Hoxton in Hackney was once one of the most working class areas in London. Today it’s better known for trendy bars and pop-up shops—and rents getting too high for many residents to afford.
Those who still live there know that greedy developers are eager for a chance to kick them out and turn their homes into more lucrative commodities.
But one group of tenants is taking a stand. And it could be the spark that ignites the powder keg of anger over housing that exists across Britain.
The 93 families on the New Era estate could be turfed out by Christmas so that New York property fund Westbrook can hike rents up to four times higher. But they won’t go without a fight.
“I just want to keep a roof over our heads,” said Lynsay Spiteri, one of three working single mothers who are heading up the new tenants’ association. “That isn’t much to ask.”
But as far as her landlords are concerned, it is. A consortium including US private equity firm Westbrook and led by the richest MP in parliament, Richard Benyon, bought up the estate this summer.
New Era homes had been let out at social rent rates, a legacy of their past as an estate built by a philanthropist developer in the 1930s. But the consortium instantly jacked up the rent—and warned that worse was to come.
They wanted to charge eye-watering market rents, effectively forcing tenants out. Tenants’ protests forced Benyon and his brother Edward to pull out. Then Westbrook tore up the plan and said it could evict tenants with just two weeks’ notice.
Beauty therapist Danielle Molinari told Socialist Worker, “It’s horrendous—these are our homes. Where are we going to go?
“My son might have to spend his third Christmas in a homeless shelter—who would want to have that on their conscience? It’s all down to people with no morals trying to get rich off the back of us.”
Many people have lived on the estate for years and it is home to multi-generational families. Lynsay fears her family and social network could be broken apart.
“My mum lives on the estate,” she explained. “She’s disabled, and I care for her. When my dad passed away I promised him I’d always look after mum. And I rely on her too, and my neighbours, when I suffer from anxiety.
“Now they’re saying us single mums could be put in a hostel for up to four years, and my mum put in sheltered accommodation. But these could be miles from Hackney and from each other.
“My mum would really deteriorate. And I could have to spend hundreds a month on the commute and more on childcare. It’s like the government is telling me to drop out of work and become just another unemployment statistic.”
The situation isn’t unusual, in Hackney or beyond. Gentrification has long spread from a few “up and coming” areas near central London to many poor outlying boroughs.
Housing is now the biggest concern for Londoners. Fears of being driven out of the capital are not limited to the very poorest.
And the landlords, financiers and developers have found willing accomplices at the top of councils and City Hall. Around 50 estates around London currently are set for demolition.
Others face redevelopment. For example, Waltham Forest council in north east London wants to empty and renovate two tower blocks, Fred Wigg and John Walsh. Their stunning views make them prime real estate.
But it would mean 230 families moving out until at least 2020, and many would never return. The council plans to sell one block to pay the bill.
Socialist housing campaigner Ben Morris went with 130 tenants to a consultation with the council. He told Socialist Worker, “You could tell the councillors had expected a small meeting and instead they had a really tough time. They held a vote, and it went against the council’s plan.
“Then 40 or 50 tenants got a minibus across the borough to the council’s meeting. The council called the police to have them ejected from the public gallery, while councillors voted unanimously to go ahead.
“And the language they were using—they talked about ‘changing the balance of the area’. That went down badly. It was obvious to everyone that meant moving out more of the poor people.”
Elsewhere tenants’ federations and Defend Council Housing (DCH) groups have campaigned against selloffs and demolitions. Benefit Justice groups and others sprang up to oppose the bedroom tax and the benefit cap that is driving out the poorest.
In Newham, east London, 29 homeless young mothers started the Focus E15 campaign. It is still active after more than a year. It recently forced Newham council to reopen part of the empty Carpenter’s Estate marked for demolition, and has organised protests to help others avoid eviction.
The Radical Housing Network called protests recently at the Mipim property fair, where council bosses schmooze with developers. It helped bring some of these campaigns together.
And a planned march on City Hall from the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, south London, on 31 January gives a focus for taking the fight further. The Aylesbury is marked for demolition, in the same borough as the vast Heygate Estate knocked down earlier this year.
Tanya Murat is from Southwark DCH in south London. She said, “There’s likely to be a toxic debate in the run-up to next year’s elections over who’s to blame for the housing crisis.
“This march will be a chance to intervene in that. We are clear that we point the finger at the Tory and Labour governments who’ve got rid of council housing. The government wants us to blame immigrants, while it subsidises developers to demolish public housing and replace it with luxury flats for the rich.”
In this atmosphere, the fight at New Era quickly struck a chord. It won the support of Russell Brand, who helped it win new levels of exposure. Across London and beyond people want to help the campaigners keep their homes.
But more than that they are desperate to see someone land a blow against the landlords, and start to turn the tide on the housing crisis.
Lindsey Garrett, an NHS care coordinator with an eight year old daughter, has lived on the New Era estate for 22 years. She chairs the newly formed tenants’ association.
Lindsey told Socialist Worker, “The campaign keeps getting stronger. When we got over the initial panic, we began to contact the press and then organised a meeting and started campaigning. We’ve had hundreds of people on a protest, and well over 200,000 have signed our petition—although we’d like to get to a million.”
Danielle added, “There are so many people going through this. If nothing is done everyone will be pushed out of London or will be homeless.”
Ben said, “The decline in living standards in London has been steeper than anywhere else in Britain because of rising housing costs. That’s hitting young people hardest, they are disproportionately forced into private renting.
“It’s not an easy issue to organise around but it has a lot of resonance—it affects every working class person in London.”
Trade unionists in particular are coming forward to back the campaign. Local union branches and Hackney trades council have donated money in support.
And after a barnstorming speech at the recent Unite the Resistance conference, tenants were invited to address a London meeting of the firefighters’ FBU union. It voted to give them £750.
Lindsey, Lynsay and Danielle spoke at a Hackney meeting of the People’s Assembly last week. Local activists promised to turn out on mass to block any eviction attempt—and even to call out their colleagues and strike.
Lindsey told them, “We want to set a precedent. Everyone is sick of the housing crisis. Everyone is sick of being pushed out of London.
“We want to make it impossible for them to ignore us. We want to make it impossible for them to evict us. And then we’ve won—and that’s a victory for all of London.”
‘What planet is Boris on?’
London’s politicians want to be seen as on the side of the tenants—from Hackney’s Labour council to Tory mayor Boris Johnson. But the tenants won’t let them wriggle out of their responsibilities.
New Era tenants’ association chair Lindsey Garrett said, “We’re focusing our fire on Westbrook, saying we want them to sell to a housing association.
“But it would be better for Hackney Council to make a compulsory purchase and turn this back into council housing.
“They say they can’t because there’s a cap from the government.
“But the bottom line is Boris could buy it.
“We welcome support from politicians. But this is not some platform for Boris to play out his political game.
“The support we want is support that means we can stay living in our homes.”
Danielle added, “We want rents that are affordable for us, not affordable for Boris. Boris thinks £2,400 is affordable.
“I don’t know what planet he’s on, but it’s not the same one as the working class.”
How you can help
Sign and share the petition at change.org/p/new-era-should-not-become-the-end-of-an-era
Come to the protest on Monday 1 December and the lobby of Hackney Council’s meeting on Monday 15 December
Raise the campaign at your trade union branch meeting, and get your colleagues and union banners on the protests
Be prepared to mobilise at short notice to stop an eviction