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.”
Multimillion-pound rental firm demands thousands from homeless asylum seeker
5TH FEBRUARY 2021
by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party
A property firm with turnover in the millions is pursuing a campaigning asylum seeker for thousands through the courts. We say: Defend Lawanya – fight for tenants’ rights!
Last August, Latha Lawanya Ramajeyam found herself unable to make rent on her room due to the legal costs of her asylum case. She duly informed her property management, City Rooms, that she couldn’t continue her contract and would leave.
Unfortunately, tenancy laws are weighted in landlords’ and letting agents’ favour. Because her contract had no ‘break clause’, City Rooms is demanding several months of unpaid rent. With interest and costs, that’s £2,850 – and rising.
City Rooms – the trading name of Oliver Walton Ltd – last year filed a turnover of almost £21 million for 2019, with reserves above £978,000. Its total profit was just shy of £895,000, with shareholders receiving £850,000 dividends.
Meanwhile, Lawanya is penniless and couch surfing. She has offered her security deposit in full – but has nothing else to her name. City Rooms should face facts and set the balance aside.
And all this during the pandemic! The Financial Conduct Authority granted property owners the right to mortgage holidays. The government compelled councils to pull all the homeless off the streets. Tenant evictions were suspended. What possible justification is there for this claim?
Some rental firms may imagine migrant and asylum-seeker tenants more pliable due to their isolation and legal status. But despite her poverty, Lawanya is not alone.
Lawanya is an organiser for the Refugee Rights and Tamil Solidarity campaigns, and a member of the Socialist Party. The working class has an important tradition of defending its organisers from bullying and persecution, to prevent the boss class decapitating our movement.
We are therefore asking trade union branches to pass resolutions joining Lawanya’s defence. We will also be contacting City Rooms tenants to get organised to fight their own problems – which appear numerous according to online complaints.
And the Socialist Party will stand as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in this May’s elections on a programme to solve the housing crisis. For mass building of council homes and democratic rent caps. Secure tenancies for all, and the right to leave without extortionate debt claims!
- For model motions and more info, email [email protected]