The social cleansing of London continues apace. Families on benefits , which includes workers in low paid jobs under the governments “Benefits Cap” are being shipped to to Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich or anywhere where rents are lower away from their families, support networks and their children’s schools. Whole areas are being “gentrified” under property speculation which would have left even the notorious Peter Rachman shame faced as foreign investors and their hot money for “Buy to Leave” properties drive working people and families out. And under London’s bumbling do nothing Mayor every target for “affordable housing” is being missed and then some.
One dramatic example of the naked opportunism of property speculators is London’s New Era Estate where residents have been threatened with eviction if they can’t meet more than a threefold hike in rent. In March 2014, the residents of London’s New Era estate – a quiet little enclave in post-hip Hoxton – received a letter through the mail that landed like a bomb. The flats they call home – and have done for years – had been sold to a faceless company based across the Atlantic: American pension fund manager Westbrook Partners. Within weeks, rents were raised by 17% – an instant burden on the civil servants, NHS workers and taxi drivers who call New Era home – but that opening gambit was just the start. With a shrug of the shoulders and a torrent of one-way exchanges, Westbrook have told residents, in no uncertain terms, that they can expect rents to rise to “market value” – a manufactured hike that will see a two-bedroom home rise from £600 a month to nearly £2,400.
The shadow minister for London, Sadiq Khan, called on Westbrook to scrap its plans to evict 93 families from the estate and instead sell the homes to a social landlord that can keep the community together. He said: “The shameful New Era saga embodies everything that is wrong with London’s broken housing market.”
Westbrook bought the housing estate in Hoxton in March and transferred its ownership to an offshore company in the Channel Islands tax haven of Jersey. The firm is understood to be planning to evict the tenants, refurbish the estate and re-let the flats at full-market value – which in some cases could be three times higher than current rents. Westbrook has only made assurances that rents will not go up before the turn of the year.
“Ordinary Londoners are suffering, with their homes ripped from underneath them and their lives and families pulled apart, just so international investors can make a quick buck, with no regard to the community they are destroying,” said Khan.
It’s an unexpected twist for a story founded on good will. The New Era estate was built in the 1930s by the Lever family as a philanthropic venture to provide affordable homes to local workers. And that’s exactly what it’s done for the past 80 years, filling the void between state-funded social housing and a rental market that caters for white collars and cuffs. Lyndsey Garrett, an NHS care co-ordinator, lives on the estate with her 8-year-old daughter. She moved here when she was fifteen years old and her mum and dad still live in the adjoining block. Her auntie lives here; her great grandmother grew up here (“She was a local character, very well-known for all sorts of reasons”). When she walks around the estate people fling open their windows to say hello.
“I need my family, I need my friends. I’m a working single mum. Sometimes I work 45 hours a week, I need these people around me,” says Lyndsey, who has been told she may have to move into a shared hostel if she can’t make rent and evictions go ahead in the New Year. Lyndsey is leading a campaign to keep rent affordable for existing tenants – the very people who grabbed Hoxton by the boot straps and pulled it up. “You wouldn’t have wanted to run through Hoxton when we first moved here, and we were a part of that change,” she says. “Hackney’s probably the centre of it, but this is a widespread problem across London. There’s no social housing. People can no longer afford to live in London.”
Last week, Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York – where Westbrook is based – spoke out against the firm. “Congratulations. London is experiencing what New York City used to experience,” he told Russell Brand in an interview broadcast on the comedian’s Trews show on YouTube. “Our city government found a huge number of violations of our law by Westbrook for unfair treatment of tenants and attempts to interfere with tenants who organised for their own rights. I can’t tell you that what you are experiencing is news to us … Sometimes it is fair to say there is a limit to the amount of profit you should make, because you shouldn’t want to dislocate people from their lives.” In April, Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York State, ordered Westbrook and other private equity owners of series of housing complexes in the city to payback $1m (£650,000) in fees and overcharges to almost 1,700 tenants and make urgent repairs.
In a city that seems intent on fragmenting itself into solitary stories and vacant plots – as foreign investors see London’s housing market as portfolio opportunities not homes – the residents of the New Era estate, with charismatic Lyndsey as their lead, are testament to what can happen to a neighbourhood when people take collective ownership of the area in which they live; when lives become intertwined and home becomes much more than the closed-off space of your own four walls.
Let’s hope they’re not the last.
Stay up to date with the campaign to keep rents affordable for existing tenants of the New Era estate at https://www.change.org/
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