The Long Voyage Home

Blog post @ Volume 3, published 22 September 2014

You might not know this but a group of young homeless mothers in East London brought the whole idea of “the housing crisis” to its knees this afternoon.

They call themselves the Focus E15 Mums – after the hostel they lived in closed down due to local budget cuts – and have been campaigning for a year against displacement and gentrification. Today, on the first anniversary of their campaign, they kicked down the board-up panels of a block of flats in Stratford’s Carpenters Estate and set up a social centre. I visited them in the evening.

I won’t extend this piece onto how incendiary their strength and enthusiasm is – I believe that should be experienced by all and I would encourage everyone to go down to the centre and meet these incredible women. What I do want to write about is how we could be witnessing the end of the housing crisis myth described on mainstream media as some kind of inexorable malaise.

Throughout this country – and nowhere more blatantly experienced than in London – people are being made homeless for a variety of reasons and under a panoply of pretexts. The most popularly known is perhaps as the effect of the Bedroom Tax. Whole families are pushed out of their homes and communities because they either know they cannot afford what is legally enforced as “under-occupancy charges” and move; or because the extra cost proves too burdensome and they go into arrears. The horror stories have reached even the most government sycophantic press. A blind woman in Lincoln left to live in a shed amongst cattle after being unable to apply for exemptions. A grandmother who took her own life after finding herself unable to cope with the financial pressure.

Another much talked about issue – though this time affecting the private housing sector – is the exponential rise in prices. For those who can allow themselves to dream of buying the costs are just far too high. Crippling debt has become less acceptable since the crash of 2008. Many are outrightly denied the loan, others abort the whole project once considering the implications in the small-print. In which case the most common solution to the conundrum is to rent. But there too one is faced with prices growing disproportionately to income.

Young workers spending more than half their salaries on small-sized rooms in shared houses is not unheard of. And if you’ve found your dream home, fear not, your landlord might well turn around the next year and so grossly inflate your rent you’ll find no other way than to pack your things and go. Just look at Vagenda co-founder, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who found herself with an extra bill of £400 on her rent earlier this month. Despite sharing the place with her partner the couple can’t afford it. Her angry and saddened outburst over the injustices plaguing Generation Y – who can barely afford to live adult lives due to job precarity, low wages, excruciatingly high costs of living – reverberated through Twitter.

Last but not least lies the more silent threat unhousing thousands through the years: the demolishing of social housing. Councils from North to South have found it easier to neglect social projects deemed as too costly, get tenants out with deceptive enticements and sell the property for a reasonable profit to multinational housing corporations. These, in turn, have built luxury tower blocks or gated communities were once stood houses for the poor. Shiny, vertiginous buildings become scars pustuling through communities too frequently living in derelict buildings but unable to afford to move to the new ones next door. Property “developers” such as Essential Living in Southwark, South London, and Galliford and Bouygues Development in Newham, East London, have bought large stretches of land with the blessing of the Great London Authority. On average only 28% of their builds is allocated to “affordable housing” – a term as disingenuous as one can get.

Government targets request each house-builder to provide the market with a certain amount of cheaper homes. But not only are construction companies not really complying with the guidance, this “affordable” accommodation comes with a hefty price-tag – a mere 20% deduction from the average local market rent. A bar that, according to the Guardian’s number crunching, sets an “affordable” two bedroom place in Southwark – the second borough in the country with the largest number of council estates – at the cost of a family’s income of over £35,000. Last year, the average household income of the borough was estimated to be £18,000.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, homelessness in London had grown by 20% between 2011/2012. That is one in every five families in the capital becoming homeless in the span of a year. The E15 mums are a case at hand. The housing crisis is a constructed phenomenon. There are around 700,000 empty homes in Britain alone. This means that every time you worry about not having where to live, the house of your dreams (or just the roof you need over your head) is not only out there, but also purposely unreachable.

The reasons behind this are two-fold: on the one hand what I consider a loose property tax legislation that allows for rampant housing market speculation to continue tampering with our sanity and our wallets for the profit of a handful of superrich individuals and corporations. On the other, a very clear lack of investment in high quality, low-cost social housing, universally available and fully managed at the national level to meet demand. Social housing services have been increasingly outsourced onto private companies, meaning the tenant has effectively a public landlord but a private mediator. A mediator parasitically absorbing a share of the rent and bolstering burgeoning rental costs, of course.

For neoliberal governments – which the British one unapologetically is – it means a disengaging from the social responsibilities of the state and the convenient destruction of communities which could present resistance to policies and exploiting markets. In other words, by eliminating the welfare state and its representations in the housing sector, our governments are not only making a buck (the Conservative Party counts as some of its main donors the co-founder of property developer Argent Group plc Michael Freeman and construction equipment seller JCB chairman Sir Anthony Bamford), but also slowly eradicating the links between those people who together would stand up to decreasing housing conditions, wage freezes, unemployment, etc. The night-watchman state ideology most free-market exponents push for (and of which David Cameron’s “Big Society” project is a branch of)  individualises the problem (no social housing also means no housing associations) and pushes it to the fringes (London’s Zone 6 can be almost two hours away from Westminster). Meaning the poor are not only out of sight but also further impoverished in time and resources by the commute. Importantly, it also means that those in the centre – those geographically and possibly hierarchically closer to governmental power – are out of reach, impervious to the rage from below. Those in the middle are also less likely to be contaminated by the virus of dissent.

Yet, all this – the last eight paragraphs – has been exposed by a dozen of young mothers, their children, their families and their supporters, in one single afternoon. By occupying a bloc of perfectly inhabitable flats (which had been closed for two years – awaiting perhaps the similar future of the rest of Carpenters Estate, to then be sold off to Galliford or Essential Living) they have shown that people don’t need to accept the housing crisis myth. Their slogan “these people need homes, these homes need people” easily resonates with the hostel-living unemployed and the young professional struggling with rent alike. The existence of boarded up one bedroom flats, with running water and electricity, with perfect carpets and cosy living rooms in the same neighborhood where children are made to live with their struggling parents in cramped B&B rooms is a moral disgrace. It should not only put to shame any politician arguing to act in the best interest of the people, but also make the people’s blood boil.

In conversation a Focus E15 social centre member called Sarah tells me: “They kick us out because of spare bedrooms but what is this? A spare estate?” And her anger, and her exhaustion and her revolt is felt by everyone else in the room. We are prodded and shoved and made to take the threat of homelessness as an invariable, an immutable reality, like the weather. They tell us to move out of our communities and away from our loved ones, to make an effort, to comply and to accept. They drive the many to the outskirts of the towns and push us to the edge. But if the E15 mums are anything to go by, we are closing in on them.