In June 1931, a Sydney hospital admitted a seven-year-old boy with a severely injured toe. When asked how he’d acquired the injury, the boy told doctors that another child had thrown a brick at him during a game. “We was playin’ evictions and I was a policeman,” he said, pointing to another small boy, “and he was a communist.”
The boys’ game was inspired by a real battle they had witnessed ten days earlier. It was one of many anti-eviction actions organized by the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) across Sydney to resist a wave of homelessness triggered by the Great Depression.
Unemployed and on The Street
During the early 1930s, in working-class areas of Sydney and Melbourne, unemployment peaked at more than 30 percent. Because welfare recipients were paid in goods or coupons, rather than money, and few owned homes of their own, the result was a wave of evictions. In poor suburbs, it was common to see bailiffs (today called sheriff’s officers) dumping furniture — and families — onto the road.
The confrontation that inspired the children’s game occurred on June 19, 1931, in Newtown, Sydney. As Iain McIntyre describes in his book Lock Out the Landlords! Australian Eviction Resistance 1929–1936, members of the UWM had barricaded themselves inside a house with sandbags and barbed wire to defend a family facing eviction.
When police attempted to force their way into the house, UWM members pelted them with bricks and stones. Eventually, the police broke through and violently ejected the UWM members. One man was shot and two others were hospitalized with fractured skulls. A crowd of locals — reportedly numbering in the thousands — heckled police as they attempted to leave the scene.
The UWM wasn’t only active in Sydney. In July 1930, in Brunswick, Melbourne, hundreds of unemployed split off from a protest march to prevent an eviction. According to firsthand accounts, a bailiff was already in the property marking furniture to be seized and sold when protesters flooded the house, pushing the bailiff onto a couch while “an enterprising gentleman tipped a dish of water over him.” The bailiff was then “bundled unceremoniously down the passage and thrown out of the house where they were seized upon by a crowd numbering several hundred.”
During the first years of the Great Depression, the UWM coordinated many actions like these. They set up local anti-eviction committees, approached renters at risk of eviction, and provided food, childcare, and help with moving. If the tenant wished, the UWM would organize an eviction defense. In the lead-up, the UWM would usually visit the landlord or real estate agent to warn them that an attempted eviction would be resisted. If landlords tried anyway, the UWM would chalk messages on footpaths or send bicycle riders around neighborhoods banging on tin cans, to stir up a crowd.
The UWM’s tactics were so successful that they won every single eviction case they took on during the first half of 1931.
The COVID-19 Rental Crisis
Just like the Great Depression, the COVID-19 crisis has hit tenants hard. A recent survey of fifteen thousand renters carried out by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) found that the vast majority of respondents reported that COVID-19 had adversely affected their employment, living environment, and ability to pay rent. Seven hundred and fifty respondents reported having received an eviction notice since the start of the pandemic.
Only one in three respondents had requested a rent reduction or deferral, or were planning to ask for one. Forty-two percent of those who applied were granted a rent reduction while another 30 percent had their request declined outright. Another 17 percent entered into a rent-deferral arrangement, effectively kicking mounting arrears down the road. When some tenants asked for a rent reduction, agents sent financial hardship forms, demanding personal information and often misleading tenants about their legal rights.
An earlier report from Tenants Victoria found that rent reductions were “hard-won” and generally lasted three months or less. It also found that real estate agents refused more than a third of requests, justifying their rejection with “no reason given.”
According to AHURI, despite near-universal hardship, the majority of renters were reluctant to ask for a rent reduction. This was mainly because tenants anticipated refusal, fearing that the request would jeopardize needed repairs or result in a tarnished rental record. Some real estate agents even sent tenants emails and letters telling them not to bother asking for any relief, and warning them that they would be penalized for falling behind on payments.
After state governments announced an eviction moratorium, the Tenants’ Union of New South Wales’ website received a year’s worth of traffic in a few days. Tenants Victoria experienced a 400 percent increase in people seeking help, many of whom were renters issued with notices to vacate after advising their landlord they had lost their job.
The year 2020 has highlighted renters’ relative legal powerlessness. Unlike banks and other financial institutions, landlords are not required to provide flexibility to a tenant facing hardship — although civil tribunals have some power to force their hand, pending a lengthy process. Indeed, Australia is one of the few developed countries that allows “no grounds” evictions, which some landlords have used as a loophole to boot tenants during the moratorium. Notices to vacate are still reportedly being issued, with the intention of evicting tenants the day after the moratorium is lifted.
Governments could have legally mandated rent reductions across the board, as some housing experts urged. Or they could have mandated rent reductions proportionate to loss of income, which were granted to commercial tenants. Instead, federal and state leaders simply asked landlords, real estate agents, and residential tenants to negotiate “in good faith,” despite the systemic insecurities and imbalances in the private rental market.
When the Moratorium Ends
The Renters and Housing Union (RAHU) was first conceived of during a national rent strike staged in 2020, which attracted seventeen thousand pledges to withhold rent and mortgage payments in its first month. Following a local organizing drive across Melbourne, RAHU was formally established in May.
Unlike Tenants Victoria — a government-funded body that provides legal advice to tenants — RAHU is a self-representing body of renters. They’ve already chalked up a few wins, in some cases helping tenants secure the waiving of debts as high as $12,000 by their landlords. They have also helped to block evictions through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Yet the fiercest battle for RAHU may come in March next year, when the final cuts to the JobSeeker and JobKeeper income subsidies hit, and when most eviction moratoriums expire. It’s a convergence that may set off a wave of evictions — especially if landlords and agencies keep rents high and enforce the payment of deferred rent.
RAHU secretary Eirene Tsolidis-Noyce says that if it comes down to it, RAHU is willing to resort to the type of tactics the UWM employed in the 1930s:
We live in a different society to the 30s, but fundamentally we still need a strong union. We need all renters to be organized collectively and join the union, to know their local fellow members, and to network together to protect each other against eviction . . . and if it requires a picket, that’s what it’ll take.
Fortunately, we don’t need to search as far back as the 1930s for proof that direct action is an effective anti-eviction strategy. In early 2018, Brisbane Greens councilor Jonathan Sri organized a picket that prevented the eviction of a single mother and her five children.
More recently, Sydney’s Housing Defence Coalition mobilized at the house of a recently unemployed New Zealand citizen and blocked her imminent, and potentially illegal, eviction. They also won rent suspensions and reductions at Sydney University Village and a commitment from the University of Sydney that no students would be evicted from university housing.
Will the Government Prevent an Eviction Crisis?
As researcher Vanessa Whittington notes, the eviction crisis of the early 1930s led to a few pieces of progressive — albeit short-lived — legislation. In NSW, the 1931 Reduction of Rent Act mandated a statewide 22.5 percent reduction in all rents. The 1931 Ejectments Postponement Act prohibited eviction without a court order.
However, following complaints from landlords and their representatives, the Ejectments Postponement Act was repealed a year later, after the Lang Labor government was sacked. The incoming Conservative government also weakened the Rent Reduction Act in favor of landlords. It remains to be seen whether state and federal governments today will have the courage to side with tenants against landlords and real estate agents — but the precedents are not encouraging.
This is why RAHU has issued ten demands including a twelve-month eviction ban, the waiving of all rental debts accrued during the pandemic, rent-reduction agreements set at below 30 percent of tenants’ income, and the application of penalties for landlords or agencies who refuse to negotiate with renters in good faith or breach renters’ rights. The demands of the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres are slightly less radical, but follow similar lines.
If governments don’t step up, tenants will have no option but to fight back. Organizing this type of resistance will be difficult in communities that have lost much of the social cohesion working-class neighborhoods had in the 1930s. Homeownership has also significantly increased since then, making renters a smaller and less powerful social force.
Nevertheless, RAHU has begun to flex its muscle. On November 30, the young union organized a peaceful protest against the potential eviction of forty people from an inner-city Melbourne hotel, which has been used as emergency accommodation during the pandemic.
RAHU says that most of those forced to leave emergency accommodation this week will have no alternative but to sleep rough, contradicting recent statements by the state government that anyone eligible for social housing would “remain in hotel accommodation until a supported home is leased or purchased specifically for them.” RAHU also warns that many have already been evicted or are at imminent risk of eviction, given that state government funding for emergency pandemic housing has now dried up.
As Tsolidis-Noyce says:
Due to insecure work, neoliberal policy and a global pandemic that has sent us into a decades-long depression, the stakes are higher than the 30s, but the power imbalance still remains.
Yet early indications show that RAHU is swimming with the tide. Just as in the Great Depression, community solidarity can force the government and landlords to back down — and save renters from eviction and homelessness.