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Britain's Chief Opposition Party Is Still Kicking People Out of Their London Homes

Despite staking its 2015 election campaign on solving England's housing crisis, the party of Tony Blair is dropping the ball at the local level.
Simon Childs
London, GB
May 22, 2014, 12:00pm

Members of what used to be "short-life'"housing in Brixton defending their property from eviction in 2013. Photo by Jake Lewis

Trace Newton-Ingham is a friendly 54-year-old disabled lady who’s facing eviction from the house she’s lived in since she was 19. She fears that the process might leave her dead, which is a fairly rational fear, considering her doctor recently told her that her high blood pressure rises the more stressed she gets. "She is at increased risk of stroke and heart attacks when this occurs," the doc writes, before suggesting—quite reasonably—that Trace shouldn't be taken to court or evicted any time soon.

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Trace doesn’t live in a Brazilian favela earmarked to become a World Cup car park—her local area isn’t being bulldozed as part of some slum-clearance program. She lives in a property owned by Lambeth council in Clapham, South London—a local government that hasn’t invested anything in the house in the decades that Trace has lived in it. Regardless, they’ve spent the past few years trying to kick Trace out so they can sell the property to developers, who will convert it into a luxury residence for someone with the kind of salary you need to buy a house in Southwest London.

I first met Trace more than a year and a half ago, when she told me about all her medical problems—a list as long as an arm with a drip attached to it: back pain, bilateral Achilles tendonitis, equinus deformity, hypertension, acute chemical sensitivity, hyperacusis and visual stress disorder, ataxia vertigo, sleep disorder, migraines, memory problems, ME/PVS and trimethylaminuria (a rare metabolic disorder). and—having been the victim of numerous assaults.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that she experiences strong side effects when she takes medicines. Back then, she told me how she feared being forced to leave her community of friends, whom she depends on when she's unwell, and how local officials had bizarrely ignored her doctor's advice that, were she to be evicted, any new accommodation would need to take her disabilities into account. After years of confusion, Trace figures she's moving toward being diagnosed with the rare disease Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

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Her potential eviction came about because Trace lives in a "short-life" house. Back in the 1970s there were a bunch of publicly owned properties in London that couldn’t legally be rented because they were sub-par and almost uninhabitable. Councils came to agreements with residents that they would pay a nominal rent until a proper solution could be found; these were known as short-life deals. Lambeth is the last borough to deal with its short-life houses, and its way of doing so is to just evict the residents and sell their homes.

The problem is, in the 30 years or so that have passed, the short-life communities formed cooperatives and people made legit houses with their own cash and DIY skills. Hopes of government-sanctioned permanence were raised and dashed. Understandably, people don't want to leave—a feeling not helped by the fact that the houses are being sold to private developers so the council can cash in on London's insane property prices.

Short-lifers picketing a house to protest their eviction

This aggressive stance toward short-lifers is unique to Lambeth, but it fits into a wider pattern. Labor Party leader Ed Miliband is basing a large part of his election pitch for 2015 on housing—something he was keen to hype while kicking off the campaign for the local elections. But across London, his party's councils have been leading the charge to turn the capital into an exclusive playground for the wealthy. To name a few examples, the Labor council in Southwark is transforming the Heygate Estate from 1,100 public housing units into 2,500 swanky new apartments, just 79 of them intended for the poor. The estate’s original tenants are now spread around London, far away from what they used to call home and unlikely to ever return—an eviction that’s expected to cost more than $110 million.

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In the Labor-run borough of Hackney, the Woodberry Down community is being subjected to what the Guardian described as “planned poshification”. And in Newham, also governed by Labor, young mothers are being asked to move out of London altogether because the council apparently can't afford to house them, while they continue to create a “mini city for Asian companies."

I met Trace again on Tuesday to find out how things were going. Her community has been almost entirely evicted, which she told me is "very horrible." The only thing keeping her in her house is her illness, because the stress of the courtroom could kill her. "This is real life for me. The possibility of having a stroke or heart attack is very real,” she said.

Nevertheless, the threat of a day in court looms. If she does get evicted, she doesn't know what will happen—she rejected the replacement house she was offered by the council as unsuitable because, she says, as it’s on a hill, far away from shops and friends, it would have been "like living in a tent in the desert" given her disabilities. That was the last option the council was giving her, so she could end up finding herself homeless.

Lambeth's policy of balancing its housing books by making people homeless has caused a bit of a rift in the local Labor party, which runs the council. Local Labor MP Kate Hoey regularly calls out her comrades for being unfair to the short-lifers. This pattern took a bizarre turn this past week when Hoey popped up on a leaflet appearing to back Labor council candidate Nigel Haselden, saying, “Nigel [and another candidate] have been hard-working councillors for the past eight years and want to continue to improve the area. At a time of ridiculous cuts to emergency services in London, Clapham Labor organised a terrific campaign and fought to save the local fire station from closure.”

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Hoey demanded that the leaflet be taken down and called the quote a “work of fiction," with the evictions reported as a key reason for Hoey's dislike of Haselden.

This isn't the first time Nigel's dubious use of words has pissed people off. At Trace's house, which is festooned with anti-Labor propaganda, I met Julian Hall, another short-lifer, who’s standing for election on the Green Party line. He handed me a leaflet, calling bullshit on a letter Nigel and two other Labor councillors signed a while back. "Please be assured that your Labor councillors will fight for your right to remain in your home," they wrote. Of the three councillors who signed the letter, two have since reneged on their promise—including Nigel—and the other has been dropped by the party as a candidate. Julian told me it was "like a localized version of the student-loans moment—the moment when your jaw drops and you cannot believe that a politician has abandoned everything they stood for, and the realization that perhaps they never really stood for anything.”

An evicted resident clearing her belongings from her Brixton short-life home last year. Photo by Jake Lewis

Of course, there are two sides to every story. Lambeth is not evicting people like Trace for nothing. The council argues that they need to sell the homes to raise cash to fix up crumbling public housing. The argument goes that with some of the short-life homes being worth around $3.3 million, selling just one could bring hundreds of dilapidated council homes up to standard.

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It’s a problem that was thrown into stark relief at a local election event in a Brixton pub I attended last Tuesday evening. An angry local public housing tenant addressed a question to a suitably apologetic Lib Peck, leader of Lambeth’s Labor council. “All day today I’ve been dealing with rainwater coming into my bedroom. My bed molded away. My sheets are always wet,” he began. “My question to you is what can we do about this?”

Money is clearly needed to repair these battered houses, but should it come from kicking people out of their homes? It seems a bit perverse, given the shortage of public housing.

"I don't know how it can be a pro-social housing policy to sell social housing… These are virtually free houses,” Trace said. “They should be stacking them up, trying to get more cheap houses, not flogging what they've got.” According to a freedom-of-information request, the money raised might not even be going towards housing—the nearly $94 million raised so far has gone into a general fund and is not accounted for.

In any case, Trace reckons her eviction is more about the council consciously gentrifying the area: "I think there's a social engineering plan in action to change the demographics of certain parts of the borough to a more thrusting, upwardly mobile type." With even a recent council-endorsed police operation in the borough being linked to the gentrification narrative, it's hardly surprising that Trace feels this way.

Lambeth is another borough in which Labor is failing to live up to its traditional image as the party of housing. To be fair to them, when I contacted the local Labor Party, they pointed out that their manifesto promises to build 1,000 new council homes. That's something, but it's not all that ambitious considering there are 20,000 on the public housing waiting list, with 3,000 new applications per year. Even the council's attempts to improve its crumbling housing stock, which is obviously necessary, are apparently being financed through kicking out long term residents—including the disabled—making them homeless while selling their homes to developers to turn into upmarket houses for the rich.

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