London

Mothers fight social cleansing in the shadow of the Olympics

Young families in East London get organized for housing and win concessions
Garth Mullins

Next to the 2012 Olympic site, an East London working-class neighbourhood is derelict and boarded up. It’s being “decanted.” That’s a polite euphemism in British bureaucratese for evicting residents.

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After the heady days of the Olympic party, the austerity hangover is biting deep across the UK. Last year, the local government in this part of East London, Newham Council, cut funding to the Focus E15 shelter. The first residents to receive eviction notices were young single mothers living at the shelter.

The mothers had few options. Private rents have vaulted past affordability. Across London, local governments have been moving low-income residents out — to Birmingham, Manchester or Hastings — where rents are still within what social assistance allows. The E15 mothers faced the same issue in Newham.

After the heady days of the Olympic party, the austerity hangover is biting deep across the UK.

Jasmin Stone, 20, doesn’t want to raise her daughter in a city hundreds of kilometres away, but instead in East London where her family lives. They are her support network and childcare providers. After searching for days and finding no local affordable housing, Stone and 28 other E15 mothers facing eviction started to organize.

They set up a “Social Housing for All” stall every Saturday at Westfield, said to be Europe’s largest urban shopping centre, built for the Olympics over the heart of Stratford. They drew up a petition, held rallies, occupied local government offices and threw a party in the showroom used to promote the upscale developments that would replace social housing in the area.

They refused to be pushed out and were rehoused in East London, but the campaign didn’t stop there. In September, tired of waiting for authorities to solve the housing crisis, the mothers reoccupied a block of the “decanted” social housing flats just next to the Olympic site. And now they’re attracting solidarity from around the UK and from celebrities such as Russell Brand. They also attracted the ire of the local mayor and council, who tried to dismiss them as a “agitators and hangers-on.”

Carpenters Estate

A lively working-class community since the 19th century, the Carpenters Estate is now deserted. No children play amid the boarded up 1960s-era red-brick flats and cottages. Traffic-less swathes of pavement and parking lots stretch off in all directions. On the horizon looms the 35-story Olympic observation tower, the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Its sculptured vertical steel loops bring to mind a crumpled, up-ended roller coaster. The estate is just beside the Olympic district, but access is blocked to the few remaining residents.

After World War II, a massive public housing program built neighbourhoods like this across the UK — social housing on a scale hard to imagine in Canada. But now a spectre haunts the empty streets of Carpenters: the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, the notorious Conservative prime minister began dismembering the welfare state and initiated the long sell-off of public housing. Now, shuttered pubs, shops and community centres foreshadow plans to clear the way for upscale housing developments.

Now, shuttered pubs, shops and community centres foreshadow plans to clear the way for upscale housing developments.

But around a corner, empty streets give way to people, activity and the sounds of babies playing. In five-foot-high letters, banners against one building read: “These People Need Homes! These Homes Need People!”

Activist mothers

In September, we stopped by and talked to some of the E15 mothers over tea. Sam Middleton, 20, padded out to meet us in pajamas. She said the flats were in good shape, with water and electricity still hooked up. “It may just need a lick of paint, or a change of a carpet here and there or whatever, but it's perfectly fine.” With vintage wallpaper and fittings, this could be your grandmother’s apartment. The mothers didn’t sneak in. They told the world they were there, as part of a bold campaign for “social housing not social cleansing.” The council objected and shut off the water.

This didn’t get Stone down. “Yesterday when our water went, within half an hour, there was people coming with hundreds of bottles of water, and it was so overwhelming, and it made us all really teary because it just shows how people really agree with what is happening,” she said. “They think, obviously, social housing shouldn't be something of the past.” This is the key to the E15 campaign and the reason it has resonated with communities across London. Neighbouring shops and residents have posters of support in their windows.

“Newham's slogan was ‘Live, Work, and Stay,’" Middleton said. “Obviously you can't exactly stay here [due to high rents], but they do want you to work here — the poor serving the rich, yet again.”

Just like Vancouver, the Games came with big promises. But for Middleton, the shine has come off the Olympic legacy. “Everybody at the start obviously thought, ‘Yes, we've won the Olympics. It's going to be great,” she said. “But then you see places like this around the stadium . . . where a majority of the flats and homes are boarded up. Then you're going to get luxury buildings going up.”

Stone jumps in. “Yeah, with the Olympics, we was all given false hope and promises that there would be a lot more housing. There was a lot more housing, but not for the local people. In fact, it's actually pushed the local people out . . . just being pushed further and further and further away.”

Then Stone broke off mid-sentence. Her two-year-old was calling for her. We were also interrupted by a visit from the police. They were curious, but nonplussed. Squatting has a long history in Britain and used to be afforded some legal protection.

Newham Council did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cultural vandalism

A train ride away in Oxford, George Monbiot, campaigning journalist, author and Guardian columnist, was enthusiastic about the E15 mothers’ campaign. Over yet more tea, he talked about big sporting events as “opportunities, excuses, to create a sort of cleansing of old areas of cities. And a creation of opportunities for developers which wouldn’t otherwise be there.”

A long-time critic of the Games, Monbiot said that developers are “allowed, then, to do things, which under no other circumstances they'd be allowed to do: to bulldoze whole areas of cities and destroy really rich and varied cultures within those places. And to replace them with extremely lucrative buildings, which can be sold off for very large amounts of money. And to do spectacular acts of cultural vandalism, which under any other circumstances just would horrify the nations in which those were taking place.”

“Stick together and fight”

Whether it’s East London or East Vancouver, the demands of activists are the same: safe, decent, affordable housing. Between 2001 and 2013, property values have risen 303 per cent in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, putting most housing beyond what social assistance pays. This summer, a protest camp was organized in Oppenheimer Park around demands similar to the E15 mums. At one point, there were 200 tents. The City has won an injunction to have the site cleared, but housing could well be the key issue in the upcoming municipal election. The current mayor’s promise to eliminate homelessness falls flat next to a city park packed with tents. The E15 mothers went to court to fight a similar injunction in early October. They agreed to vacate the flats after Newham Council apologized and committed to open some of the boarded-up estate for housing. “We walk out of this building with our heads held up high,” Stone said.

And the E15 campaign has won some concessions, as Newham Mayor, Sir Robin Wales, announced. “Next week we will begin moving families who need them into temporary homes on the Carpenters Estate.” Stone’s advice to others being forced out of their neighbourhoods is to “stick together and fight.” “We've proven that you can make a difference,” Middleton added. “You can stay together, and you can stop being forced away from your local area, so I think it's really, really important for people to stand together in solidarity.”

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