Something big is happening on the streets of London right now.
Something that is getting bigger and noisier by the day. After years of rhetoric about ‘the housing crisis’, words are finally turning into action – direct action by radical protest groups.
London has long been at the epicentre of the UK’s housing crisis. But over the past 18 months, as house prices and rents have soared beyond the means of most normal people, residents of the capital have been taking to the streets in protest.
First came the Occupy movement. Then came a series of iconic protests: the young single mums who fought eviction from the Focus E15 foyer in Newham where they lived; the battle between a US private equity investor and the tenants of the New Era Estate who, led by comedian Russell Brand, fought off plans to hike rents; and the two-month occupation of the Aylesbury Estate in south London, where tenants faced eviction.
A rash of occupations, protests and marches have followed –many of which have won unlikely victories. These, in turn, have inspired new recruits struggling to pay soaring rents and galvanised not by the sight of just balaclava-clad activists sneering at police, but instead mums with buggies opening up flats on the boarded-up Carpenters Estate in east London.
The inexorable rise of housing activism in London has seen previously disparate interest groups coordinate and share resources. Social housing tenants facing the loss of their homes through regeneration projects have come together with private renters protesting sky-high rents; revolutionary communists joined forces with architects and planners; celebrities have joined with unions; and ordinary commuters without political allegiance have picked up banners to march alongside anarchists. Their common cause? The fight against the commodification of housing and the break-up of communities in London.
Battle lines are being drawn – and social landlords are being forced to choose a side. Local authorities and housing associations that have traditionally considered themselves as part of the solution to housing need are finding themselves accused of being part of the problem characterised by two words: ‘social cleansing’.
In this investigation, Inside Housing has taken an in-depth look at the movement, to report on what this change means for social landlords. Scroll on to find out who is behind the new wave of housing activists, what they want, how they are organised, the tactics they are deploying and what technologies they are using. Most crucially, we have examined how landlords are being caught in the cross-fire, and what role they should play in the rise of housing protests.
To take you inside the story, we have timelined its roots against policy events, attended protests and occupations with activists, and spoken to the landlords caught up in their action.
Is this the start of a significant new housing movement? And if so, what is the role of social landlords?
The scale of the movement
The first questions you might be asking yourself are, just how widespread is this movement? And how many activist groups are there?
This interactive map of London has been put together by activists from the Radical Housing Network, and shows how many groups of residents and activists are protesting against regeneration and other developments they fear will displace them.
But who are the individuals who make up these groups?
Betty – Loughborough Estate
Betty (right in the photo above) is holding one side of a black banner with a simple message painted on it when we meet her. It reads: ‘Guinness – stop the evictions’.
With two children, aged seven and eight, Betty works part-time in customer service. She is an assured shorthold tenant who has been living on the Loughborough Estate in Brixton, south London, for the last 10 years, which is now owned by Guinness Partnership housing association.
Betty has been fighting her landlord’s attempts to evict her for the last year.
She has pauses to talk to Inside Housing in the midst of a march at an anti-gentrification protest, Reclaim Brixton, last weekend. We talk loudly to be heard over protesters and tenants calling out for ‘social housing not social cleansing’. Some marchers are holding cardboard signs shaped like roofs over their heads, with messages such as, ‘Mi casa is political’, and, ‘Mi casa is Brixton’, and, ‘Don’t f*ck with mi casa’.
Betty says that traditional campaigning hasn’t worked. ‘I did everything possible before the occupation. The days of just protesting and marching are over,’ says Betty. She then adds passionately: ‘Tenants need to take part in direct action just to have a dialogue.’
Although the campaign by Loughborough Estate’s tenants has been going on since 2012, it is only recently that it has turned to direct action, drawing support from other protest groups and blockading the development to stop construction deliveries.
‘I think 125 years ago, the whole point of Guinness was to help working poor to get decent homes. They’re slowly but surely become property developers,’ says Betty.
Betty recognises that as assured short-hold tenants, the residents don’t have a strong legal case. But they have lived on the estate for 10 years, many having children or becoming vulnerable in the meantime. ‘Legally we might not have rights, but morally I think the Guinness Trust [should accept responsibility]. They have shifted their policy and they have housed a few since February,’ she says.
Guinness has got a possession order for the remaining tenants,including Betty, which is due to be enforced at the end of the week, as Inside Housing was going to press. But Betty says: ‘We’re going to resist every eviction.’
Aysen – Aylesbury
Aysen Dennis (main picture) has lived on the Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle for 22 years, as a council tenant. ‘For the last 15 years, I have been campaigning to stop gentrification,’ she says.
But she sees this as a new moment in the residents’ campaign. ‘This moment is different,’ she says. ‘It’s a housing movement. We are growing each day.’
We are in the middle of Windrush Square in Brixton, where her claim is being evidenced. More than a thousand people have gathered for Reclaim Brixton.
Later on, protesters will break the window of the local Foxtons, and try to occupy both Lambeth Town Hall and the police station. But for now, the atmosphere is more of a family event.
Aysen is one of the campaigners who have been brought here because she is on the sharp end of London’s housing crisis. The Aylesbury Estate is set to be demolished as part of plans to regenerate the Elephant, a diverse and run-down part of south London which uncomfortably clings to a pedestrian-repellent roundabout.
With bright scarlet hair, tied up with a bright blue bow, Aysen is holding onto a hand-painted banner, which shows the estate with every window glowing with light and filled with people. ‘Fight for Aylesbury’, the sign says. ‘Housing is a right –resist, repopulate, reclaim’.
She believes that the times have changed because more and more Londoners struggle to afford housing. ‘They want to make London a rich person’s city. We are reclaiming our city.’
Geraldine – Architects for Social Housing
Geraldine Dening (on the right in the photo above) works out of her flat in a tower block on the Lambeth Council Cotton Gardens Estate in Kennington. With artistically scuffed walls, mid-20th century furniture and a suit of chainmail, it’s no surprise an architect lives here. From the high-rise flat, all of London is spread out before us.
Directly below, however, is a small collection of 33 single-storey houses, called Knight’s Walk. Lambeth Council wants to demolish these houses.It was after learning of the plans that Geraldine got involved in the housing activist movement, and she has since set up a group called Architects for Social Housing (ASH) to bring others on board. So far, about 150 people have joined the Facebook group.
Geraldine has been able to use her expertise to help the Knight’s Walk residents to make their case more effectively. She shows me her sketched plans, worked out with the residents, which would allow Lambeth to build more homes on the estate without having to demolish the existing homes.
Geraldine and the other protesters hope to use the architect-drawn alternative plans to get the council to change direction.
‘Yes in my backyard, but not actually on my home,’ is the rallying cry of Knight’s Walk.
Stepping inside one of the homes, it’s easy to see why the current residents are protective. Each of the houses has an enclosed garden. Inside, all is peaceful. It’s hard to even see the tower blocks just next door.
Mary Van de Water, aged 72, has lived here since 1997 and is part of the campaign. Every surface of her home seems to be covered in arty wall hangings. The retired teacher-trainer and former employee of homelessness charity Shelter even has a loom.
‘I think it’s an absolute tragedy that our lives have been reduced to fighting for the basics of existence,’ Mary says.
While other groups have tried occupations and direct action,it’s not yet clear if the Knight’s Walk’s more conciliatory approach will work.
The radical left
Class War’s banner, adorned with a red skull and crossbones and anarchic style, is visible at many housing protests that Inside Housing attends.
But it is just one of the radical groups that are involved in the housing movement.
Focus E15, for example, has been supported by the Revolutionary Communist Group. It came about because one day, Jasmine Stone from Focus E15 walked past the group’s stall in Stratford. Jasmine picked up a leaflet and started to talk to the people on the stall, including Saskia O’Hara, a 23-year-old assistant to a music agent.
‘We helped them out with the stall space,’ Saskia says. ‘It was completely led by them.’
Despite being a revolutionary party, on housing protests at least, the revolution doesn’t get a mention.
Bill Perry from Lambeth Housing Activists, says: ‘You have this merging of people who are fighting to defend their homes – and that's a bitter fight – and people who have slightly different political traditions, but everybody is affected by the housing crisis.’
Alex Hilton, director of Generation Rent, agrees: ‘A lot of these organisations used to be radical left. It’s amazing to see how these organisations have now sucked in more mainstream support. People who wouldn’t even see themselves as left wing are joining. It’s normal people – not just traditional activists. It’s people being put in harm’s way by the housing crisis.’
Theo Middleton, a founder of the Radical Housing Network, jokes: ‘We need to rebrand as most of our members have not been radical activists before.’
So what are the activists doing to propel the housing crisis into the public eye? And how are they being organised?
To find out, for the last few weeks we have reached out to tenant and activist groups across London, and attended protests and occupations. Here is a tiny slice of what we found.
My experience of an occupation, by Jess McCabe
I am one of the 13,000 people who have ‘liked’ Focus E15 on Facebook. So on a Friday a few weeks ago, I received this message:
Focus E15 campaign invites you to a secret housing action on Saturday 11 April 2015.
Come to the weekly stall to get directions. 12-2pm outside Wilko's on the Broadway, Stratford E15 1NG
Bring your oyster card...
Turning up the next day on Stratford Broadway, I find the Focus E15 group jammed in between some road works and the budget shop Wilko’s. Activists are draping their banners over the fencing. Focus E15 and their supporters come here week in, week out.
At first, no one will say what today’s protest or ‘action’ is going to involve, but I get given a flyer which explains it’s about Jane Wood. Jane was evicted by Newham Council on 24 March, after getting into rent arrears. She’d lived in her flat for 21 years, with her teenage daughter, Raven.
Jane is excited, talking to people on the stall and some of the passers by who stop and take a leaflet. She has got dressed up for today, and she’s wearing make-up – she’s drawn a beauty spot on her cheek. She tells me she has bipolar disorder and had been on disability benefits, but after being assessed, she was told she was fine to work. Spiralling into depression,she stopped paying rent. Letters came and went unanswered.
(Later, a Newham Council spokesperson explains: ‘We have continually engaged with the individual to make sure she had proper access to the benefits she was entitled to. She didn’t engage with us. We are assisting her with a range of issues at the moment to ensure that she and her children get a sustainable home for the future.’)
In the end, Jane was evicted. She did try and pay off her£3,000 of arrears on the day, with money from her parents, she explains, but at that stage the council refused to put off the eviction.
Over the next two hours, the crowd gets bigger – other journalists have turned up, ranging from local radio to an Italian magazine.
We still don’t know what is going to happen – but then one of the activists takes up a microphone and starts to give a speech. ‘Our action today will be one of repopulation,’ she calls out. The secret is out. The activists will be occupying the flat that Jane has been evicted from.
A small, slightly rag-tag group of maybe 20 protesters starts off walking down the street – in the end, we don’t need travel cards, as we walk slowly down Stratford Broadway. Some of the shoppers are interested and take flyers, some less so. One of the protesters, Matt, an artist who regularly helps out at the stall, tells me he’s just heard someone say that troubled tenants are just ‘skivers’.
Families with children are here, and young professionals, as well as seasoned activists. Janice Graham, 58, and mum of one of the original Focus E15 protesters, is one of the protesters. With piercing blue eyes, she explains she was never political before her daughter was told to leave the hostel and be rehoused far away, which would have made it hard to see her grand daughter.
Among the other activists is a teacher’s assistant who has seen children forced to leave her class because their parents can’t afford to live in London any more. A young girl takes her turn on the microphone, and is coached through how to get the crowd to chant.
Finally, we get to Jane’s block of flats, at 12 Kerrison Road. Although today has been staged as Jane’s ‘welcome home party’, in fact some activists came here last night and broke through the brown metal door installed by the council after Jane was evicted. They hang a banner out of the window, which says ‘Jane come home’.
I stop and talk to one of Jane’s former neighbours, Evelyn Nantua, who is looking out the window at the protests from the building’s stairway. ‘Of course it is a good thing,’ she says when referring to the occupation. ‘They’re not bad people,’ she adds of Jane and Raven, who she has known for 11 years.
Inside, the flat has already been gutted. Wallpaper and flooring has been stripped out, as have the cooker and fridge, because the council was about to renovate it for new tenants. The activists say this is a ‘political occupation’, which differentiates it from squatting – the intention isn’t to live here permanently. A sign posted to one of the doors in the flat is a legal explanation of why the protest isn’t banned under laws which make squatting a criminal offence. Activists start to bring food, drink and sleeping bags.
Jane is surrounded by journalists and photographers, and now she looks shaken. ‘It feels weird. Very weird,’ she says, looking around the room which used to be her daughter’s bedroom. ‘It doesn’t look like mine. It looks horrible.’
But after about half an hour, Jane is in the kitchen smoking and seems to have rallied. ‘I’m going to stay here,’ she says. ‘They’re going to have to bulldoze me out.’
The next Monday, the council and police come to take back the flat, and Jasmine Stone from Focus E15 and one of the most recognisable faces of the housing movement, is arrested. Between Jane’s story and Jasmine’s arrest, the group gets plenty of coverage in the media:
And in the end, it wasn’t necessary for Jane to stay until she was forced out – the council swiftly arranged temporary accommodation. She also has a promise of a new tenancy in the borough, once her arrears have been cleared. How much of a role the activists played in this outcome, or whether it would have happened anyway, is hard to say and not something that the council will comment on when I phone them up a few days later.
However, Bill Perry of Lambeth Housing Activists, is emphatic. He says: ‘Individuals can get a better outcome through being represented and getting organised – the trouble is, most aren't.’
So we’ve got a housing movement – but why is it taking off now?
After all, protests are nothing new. Estates like Loughborough, Aylesbury and Carpenters have become emblems of the new housing movement. But the disputes between residents of the estates and their landlords have been going on for decades in some cases.
Some activists simply say the housing crisis is getting worse so it is becoming a mainstream issue. Eileen Short, chair of one of those old-school housing campaigns, Defend Council Housing, puts it like this: ‘The housing crisis is forcing a whole new generation into the struggle. We are creating a whole new housing movement.’
But activists are also using different and more effective tactics to organise themselves.
Looking at protests that have been successful, the anatomy of the success from the new housing movement involves the following:
1. Take direct action
2. Use social media
3. Mutual support
4. Get celebrities on board. We’ve seen comedians such as Russell Brand and Eddie Izzard lending their names to campaigns, which has helped activists
5. Get the media interested
The result has often been widespread national media coverage, and real successes for people who turn to activist groups for help. And, as one group charts up a success, others are taking inspiration. Even more than Russell Brand, however, it is direct action that has come to define the housing movement.
‘Campaigns like Focus E15 have really shifted the ground, and there’s a sense that it’s given inspiration to local people, to people living on estates, but there’s a sense there’s a movement, and things are becoming more networked, more linked up,’ says Katya Nasim, an activist who has helped to organise a number of protests, such as the March for Homes in January and a recent occasion when activists turned up outside an awards ceremony for developers earlier this month.
‘There’s a sense that a march isn’t enough – there’s a sense that direct action has to happen,’ she says.
Use of Twitter and Facebook has helped the campaigners draw rallying cries from supporters online.
Activists document moment to moment updates on social media as protests go on, and often directly address the housing chief executives and councillors who they are also protesting against in person. On occasions such as when Jasmine Stone was arrested, social media was used to encourage supporters to call out for more supporters to help activists make a stand.
And the housing sector is watching – followers on Twitter include the head of policy at the National Housing Federation and the official Twitter feeds of numerous housing associations.
And that was even without the intervention of celebrity supporters – for example, Russell Brand not only spoke out in support of Focus E15, but made videos of him visiting the different protests.
But that’s not the only use of technology and networks. Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth, for example, runs an ‘anti-eviction phone network’. The purpose of the line is to ‘help spread information on evictions and take action with residents against possession orders’, according to its website. You only need to text the number to join it.
Alex Hilton, director of the campaign group Generation Rent, says: ‘Mailing lists mean that political activists are quickly coming to the aid of people who are in trouble. With their help, they are getting results. And then those people remain as political activists and continue campaigning. Adversity is driving activism. Young and old are joining campaigns without any ideological motivation.’
Turn up to any protest in London, and you’ll find not only the organisers, but campaigners from a host of other campaigns. That might be residents of a different estate, or anti-gentrification campaigners.
Theo Middleton is a former squatter who got involved in housing activism after the government criminalised squatting. She is one of the founding members of the London Radical Housing Network which has coordinated much of the action.
‘There seemed to be a growing number of groups fighting housing issues in London, but without very strong relationships between them,’ Theo explains. ‘We felt that each of the issues that people were fighting – regeneration of particular estates, rights of private renters, criminalisation of squatting, loss of social housing – would be greatly strengthened by seeing them as symptoms of the broader housing crisis.’
Inside Housing sits in on one of the Radical Housing Network’s meetings held at a Unite office in north London.
Around 20 people – an equal split of age and gender – each representing different protest groups around the capital, are seated around desks. There is an air of polite restraint as big personalities attempt to table their disparate agendas without treading on toes.
There is slight awkwardness as introductions are made and the chair of the meeting, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Unf*ck the world’, attempts to maintain a formal structure. Someone agrees to take minutes and momentum builds as they go through the agenda. All the groups share updates, their current concerns, and then their respective plans for a coordinated weekend of action on 25 April. Tasks – often involving banners, flyers and mailing lists – are delegated to specific individuals. Plans for the coming weeks are shared and collective priorities are discussed. This is how support and resources are being shared.
Union support has also been helpful – for instance, Unite has around 1,700 community members in London, many of which are involved on estates. But the unions themselves say they are supporting a genuine grassroots movement. This support entails offering up resources such as meeting spaces, transport and organisational help, as well as training in public speaking and social media.
‘It’s a wide new influx of individuals who haven’t been involved in politics before. It’s a range of people from a range of backgrounds putting aside their differences to work together,’ says Pilgrim Tucker, community organiser at Unite.
‘One of Britain’s highest paid social housing bosses has been accused of social cleansing over plans to evict low-income tenants to make way for multimillion-pound private homes in one of London’s richest enclaves.’
The opening sentence of this Guardian newspaper story published in February will have filled chief executives of housing associations across the capital with dread.
It could have been about any one of them.
The majority of London housing associations have plans to regenerate their ageing estates, and all will be relying on the sale of new build homes to pay for the development of social housing. Notting Hill Housing Association, Guinness Partnership, East Thames Group, Genesis Housing Association, Peabody, Poplar HARCA, Newham Council, Lambeth Council, Hackney Council, and Barnet Council have all been subject to allegations of ‘social cleansing’ with increasing regularity in the past year.
This time it was Keith Exford, chief executive of 60,000-home Affinity Sutton who was personally called out by activists. The association is at the centre of a row about the reduction of social rented housing in the proposed redevelopment of the Sutton Estate in Chelsea, west London.
To pay for the social rented homes, Affinity Sutton is selling 25% of the homes on the open market. It has promised replacement social homes to all its tenants – but not to the council tenants living in homes being used as temporary accommodation. Comedian and London mayoral hopeful Eddie Izzard is leading protests by those facing eviction, arguing that Affinity Sutton is betraying the legacy of founder William Sutton who paid for the estate to be built in 1913.
This is hardly a new scenario; landlords have built market sale homes to help pay for redevelopments for years, a practice known as cross-subsidy. But now, the minority protest has found a bigger voice in the interconnected activist movement.
Every case is being used as a symbol of a bigger crisis: unaffordable rents pushing more and more people out of the capital. And where housing associations and local authorities were once considered to be part of the solution, they are now being viewed as part of the problem: social cleansing.
This poses a serious dilemma: how should landlords respond to the charge that their increasing commercialism is coming at the expense of housing the needy – and what could be the consequences of being caught in the crossfire of growing activism?
The immediate threat is one of perception. Landlords are robust in rejecting any allegations of neglecting their social purpose in favour of profit.
‘The easy thing for us to do would be to refurbish the estate,’ says Mr Exford of the Sutton Estate. ‘But spend £50m doing it on accommodation that is still substandard and might last 30 years - is that the best way to spend money? It is a loss of capacity to build homes elsewhere – up to 250 of them. These decisions are hard to take, but they are, economically, the right ones. And if people don’t like it, then they will use the allegation of social cleansing because you will lose social housing to be cross-subsidised by new build market sale.’
Many social landlords believe they are being unfairly punished for doing what was asked of them by government: filling the subsidy gap left by coalition cuts to grant funding (not to mention the ending of grant for social rented housing) by charging higher rents and relying on market sale homes. Several feel they are victims of their own new-found commercial success. They also argue that in the majority of cases, regeneration schemes maintain the number of social homes and improve areas by creating mixed communities.
‘As soon as you put any houses for sale on it – which you need to do to make the numbers work – then you get accused of social cleansing,’ complains Brendan Sarsfield, chief executive of 24,000-home Family Mosaic, and chair of the G15 group. ‘We need to get beyond that if we are to regenerate London. The cases in which landlords are accused of social cleansing that I see, that isn’t true. It’s for political purpose. I don’t want to stifle activism, but people have to really understand that there are huge challenges for us without huge sums of public money being reinvested.’
Kate Davies, chief executive of 30,000-home Notting Hill Housing Association, also comes out fighting. In February her organisation, along with development partner Southwark Council, had to call in riot police to forcibly evict protesters who had barricaded themselves into the Aylesbury Estate in south London which is earmarked for a £1.5bn regeneration scheme, following a 5,000-person March for Homes. As a result, she has is acutely aware of the criticisms levelled against landlords by activists.
‘Do I really think we are losing the plot? No I do not – the opposite. It is a very difficult environment to provide for the neediest and we have become very creative at ways of doing that without any cost to the taxpayer,’ she says.
The most frequent allegation levelled against councils and housing associations is that communities are being priced out to the fringes of the capital while ‘perfectly good’ homes earmarked for regeneration lie empty. Landlords are especially wounded by this accusation. This is partly because they don’t believe the homes are in a good state – but mostly because they feel it is precisely their attempts to ensure homes that would otherwise lie empty ahead of demolition are being let out to homeless Londoners that is leaving them to be vulnerable to attack over evictions.
Ms Davies cites the Sweets Way Estate in Barnet, north London, as a case in point. There, Notting Hill has attracted yet more negative publicity – this time due to evictions at homes it is managing on behalf of private developer, Annington, which were let out on a short-term basis to Barnet Council. After receiving planning consent in December to replace the 142 former military homes with 288 new ones, of which 59 are affordable, and none social rent, the protests against eviction of families living there won the support of comedian Russell Brand who joined a high-profile occupation of some of the boarded up homes. Ms Davies is adamant that none of the parties involved have done anything wrong.
‘We were slightly surprised because it is temporary housing,’ she says. ‘We explained to people when they moved in, explain to them all the time while they are waiting for something to come up, and then telling them a year before it ended that it was going to end in a year, and then trying to work with them to help them move on – and only evicting them right at the end. I feel that Notting Hill did absolutely 100% proper process there. However, people living there believed that they were in social housing.’
To date, many of the protests have tasted victories; people have been locally rehoused, plans have been changed, there have been high-profile apologies, and things that were previously not possible have become possible. But there is a danger of unintended consequences.
One housing association chief executive, who did not want to be named, warns that the mounting protests against evictions meant his organisation would cease letting empty properties on a short-term basis to the council to be used as temporary accommodation for homeless people. ‘If I were doing a regeneration scheme now, I would never use homes on a short-term basis because of the risk of creating another group that might try and prevent regeneration happening,’ he says.
Worse still, landlords warn there is a serious threat that activism could reduce local authorities’ appetite for undertaking regeneration – which, perversely, would mean fewer affordable homes get built in the capital.
Mr Exford says he is aware of this concern. ‘We have had discussions with a couple of other councils in London and they are very, very nervous about it because they can see the political damage that gets caused by doing the right thing.'
It is this fear that underlies many landlords’ belief that the activists’ efforts are ‘counter productive’. More than this, there is also a fundamental disagreement about the legitimacy of the activist network’s claim to represent the views of people on the estates subject to regeneration plans. For example, Southwark Council’s main complaint against activists at the Aylesbury Estate occupation was that they ‘didn’t speak for local residents’.
Simon Dow, chief executive of Guinness Partnership, which is being targeted by activists over the eviction of assured shorthold tenants on its Loughborough Estate scheme in Brixton, is clear he has little time for activists with no local link who oppose redevelopment out of principle.
‘Obviously for the local tenants we have a very important responsibility to explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and where they fit into that. And we also feel a responsibility to local residents who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are impacted by that.'
The growing sense that the new movement of activists aren’t interested in listening to, or understanding, the challenges faced by social landlords undertaking regeneration is adding to this frustration.
An exasperated Mr Exford says that communicating the complexities in simple terms is proving a problem for landlords. ‘In an era of social media, your opponents can say just about whatever they’d like to say, and it is quite difficult as an organisation to counter it.
‘One of the allegations we had [on the Sutton Estate] was that we were going to make £500m profit from selling 100 homes. They moderated that now to £200m. Bear in mind that we have to build around 350 homes paid for by the sale of 100. If after doing that we are going to make a profit of £200m, then that’s a £2m profit on every flat we sell. Well, if we could do that we would be very clever.’
He rails against the credibility the backing of celebrities gives these claims and the media attention they then attract.
‘Then you get the personalised campaigns about the directors that are going to make a personal fortune out of it,’ he adds. ‘They say, “Well hang on a minute, you are charitable housing associations; no profit gets redistributed, you made £75m profit last year – where has that gone?” [But they don’t understand] it has gone into building new homes. The story is pretty difficult to manage.’
The protesters dispute Affinity Sutton's use of figures around costs and profits. A spokesperson for the residents facing eviction, Save our Sutton group (which describes its members as local community campaigners rather than activists), adds: ‘We all understand the necessity for housing associations to raise money through the sale of properties, but at the Sutton Estate they [Affinity Sutton] are using this as an excuse to cash-in on London property prices to the detriment of social housing residents, the Chelsea locals, the borough and London.’
Such attacks appear to be fuelled by mounting suspicion among protesters about housing associations’ increased commerciality.
A video on The Guardian website demonstrates this as Mr Izzard visits the Sutton Estate and stubbornly bats away attempts at explanation from Affinity Sutton’s spokesperson for the need to sell homes to pay for the social housing: ‘It looks like you’re trying to be a commercial operator like [house builder] Barratt,’ he snaps.
Most protesters share Mr Izzard’s disinterest towards arguments that revolve around money. These are dismissed as corporate excuses dealt out in order to avoid engaging in moral arguments about housing London’s poorest.
Indeed, many activists do not even accept the fundamental premise that the estates require regeneration. ‘If you look around the estates, they don’t need doing up,’ claims Pilgrim Tucker, community organiser at Unite Communities. ‘There is a trust issue based on people’s experiences. Very few of these schemes don’t include a loss of social housing.’
Similarly, Theo Middleton, a teacher, former squatter and one of the founding members of the Radical Housing Network simply doesn’t believe the cost arguments presented to justify breaking up communities. ‘It doesn’t require mass evictions. Regeneration is a dirty word, right? Every time there are lies. People get housed outside the borough temporarily on the understanding that they will be re-housed back in the borough later – but it doesn’t happen. There’s no longer trust. People speak about evictions so glibly – but they have such huge human cost.’
Ms Davies feels this perception does social landlords a disservice. Like many others, she points to the fact that housing associations and activists share a lot of common ground; both want to maximise social rented housing and see more genuinely affordable housing built. ‘The injustice and anger that’s there – I think it’s probably good that it is being expressed. But it is being channelled against housing associations in a way that isn’t fair. We are doing our best and really do have a desire to help the needy. It’s not our role to decide who is the needy.’
The activists reject this. ‘Everyone’s hands are always tied,’ says Grace Lally, a protester from Lambeth Housing Activists, a resident of the Loughborough estate and long-standing activist. ‘If they don’t agree with the situation, then do something – they are supposed to be the charities!’
Theo cites the Homes for Britain campaign as evidence of a lack of conviction. Why, she argues, would social landlords align themselves with the interests of property speculators rather than calling for more social housing funding? ‘They are just developers trying to cash in on the crisis. There wasn’t one grassroots organisation there. There’s also this narrative of “must build, must build”; I am mistrustful.’
Other campaign groups speak of their distrust of this campaign. Saskia O’Hara, a 23-year-old supporter of Focus E15 and Revolutionary Communist, sums up a feeling expressed to Inside Housing multiple times by different campaigners. ‘Is that an inclusive housing campaign? No, it’s not. People are angry about housing, but it’s like trying to put a damp cloth on it.’
Youth subculture magazine Vice – usually a sound litmus test for the views of the jilted generation (largely young renters) – was one of the first to pan the campaign, branding it a ‘sham’ for similar reasons. Similarly, Alex Hilton, director of Generation Rent, exited the campaign earlier this month on the grounds it was not asking enough of government.
Nick Atkin, chief executive at Halton Housing Association, based in the north west of England, far outside the capital, understands this perception but passionately defends the galvanising value of the campaign.
‘It’s the first time in my 21-year career that I have felt part of a wider sector and a wider purpose outside my organisation. Why was that? Because I think we had an aim no one could argue with… Everybody deserves a good quality home, not just in the social rented sector. The looseness of the campaign is its strength. But I think landlords need to work with activists at a grassroots level and enable their message to come through as well.’
Some social landlords have already worked with activists. For instance Labour-led Hackney Council backed the campaign of the New Era tenants and applied pressure on Westbrook Partners and the Benyon Estate throughout to find a solution that would not result in rent hikes and evictions. This also involved working alongside MPs and trade unions. Philip Glanville, cabinet member for housing at Hackney Council, recalls Russell Brand handing out sausage rolls on one of the three buses that went from Hoxton to Downing Street for the protest. ‘That was really interesting because you could see Russell knew every kid’s name. [MPs] Meg Hillier and Diane Abbott joined us during the march, and we went to Downing Street.’
In the weeks that followed, the council applied pressure on Westbrook to sell the estate, and the London mayor eventually followed suit. This was an extraordinary case that involved a private not social landlord, but given some Labour councils have previously fought against the introduction of affordable rent in their boroughs at the High Court, there may be other future campaigning alliances too.
Social landlords do share a lot of common ground with the current wave of activists. Most housing associations in London have warned that affordable rent is not genuinely affordable to many of the people they would normally house. Indeed, the average affordable rent charged by social landlords in London is 63% of the market rate rather than the full 80% the government has encouraged them to charge.
Tom Murtha, chair of the housing charity HACT, a former housing association chief executive, and one of the founders of campaign group SHOUT (Social Housing Under Threat), says that the wave of activism reminds him of the housing sector activists who set up many housing associations in the 1960s and 1970s in response to housing need. He recalls how, in the 1980s, social landlords took to the streets to protest against Thatcher’s attempts to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations.
‘I feel a lot of sympathy for them,’ Mr Murtha says. ‘I see people who are like the people I worked with when I first joined the housing sector. They came [into housing] because they wanted to change the world. They were willing to take direct action to do that.’
Steve Stride, chief executive of 9,000-home Poplar HARCA housing association in east London, believes it is up to landlords to convince activists that they are ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ by opposing regeneration. ‘These activists are firing at the wrong target and that is a message we have to get to them. We – local authorities, housing associations and government – need to counter this with a positive message about regeneration. We need to win hearts and minds.’
It seems like there should be a common cause. On the one side are activists wearing ‘I love council housing’, on their T-shirts and banner - and on the other side, are the charities that invest billions into building those social homes.
However, all the signs show activists aren’t that interested in being won over by the sector.
When asked whether the Radical Housing Network would consider working with social landlords, Theo is dubious. ‘I don’t know… Of course there are good, well-intentioned people working in these organisations, but… I don’t know if it is helpful. The outcomes when you sit down with power holders aren’t good. We get disarmed. Until we have as much power, I don’t see that working.’
Mr Hilton agrees: ‘Housing associations are the activists’ natural ally, but they [activists] aren’t there yet.’
Guinness Partnership’s Mr Dow is not too worried by the perceptions of the activist movement at present. ‘I think when you deal with that other group [non-resident activists] that believe any housing association is likely to not be up to any good no matter what it is doing, then I think it makes it very difficult, realistically, for us to persuade them. I think we shouldn’t worry too much about them; it will divert our resources away from helping the people who are really important to us: residents, tenants and local politicians.’
That said, if the activists’ point of view becomes more widespread among tenants, then Mr Dow accepts that landlords will face problems.
‘If we can’t persuade our residents that what we are doing is a good idea, then I think we have to worry about whether it is a good idea.’
The big question underlying the rise in housing activism is what does it mean? Is it a fleeting period of high-profile wins by a loud group of protesters, or is it the start of something much bigger?
This is a question that even those such as Simon Dow, chief executive of Guinness Partnership, are acknowledging. ‘Are we reaching some kind of tipping point for housing?’ Mr Dow asks. ‘If the current group of social activists became representative of a much larger part of the population, then I think housing associations should rightly take that to heart, and ask whether we are getting our message across.’
If landlords fail to do so, whenever they attempt to carry out estate regeneration they will increasingly face blockades, occupations and damaging PR.
The activists have already demonstrated that seemingly immovable objects can be moved if enough people make enough noise. The extraordinary victories won by the Focus E15 mothers and the New Era tenants have inspired a new wave of direct action.
Theo Middleton from the Radical Housing Network speaks of the infectious sense of ‘empowerment’ at being able to force outcomes through direct action. These stories seem to show that change is possible. ‘That’s why it is exciting,’ she says. ‘I hope people see this as a realisation that if you can’t pay the rent or the mortgage it isn’t your fault.’
Social landlords are critical of activists who don’t live on their estates but still turn up and protest against regeneration projects. Yet it is exactly this wider appeal, beyond a single estate or tenants’ dispute, which has the potential to propel this movement in the future.
Alex Hilton, director of Generation Rent, describes London’s housing market as a pressure cooker that can only lead to one outcome. ‘All the signs are that activism is only going to get bigger. London is the crucible of the housing crisis; the problem will get worse. It will get worse until a politician sees it as an opportunity to get more votes.’
That opportunity is approaching. A YouGov poll of what issues matter most this week found that across England, housing has become the fourth biggest concern – and in London housing has risen to second place after the economy. At present, few of the major parties have many meaningful policies for renters. Instead, most pledges are likely to ensure house prices continue to inflate. However, Generation Rent has calculated that, based on current trends, by the end of the next parliament, 100 constituencies will be dominated by renters, up from 38 in 2001 – so that might soon change.
Unite’s Pilgrim Tucker agrees: ‘The next London mayor will have to take that on.’
She also points out that the movement is no longer restricted to London. ‘There’s a building of activity in Oxford, Cambridge and some areas of the south east where house prices are very high. It’s getting bigger; there are new campaigns out all the time.’
John Flint, professor of town and regional planning at Sheffield Hallam University, brands the rise of housing activism over the past 18 months ‘incredibly significant’.
‘I have thought for a long time now that the increasing crisis in middle-class housing – the inability for young people to access homes, be they to own or rent – would be a catalyst to a kind of change in political landscape where more affluent families with young people would increasingly see that their interests were similar to some of the interests of the protester groups.’
Tom Murtha, former chief executive of the housing association Midland Heart and a founder of social housing campaign group SHOUT, believes that activists might even start their own housing associations. He suggests the conditions for a new, more ‘radical housing sector’ are in the air.
But while he believes momentum is building, Professor Flint is not yet convinced that the activists will become a serious force.
It would seem they are responding by throwing their weight behind this fledgling movement. Unite, which has been supporting the grassroots activists through its 1,700 London-based Unite Communities members, is now gearing up to add in its political lobbying resources. After the election, the union plans to launch a campaign of its own to lobby against regeneration schemes that propose any reduction in social rented housing called ‘Hands off London’ (since publication this has been renamed Trade Unionists for Housing - see image, right).
It will be difficult for housing associations and local authorities to respond, given there remains no public funding to build social rented housing. But this may prove to be the least of their worries. If the housing activism movement continues to grow, social landlords may be forced to adapt their approach to not just regeneration, but to everyday operations.
The targets of activism are likely to become much broader than just regeneration. Talking about the sector’s big campaign, for example, one activist told us they want ‘homes for people’ not Homes for Britain.
Rejection of commodification – treating a house like an investment rather than someone’s home – extends far further. As the case of Newham Council tenant Jane Wood demonstrates, evictions even for seemingly legitimate grounds such as arrears are being viewed as a symptom of commodification – and therefore fair game for direct actions such as occupation.
Battle lines are being drawn and landlords are being forced to choose a side: the side of the victims of the housing crisis, or the side of its profiteering creators. If a landlord is perceived to act in a way that falls the wrong side of this binary, then it can expect to be targeted.
Professionals working in social housing have their heart on the side of those in housing need. But however much they have in common with the protesters on the streets, the reality is that the sector has been forced to support its charitable objectives through commercial activity. As long as the protesters regard that as being at odds with helping those in housing need, social landlords will remain in the line of fire.