This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Lyndsey Garrett, a 35-year-old single mom from the New Era Estate in Hoxton is standing outside the office of two men she says are trying to evict her. In her hands is a blown-up eviction order with a clear message for her landlords. "The continuing attack on ordinary families and communities must stop," the sign says. "The Benyon brothers are hereby notified that they and the big US development backers are evicted from the New Era estate by the families that live there." She's wearing Dickensian garb to represent the Victorian levels of poverty she feels she's at risk of being returned to.
Garrett and many of the 200 people around her are part of a group called New Era For All—the latest grassroots movement fighting against "social cleansing" in the capital. The tale is a familiar one. For years the estate had offered affordable rents for those that lived there. In July this year, the estate they live in was bought up by a consortium of investors who upped the prices and made it unaffordable for many. In a particularly bitter twist, the consortium includes the family firm of Richard Benyon, MP for Newbury the richest politician in the House of Commons, worth £110million.
The owners claim the prices have gone up so that essential repairs can be done to the flats. But for the 90 families that are likely to be displaced, this is little more than an opportunity to profit at their expense.
"We've got nowhere to go," Debra Cox, a 49-year-old who has lived on New Era for the past 18 years tells me outside the office of Benyon Estate, which has managed the New Era estate since its acquisition. "Myself and my husband are both just normal working class people—we haven't got a chance of getting a council house and we can't afford to buy. They've frozen the rents until 2016 and after that they're going to put it up to market value, which in effect just forces us out."
The first thing the tenants did when the estate was sold was launched a residents association—run by Garrett and two others. Then, in August they started petitioning local residents at Hoxton Park. Now they have a Facebook campaign, a growing online petition, and are raising their profile through actions like this.
Garrett's energy is unsurprising given just how much the estate means to her. Together with her parents, she's lived there since she was 18 years old. Now a single mom, working as a full care coordinator for the NHS in Tower Hamlets, she depends on the help she gets from her parents and others on the estate.
"To lose my home would mean losing my support network," she tells me. "My mother helps with child care and the community here is great. Since the rent rise came in, it's been a real stretch. I was recently restructured at work so I lost £300 a month in wages and my rent went up £200. Effectively I lost £500 in a month. The goal is to force Benyon to give us long term leases on social rents or to force the owners to sell the estate to someone that will."
Having delivered an eviction letter to Benyon's estate agent office, the group is standing outside one of his many residential homes, a Victorian property on Northchurch Street. "We're going to stick an eviction notice on his house just in case he misses the one on the front of his offices," Garrett says. Russell Brand (who else?) is on hand to climb over the gate, up the scaffolding and hang a banner off the front with the words "Social Housing not Social Cleansing".
If the protesters face being subjected to Victorian poverty as their costumes represent, then Benyon, whose wealth stems from the vast Englefield estate between Newbury and Reading, fits the archetype of a miserly 19th century aristocrat nicely. This is a man whose job remit appears to involve permanently satirising David Cameron's idea of compassionate conservatism. Back in 2013 he told those unable to feed themselves that a bit of "careful fridge management" could alleviate their poverty. His contempt for those that depend on state benefits is unsurprisingly hypocritical. According to The Mirror his family firm receives over £120,000 a year in housing benefit.
Benyon may only be a minority stakeholder in the investment—the US-based private equity firm, Westbrook partners own the majority—but for the New Era tenants his involvement is symptomatic of a system that is working against their interests. Benyon is one of a quarter of Tory MPs sitting in government and acting—with no apparent conflict of interest—as a private landlord.
In de Beauvoir Town, the district in Hackney where the New Era Estate is based, his mark is everywhere. According to The Benyon Estate website the family own 300 different properties in the area, most of them built in the early 19th century. Walking around—Garrett and three girls that can't be older than six leading the way—it doesn't take long to find estate agent boards hanging on the front of town houses and flats all saying the same thing: "Let and Managed by The Benyon Estate."
"They don't care about us," says Jean Eaton a 66-year-old pensioner who's been living on the estate with her granddaughter for the past seven years. "They're trying to get London people out and want to bring all the Toffs in. Once it goes to full market rate it will be out of our bracket. I asked the council what sort of housing they'd give me and they said temporary accommodation. I said I can't do that. I'm bringing up a child and I'm too old for temporary accommodation. I need a flat or a house or somewhere that I know I'm going to stay in, that I can do up and call my own."
The scale of Benyon's wealth and power may seem untouchable, but the residents at the New Era Estate are retaining their optimism. As the housing crisis intensifies new forms of organisation are emerging and in some cases winning. Groups like Our West Hendon, whose residents recently blockaded a construction site where luxury apartments are being built, and the Focus E15 mums who last month occupied flats in the Carpenters Estate have been a major influence on the residents here.
"What they've done and what they've achieved is incredible," says Garrett of the E15 mums. "We went down when they occupied the flats in Newham and they've done the same for us. We took a lot of encouragement because they managed to get some element of a victory and we're hoping we can do the same. I'm not leaving London and I'm not leaving my home."
After finishing a tour around parts of The Benyon Estate's de Beavuoir portfolio, the residents of the New Era estate return to their courtyard. If there was a strong community here beforehand, it's even stronger now. Which is just as well. Because with over a year to go before the full market rate kicks in, you get the sense there's a long fight ahead for these tenants.
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