London The dismantling of public housing in the US has been going on for more than 30 years in major cities around the country. The fight is often around relocation, adequate section 8 subsidies in private housing, and the percentage of units that will be replacement housing for the poor. Listening to organizers and leaders of an effort to slowdown one of the 40 such redevelopment efforts occurring now around London, if anything, the situation seemed more out of control, if I understand even half of what I was being told.
These organizers were working in the Hendon council estates in the Borough of Barnet one of the largest of the more than 30 boroughs in London based on both square miles and population, located in the northern part of the city. To hear the story the Council, dominated by real estate interests, has pretty much turned the estate over to a UK-based development company called Barrett Homes, lock, stock, and barrel.
Protests are ongoing and over recent weeks there have been arrests and small actions of tenants blocking deliveries and stopping work as the tension increases. There’s a fair amount of press interest starting to emerge as various media outlets start to recognize that if they don’t hurry they’ll miss the last working family turning off the lights as they are gentrified out of the city.
In this situation the development company itself was allowed by the Council to do the governing feasibility study on the takeover and as it was related to me the numbers of dedicated units below market rate as “replacement” for existing tenants have now been unilaterally downgraded from the initial promised 30%, then down to 25% of the units now being built. That might mean 500 units of the proposed 2000 in the new development with the shared equity owners having half and formerly unsecured tenants getting the other 250. The harder one looks and listens, the more difficult the proposition when it comes to keeping existing tenants and leaseholders in the community rather than being boxed out by reduced prices, an accelerated market, and the impact of the Locality Act which can allow them to be moved into other boroughs. Confused? So are the tenants!
Much of the new development is on green space in the Hendon area and looking at the company’s promotional website for Hendon Waterside, as they call it, the market prices for purchase will be from 250,000 pounds to over a half-million pounds.
Even “leaseholders,” who are actually owners that have to be bought out are getting a raw deal. The council and the company have set the price for their buyouts almost 100000 pounds below the market established by independent appraisers, putting these “buy in” owners behind the wild inflation in London housing and likely unable to afford anything near replacement housing. This kind of eminent domain practice for commercial development is now anathema in the US for conservatives, but paradoxically it is the Conservatives in charge of Barnet who are forcing these “CPOs” or compulsory purchase orders, as they are called down the council flat owners’ throats.
This seems little more than gentrification on steroids and targeting public assets for private development in partnership with local governments. I was told in fact that the Conservatives here have even managed to repeal their own conflict of interest ordinances so they could fast track these developments. In another eviction proceeding being resisted in another council estate, several dozen young mothers are protesting being “reassigned” housing all over the UK, including Glasgow, for a developers’ plans.
Housing issues seem to be cropping up everywhere in London, and I’m scrambling to get my arms around what I’m hearing. Organizers are hoping that they might be able to unify many of these fights into one overarching campaign to deal with so many of these high-end, anti-people developments.
Time seems to be running out the clock though. They showed me a Mayor’s question period on YouTube a couple of months ago with Boris Johnson, who is talked about as a potential candidate for the Conservative Party for Prime Minister, when he was questioned about a landlord’s practices in Barnet. The Labour assembly member asked a couple of seeming hypotheticals about some unethical practices by a landlord in his area and Mayor Johnson agreed that it seemed to be illegal practices ripping off the public purse as well as tenants, until the trap was sprung and the landlord in question was revealed as a Conservative Party colleague, the Mayor of Barnet, in which case London’s Mayor Johnson parried with a couple of jokes and asides, and it was clear there would be no action taken.