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"Rights are won not given" - London refugee wins housing debt campaign
In 2020, Latha Lawanya Ramajeyam, an asylum seeker at the time, was unable to make rent on her room due to the legal costs of her asylum case. Her property management, City Rooms, then pursued her through legal action for a punitive sum, including several months' rent on a room she had already vacated.
Lawanya is an organiser for the Refugee Rights and Tamil Solidarity campaigns, and a member of the Socialist Party. Following a campaign led by the Socialist Party, backed by trade unions and housing campaigners, court has been avoided and an affordable compromise negotiated.
"When I explained my situation to City Rooms in 2020, after ignoring me for weeks, they called me into a meeting. A City Rooms manager told me to get the money from loans or from family and pay.
I couldn't do this. He told me to return the key that day and get out, which I couldn't yet as I had nowhere to go.
He asked to see my bank statement as he did not believe how little money I have. I showed him my almost empty account balance on my mobile. He then said he would arrange for people to clear out the room by 3pm next day, and throw my things away.
I think there are a lot of migrants, international students and asylum-seeker tenants like me looking for single-room accommodation like this. Letting companies probably think we are more pliable due to our isolation and legal status. They did try to threaten my asylum status.
I offered my security deposit in full. I had nothing else to my name.
But because my contract had no 'break clause', City Rooms was able to legally demand several months of 'unpaid' rent on a room I had already left. They ignored my pleas, made no attempt to negotiate, and went straight to the small claims court.
You can't get lawyers who will represent you 'pro bono' in debt cases like this. But we found one who would at least help me enter a defence.
My local Socialist Party branch, East London, had been supporting me and planning a campaign to defend me. James Ivens from my branch negotiated with City Rooms on my behalf.
We made several compromise offers for part of the total sum on a weekly repayment schedule. City Rooms dismissed them, demanding large lump sums they knew I could not afford.
We asked trade union branches to pass resolutions in my defence. We planned an occupation of the City Rooms office on Saturday 17 April.
We occupied the Stepney Green office and handed in a letter saying we would be back if there was no movement. We explained to City Rooms workers that the action was against their boss, and urged them to join a union.
The London Renters Union also picketed their office in Stratford with leaflets explaining my situation. Every organisation which participated sent a message "that Lawanya has a campaign behind her that will not stop until the outrageous demands placed upon her are dropped."
The next day, after months of silence, City Room's director wrote to us offering to reach a deal! They also claimed they were 'not aware' of the weekly repayment offer we made during mediation. We set the record straight on that.
But their first offer went back on the agreed repayment rate, still demanded the full, punitive amount, and demanded the repayment rate be reviewed in six months. In six months it would be harder to rebuild campaign support and maintain the pressure.
So we did not accept this. We gave them seven days to respond, or we planned to start campaigning again.
We phoned City Rooms' director on the day of the deadline. He wanted to negotiate the whole thing, then and there. We stayed firm.
City Rooms agreed what we had put forward in the first place. We achieved a big reduction in the total amount, and an affordable repayment rate in my control.
During the call, City Rooms' director complained bitterly about our protest action. He told us "you know you've done wrong" and that it was "corrupted." It was clear this was decisive in winning talks, although he disagreed when we said that to him!
This is not a single-person victory. Tenants and the working class have won a victory.
Workers and tenants should understand from this our collective strength and unionise. The history of struggle shows that no rights are ever just given, they are won by people demanding and then fighting to get them."
In The Socialist 9 June 2021:
What we think
Lessons from history