The Struggle for Decent Housing


Louise Whittle visited some inspiring women occupying an East London estate

WHILE I WAS ON MY WAY to visit the Focus E15 Mothers occupation at the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, I passed a building site. Homes were in the process of being built. A selection of suites, one, two and three bedroom luxury apartments and penthouses. The photo next to the blurb showed a very expensive and swanky looking room. Apparently over 95% have been sold. Affordable housing? Gentrification, more like! Two years ago Newham was the Olympic borough, remember that?

NeedHomes

Photo: Louise Whittle

According to Shelter, Newham has the highest risk of repossession or eviction in the country, with as many as one in every 35 homes at risk. 24,179 people are on council waiting lists, and 2,877 households are in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, there are 1,971 vacant dwellings in Newham. The borough is home to a housing crisis.

And that’s one of the many reasons why Focus E15 Mothers occupied empty homes on the Carpenters Estate. The story of these tenacious and brave working class women goes back to a year ago when, following funding cuts, they were served with eviction notices from a local hostel by East Thames Housing Association. Newham Council’s response was that these women should look for housing outside the borough, in places like Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings. This would mean that the women would be forced away from their support networks. A dynamic grassroots campaign was born. Women like Jasmine Stone have taken on Newham Council and the likes of Mayor Robin Wales. I was disgusted myself when Jasmine told me that when the campaign first met with Robin Wales he said he found their campaign “disgusting”. What is really disgusting is a Labour council that fails working class people and indulges in social cleansing.

When I met some of the activists at the Carpenters Estate I was overwhelmed by the sense of solidarity. One of the residents from the estate brought them two home made cakes along with money that had been donated. It’s really tapped into something positive and vibrant, not just locally but nationally. It’s taken a year but what these women have accomplished has spread like wildfire over social media and citizen journalism. The occupation has brought up issues about the importance and affordability of housing. Just what is an affordable home?

Newham Council tell us:

“We have a £6.6 million grant from the Greater London Authority (GLA) to buy and develop 220 homes for rent between 2011 and 2015. We will let these homes at either traditional social rent or affordable rent. 196 of these homes will be three bedroom family homes.

“Affordable rent limits the rent you can be charged to up to and no more than 80% of what you would pay if you were renting the property from a private landlord. Because it is linked to the market rent, affordable rent includes any service charge that you have to pay.

“We have decided that on homes we let at affordable rent, you will pay:

  • either 50% of the rent private landlords charge for three and four bedroom properties in the borough

  • or 80% of the rent private landlords charge for one and two bedroom properties in the borough.”

So assuming that the rent for a modest flat is £1,000 per month, the “affordable” rent is £800. This is rent, not repayments on a mortgage, so you never get the security of being an owner-occupier. In most areas private landlords screw their tenants for twice (at least) what would be the rent if the same home was a council property. This raises the question of how many homes will be 3-4 bed homes at 50% of the market rent (similar to or at something higher that a current council rent) and how many will be 80% of a private rent (in effect screwing key workers who cannot afford to buy).

Until we have these figures Newham Council’s website blurb is worth zero. These rent levels are a direct attack on working people’s standards of living. They are a way for the Council to siphon money from working tax credit and housing benefit into subsidising the Council’s coffers.

And you can see why Focus E15 Mothers occupied empty homes on the Carpenters Estate. Newham Council got the water switched off recently, but this backfired as it seemed to create more support for the campaign.

I spoke to a young woman called Jamie in early October. She had come from Lewisham, having heard about the occupation and the court proceedings. She wanted to help and support the campaign.

All Jamie wants is a home, “my home”. She’s squatted, lived in slums and a hell-hole of a hostel, warehousing people to cut costs. Failed by Lewisham Council, Jamie sees what the Focus E15 Mothers are doing as a viable option. All she wants is a decent chance in life for her and her child.

Photo: Louise Whittle

Jasmine Stone, an E15 mother. Photo: Louise Whittle

Labour has failed the Focus E15 Mothers. Labour exists locally in the vile form of MP Lyn Brown, Robin Wales and the rest of the bureaucratic machine who don’t give a damn about social housing and have contempt for the women. Newham Council backed down on its threat to use an interim possession order to evict the campaigners. Instead they decided to leave on their own terms on October 7. This isn’t the end for the campaign. It’s the start. Focus E15 Mothers have put the social housing crisis and social cleansing firmly in the public domain. John McDonnell MP has agreed to table an Early Day Motion on the subject.

The campaign has brought forward a series of demands which we should all support:

  • Repopulate the Carpenters Estate with secure long term council tenancies now
  • An immediate end to the decanting and evictions of existing residents
  • No demolition of the estate
  • The management of Carpenters Estate by the residents, for the residents; no third party or private management.

Why would these women support, let alone vote, for Labour, given the role of Labour politicians in their plight? Talking to Jamie and Jasmine about Labour and the left just came across as hollow and meaningless words. These women, and countless others, have been sold down the river. Labour lefties and certainly the trade union movement should get behind this campaign and show that we are not all heartless like Newham Council, like Brown and like Wales.

A group of defiant working class women have led a struggle about which little has been written in the mainstream media. But the campaign has slowly ignited over the year. Watching and talking to these very brave and articulate women has galvanised and woken me up from my slumber of apathy and inertia. We need to keep the focus and the pressure on Newham Council and on Labour. Please invite the women to speak at union and Labour meetings.

Solidarity and justice to the Focus E15 Women!

You can follow and contact Focus E15 on:
Facebook and Twitter: @FocusE15

 

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