Resisting the rentier city:

Grassroots housing activism and renter subjectivity in post-crisis London

Matt Wilde

Published in Issue 1.2 // The Long Read

Keywords: London, rentier city, housing activism, subjectivity, urban social movements


This article aims to open up a new discussion about the political potential of the renter to urban social movements by providing a ground-level view of renter activism in contemporary London. Drawing on participant observation conducted as an activist-researcher between 2015 and 2017, I offer an ethnographic social history of Digs, a private renters’ action and support group based in the east London borough of Hackney. Examining the political and organisational evolution of Digs over a six year period, I explore the group’s struggles to cultivate a coherent collective identity for renters, its innovative approaches to mutual support and relational organising, and the difficulties its participants encountered in maintaining participation in a highly intransigent political climate. I argue that although Digs was a relatively small and largely localised group, its members nonetheless cultivated a vital set of knowledge-practices that provided a conceptual and material framework for a citywide renters’ union in London. The case of Digs demonstrates that urban social movements are more likely to evolve effectively when they create the institutional capacity to retain key activists and pass knowledge on.

Matt Wilde is an anthropologist and Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester.

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