‘Social housing, not social cleansing’ – the case of the Focus E15 Mums
This article was reposted with permission from the Green European Journal, where it first appeared on 22 May 2015.
The UK faces a housing crisis. It is this crisis, and the growing number of evictions that are mobilising people to campaign on housing. A group of young mothers fights back with direct action.
The roots of the UK housing crisis go back to the 1980s, when Conservative Governments sold off social housing, removed rent controls and security of tenure in the private sector, and unleashed a wave of cheap credit to encourage home ownership. This was part of a vision to create a ‘property-owning democracy’, but also a political strategy to attract working class voters and undermine the opposition. It was also designed to disempower local government, who provided most social housing, but received a fraction of the money from sales and were prevented from replacing the homes lost through privatisation.
Since then, social housing has shrunk and private renting and home ownership have grown in the UK. Thus, people have started investing more and more in housing, and the idea of owning your home has become a national obsession. In the meantime, prices for housing have gone up by a huge amount. Research from the charity Shelter found that the cost of the average home has risen from £5632 in 1971 to £245 319 in 2011. If the price of bread had risen by the same percentage as did housing , then a basic loaf of bread would today cost £4.36. This increase in house prices means fewer people can afford to buy apartments and that rents in the private sector have increased beyond wages. What this has left us with is a housing system that only works for those who can afford to buy a home, and even they recognises the system is unsustainable.
Scattered across the country
In the case of the Focus E15 Mums, a group of young mothers, the struggle started with their landlord, a housing charity, evicting them on the 20thAugust 2013. The charity had been getting funding from the local government to provide a hostel for homeless young single mothers. However, the charity said cuts to the budget handed down from national government meant this was no longer viable. The women were evicted and the local government were required by law to find them somewhere else to live. The offer was to scatter them across the country, forcibly displacing them from London to other cities where they had no family or support network.
And this is by far not an insulated issue. An investigation by the London Green Party found there has been a huge rise in rehousing outside London, from just 10 cases in 2010 to over 350 in 2014.
Some of the mothers were offered more local accommodation with private landlords who were charging unaffordable rents, and who could raise the rents further or evict them with little notice.
Their situation seemed to be unbearable, thus a campaign has started in Autumn 2013 with a street stall saying ‘Social housing for all’ in their local high street in Stratford, East London. Their aims were to stop their impending eviction, and instead be housed locally in secure and affordable social housing. Over weekend after weekend, their petition gathered signatures until it reached the thousands.
At the start of January 2014, members and supporter of the group took direct action. They occupied the offices of the housing charity and the local government housing offices. The use of direct action is something that many other groups are taking up, from targeting lettings agents, to storming an awards ceremony for bailiffs.
The campaign also put pressure on politicians. Robin Wales, the controversial Mayor of Newham, was confronted by members of the campaign at local events. This ultimately resulted in him losing control and shouting at the campaigners and then being disciplined for breaking conduct rules for elected officials. He later wrote an official apology to the families for their treatment, but blamed the London-wide crisis for the actions of the Council. The campaigners have continued to be critical of decisions made by the council, whose elected representatives are all from the Labour Party. They feel that there has been a deliberate strategy to ‘gentrify’ the area, something that’s easy to believe when you walk out of Stratford Station into the expensive shops and restaurants in the Westfield Centre mall.
Further direct action was taken in the Autumn of 2014, when the groupoccupied an empty house in the nearby Carpenters’ Estate. The estate had been partly emptied for demolition years earlier, but nothing had since happened. Over 400 homes lay empty, and, by occupying one of the homes, the group showed that people could live here. Following legal threats to the mothers, the council eventually backed down from legal action against the campaigners, and housed 40 people back on to the estate. However, there are still 400 empty homes on the estate with an uncertain future. Next to it are modern blocks of private flats built as part of the Olympic legacy.
Greens and a celebrity express their support
Other housing campaigns and political organisations, including the London Green Party expressed their support and solidarity for the E15 Mums. Support also came from an unlikely source, a wealthy celebrity. Russell Brand is known for his radical politics, and he lent his support to the campaign following the occupation.
The group is a fixture at radical housing events, demonstrations and actions. They have moved from the specific problem they were facing, to campaigning on the housing crisis in the UK. Usually they’re carrying a banner that says ‘Social Housing, Not Social Cleansing’, a phrase which has been adopted across housing campaigns. They are currently supporting a woman, Jane, who was evicted by the local government in Newham along with her 14 year old daughter, after losing access to state benefits due to failing one of the notorious ‘Work Capability Assessments’, and then falling into debt.
The group had recently occupied Jane’s flat in protest. One of the original E15 Mums, Jasmine Stone was arrested in the flat and bailed for ‘squatting’, despite leading a high profile campaign to stay in her own home elsewhere in Newham. According to fellow campaigners, the local government had deliberately waited until Jane was at a housing appointment at their offices before the Police were sent in to the house, but only Jasmine herself was arrested – leading many to think she was targeted for arrest.
Nationally, a housing movement is emerging. There are the established housing organisations, such as Housing Associations and other housing charities who came together under the banner of ‘Homes for Britain’ – a campaign that sought to ‘end the housing crisis in a generation’, but was criticised for its limited campaign aims. Outside of the establishment, another set of groups and campaigns, often related to local campaigns to stop the destruction of social housing, renter support groups, trade unions, and radical housing advocates has come together.
In January, 5000 protesters marched on and surrounded City Hall in London to demand rent controls, more social housing, and an end to estate demolitions. What these alliances can do to change housing under a Conservative Government is something that is unclear at the moment.
Fight for your right to housing
Visiting the campaign just over a week before the UK general election, the groups were running the stall followed by an action called ‘Cut Hair Not Homes’ in the Carpenters’ Estate. They are still pressing the Council to bring the 400 empty homes on the estate back into use and opposing the Council rehousing people out of London.
One of the campaigners handing out fliers, Belle Bepinal, an American student helping out the group explained what she was seeing in London, ‘People are getting evicted, communities are getting evicted and having to fight for their right to housing.’ Elsewhere in Newham, new housing projects are being built without any social housing components – something that the developers happily boast about in their advertising.
Thus it is no wonder that housing campaigning in the UK has grown. Groups like the Focus E15 Mums have taken a lead along with others who are directly affected by issues like evictions, rising rents, social cleansing, and the fundamental lack of decent housing in the UK. Successive governments have failed to tackle the roots of the crisis, and it is because of these campaigns that housing has become one of the key issues that politicians have to address.
At the broadest level, this means: how to keep housing affordable. At the UK elections in May all parties agreed on ‘building more’, but few believe in reducing inequality. Increasing access to home ownership was another area of consensus. However, Labour went further in committing to increase security of tenure and restrain rent rises in private rented housing. The Conservatives have pledged to extend the disastrous ‘Right to Buy’ policy, and further cuts to housing benefits. The Green Party, by contrast, stood out in its commitment to housing – pledging a huge increase in social housing, reform to private renting, ending tax breaks to landlords, and improving the condition of the current housing stock.
The condition of housing in the UK by the end of the new tory government will potentially be catastrophic. That means a further assault on housing rights and the end of social housing.
To oppose regressive and reactionary policy, campaigners need to grow stronger and work together. Perhaps then these movements can create their own alternative, even in opposition, and set the housing agenda for future governments.