situation of renter and tenent organising in the silver city and explores the radical hearth of Union Street.

Living Rent in Aberdeen has a new lease of life (if that expression can be used for a tenants’ union). The tenants’ movement isn’t new here, of course. There’s a history here that we’re only just getting into as we live and make its latest chapter. I’ve been chatting to a knowledgeable local archivist who’s told me about the city’s squatters of the 1930s and 1970s. Living Rent alone has been organising here since its own beginnings about six years ago, but we have ebbed and flowed with the transience of life when our most active members leave the city. Tenants struggle against organisational transience everywhere of course, as they move often, but it seems particularly the case in Aberdeen, where the oil and gas economy sprints then exhausts itself, and everyone it leaves behind has to pick up their things and head elsewhere to catch up.

The very specific problem we have to address for tenants in Aberdeen then is not just how we grow our union in terms of numbers of members, but how we grow a radical tenants’ culture in the city. As long as tenants are precarious, our movement needs a way of remembering and passing on which is more substantial than the second-hand nostalgia I feel going through photos of our predecessors a couple of years back. If the problem of membership numbers can be flippantly framed as a friendly rivalry with the Central Belt (who are well in the lead), then in the problem of culture, I fancy we have a special advantage over our comrades down south. One of my favourite things about Aberdeen is its existing radical culture. The Aberdeen Social Centre just off Union Street is a kind of hearth for numerous radical organisations in the city, including Living Rent. At the Saturday café sessions around the table you will hear thoughtful debates and roving conversations between trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, Trotskyists, members of the left-of-centre parliamentary parties, left utopians, environmentalists, fellow travellers and hangers on. If there is dogma in Aberdeen I haven’t yet tripped over it. Groups forge relationships quickly and quite deeply too.

This eagerness between groups to feed and grow each other, this solidarity, is what will help a tenants’ culture to grow. Solidarity doesn’t stand for long if it’s not international as well. At our last meeting I showed fellow members a newsletter published by the NSRA tenants’ union in Chicago, where a friend of mine lives and organises. Another attendee pointed out we should go to the print workshop across the road who they were sure would be happy to help us produce our own, which could be spread around Aberdeen and indeed, sent back to the States.

So a tenants’ culture is something which helps us recognise comrades who are distant, be that in space or time. What about those nearby? We suffer from rather bourgeois associations of home as a place of retreat and withdrawal from the world, to ‘recharge’. Our home may be adjacent to but is not seen as being mixed up with anybody else’s. ‘Mi casa es su casa’ is the trite permission granted by a host, at best time-limited and at worst ironic. When the fallacy of domestic inertia becomes clearly apparent, such as when tenements need communal repairs, resolving the problem is invariably a headache. Throw in the rent relation, and most tenants will feel that their condition is a single vertical line between them and their landlord. We need culture to help us see our neighbours as well.

At the moment in Scotland there is a ban on rent hikes until the end of March and a limited ban on evictions until September. These measures amount to very little to stop landlords breaking the law. Several of our members in Aberdeen can attest to appalling experiences of landlords using nefarious getarounds and loopholes to push ‘difficult’ tenants out of their homes or raise rents. There is little else I can write at this moment, as many aren’t ready to share their stories, fearing that, even anonymised, their landlords will be able to identify them and target them with further harassment. This fear, often of bark more than bite, is used by landlords to build imaginary cell walls around tenants, dividing them from each other and convincing them there’s nothing they can do. This fear is what gets dispelled when you build a culture that can find its home in the city, and in so doing, show everyone what home can really mean.

Esmond Sage is a planner and tenants unionist in Aberdeen, where he examines the city’s hauntology and posts places he finds on Instagram @versumdisco.