“College is hardly going to evict students”: Rent strike campaign gets underway

Cut the Rent TCD held its first meeting on Tuesday evening

A “war over space” is being waged in Dublin city, according to Trinity activist Conor Reddy. He was speaking at the first meeting of the college’s newly formed housing activist group, Cut the Rent TCD, held on Tuesday evening in the Arts Building. The event was attended by around 30 people, in a cramped room on the fifth floor. With rents reaching new highs, the closure of cultural spaces, and “luxury” accommodation complexes built in place of much-needed affordable housing, who the city belongs to has become an increasingly pressing question for many students. Partially inspired by similar action in UK universities in recent years, the group is looking to organise a campus rent strike.

An organiser from Rent Strike UK, Matthew Sardegno, phoned in to the meeting to talk to the campaign group about his experience organising strikes in University College London (UCL). In 2015, after door-knocking twice a week for two months, over 150 students pledged to withhold their rent unless their demands for a reduction in accommodation costs were met. The campaign group held flash occupations of management offices, burnt an effigy on campus, and made national news. Sardegno described an electric atmosphere on campus, with everyone talking about the strikes.

By the second term, 500 more people had joined the strike, around a quarter of the college’s residents. It was one the biggest such actions in London in over 60 years. Two years later, and UCL implemented rent freezes, reductions and an extra £1.2million in bursaries, although they deny that these measures had any connection to the strikes. Other universities across the UK followed UCL’s lead and conducted their own rent strikes, leading to the formation of the national group Rent Strike UK.

“College authorities are unlikely to evict dozens or hundreds of students.”

Sardegno advised the Cut the Rent group on how to mobilise support and get people striking. Start with petitioning at resident’s doors, he told the group, in order to collect contact details and introduce students to the campaign. It’s important to have a meeting arranged in advance that students can be directed to attend. Campaign groups should listen to students’ concerns and introduce the idea of rent strikes. As payment for campus accommodation occurs in two installments – one payment in September and the second in January – a rent strike this year would need to occur for the second term. With that in mind, Sardegno advised the group to begin laying the groundwork now. He emphasised the importance of continuously ringing and emailing people, doing big visual stunts on campus, and ensuring everyone knows about the planned action. Then, once you have the numbers and the leverage, it’s time to strike.

Sargegno also stressed the importance of reaching out to non-campus residents to increase awareness and put additional pressure on the college. The UCL group got other radical housing groups involved and engaged in activities that ensured the group gained extensive media coverage, including holding mass demonstrations, blocking roads, holding banner drops, and using smoke grenades. They engaged the wider college community by organising fundraising parties and employing the talents of college society members to enliven their events.

Conor Reddy and Aislinn Shanahan Daly, who headed the meeting, outlined their plan to use Rent Strike UK’s advice as a template for action in Trinity. Campus accommodation is the ideal form of accommodation for which to organise a rent strike, according to them. It’s high-density, which means door-knocking and general drumming up of support is relatively easy. Trinity also has a reputation to uphold, and students’ very public dissent, in the city centre among paying tourists, makes them vulnerable and more likely to capitulate. College authorities are unlikely to evict dozens or hundreds of students given the public relations nightmare it would cause them, Reddy and others said.

“Reddy and several other attendees seemed eager to begin spreading the word at the next available opportunity.”

The floor was then opened up to discussion. There was a general sense of enthusiasm and determination to organise strike action, with one student suggesting further action such as a sleep-out, which received eager nods from many in attendance. Residents tacking posters to their doors declaring “I’m striking” was also suggested as a way to raise awareness and solidarity. The visibility of such a statement in Front Square, where tourists would be able to see, could be powerful, according to attendees. Several people also raised the issue of the campaigns demands – namely, that they should have specific ones established and published during the run up the striking. Reddy responded that those demands would be decided “throughout the campaign”.

The need for support from the Students’ Union was also emphasised by Shanahan Daly, who recalled how TCDSU’s mandate to support the Take Back Trinity campaign offered the Dining Hall occupiers some protection. Getting SU support might be difficult, some members of the group agreed. However Michelle Bryne, Deputy President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), who was present, offered her assistance, pledging resources and legal support. She said that she is hoping to make a document on organising rent strikes in Ireland, including legal advice, based on a similar one from Rent Strike UK.

Loose plans were made to organise a meeting for early next week. Reddy and several other attendees seemed eager to begin spreading the word at the next available opportunity; the fire safety talk for campus residents tomorrow evening. The campaign for a January rent strike is well and truly underway.

Aisling Grace

Aisling Grace was the Editor-in-Chief of the 66th Volume of Trinity News. She was also formerly Online Editor and Deputy News Editor.