New Orleans In London, in recent months, there has been quite the hubbub over the planned force out of 93 tenants in the New Era complex in the Hackney area through the actions of Westbrook Partners, an $11 billion United States based hedge fund. Westbrook, in a standard maneuver, was planning to move the sub-market rents running 600 to 800 pounds, hardly chickenfeed, to triple that level. In the soaring rental and real estate market in London, just like San Francisco, New York, and tens of other global markets, this is just standard operating procedure, business as usual.
Suddenly over recent months, the New Era tenants became a cause attracting support of the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Hackney, and comedian/actor Russell Brand, And as precipitously, Westbrook threw in the towel, announced it was dropping the investment after holding the property for less than a year and almost immediately something called Dolphin Square Foundation, a UK Foundation that specializes in providing housing for low and moderate income residents, took the property off their hands. Dolphin pledged not to increase the rents this Christmas or the next Christmas as they figure out how to handle the property.
There has been a buzz about the New Era tenants in both of my recent visits. Organizers whom I had met at a Hackney Unites workshop in the fall asked me to sign a letter in behalf of ACORN International, which I gladly did, so I had kept an eye on the campaign. Is this a turning point? What are the lessons to be learned?
Hard to tell. The celebrity factor may have gotten them some attention, but Brand is a bit of a loose cannon so there was a lot of wild firing. Timing was certainly in favor of the New Era tenants, since the disparity of rents and the force outs have increasingly become a political issue, prompting even the Labour Party to declare for some form of rent controls. Even the fact that this was a US-based outfit doesn’t tell the whole story, since housing coalitions have been trying to target real estate associations traditionally meeting in France when they met in London over rising rents without great success.
The decisive factor seems to be the classic David and Goliath narrative mixing the stew of tenants symbolizing the personal dilemma of millions of Londoners against the spice of avaricious, global heartless capital from the heart of predation in the USA. We had an epic rich versus poor fight where the moral imperatives trumped.
Past that the key seems to me to have been the ability, much as we were discussing recently in the partnership of ACORN International and the French-based ReAct to link local capacity and a deeply rooted base as the counterpoint to foreign corporations and capital. Being able to pit local strength against rootless outfits has popular and political traction when combined with good strategy and tactics and real faces of affected families. We need to duplicate that in many countries and campaigns.
As for the New Era tenants, it’s a merry couple of Christmases, but reading between the lines from the charity, it is also clear that rent increases are coming, just in smaller doses, and that’s a campaign that will be hard to win for them or others without bigger change coming around security and rent controls.