Benhill Road, a quiet residential street in southeast London, was the perfect place to go to understand how the UK capital is changing.
Shortly after 11am last Tuesday, a local council officer signed an order to allow bailiffs to use force during an eviction. The order was to be used against a single mother, Aminata, her three daughters — aged six, eight and 15 — and their disabled grandmother, who were living in a dilapidated council-owned block.
Looking on were several police officers, two bailiffs, a locksmith, and, unusually, more than 40 local residents who had turned up en masse to resist Aminata's eviction. They packed the narrow walkway leading to Aminata's first-floor apartment.
Despite the pleas of Aminata's supporters, the police were polite but firm: if it was necessary to use force to effect the eviction, force would be used, arrests would be made, and Aminata and her family would be dragged outside.
Inside the crowded apartment the family was unprepared to go. They had successfully dodged one threat of eviction before, last May, and hadn't banked on the police pressing ahead. Aminata sat tense on the couch in the tiny living room, with the children in their school uniforms curled up by her side.
'If it's got a pulse, it's not vulnerable'
Her mother's eyes were damp, but Aminata put on a brave face. "Mum's not happy," one of the younger daughters told the eldest. "Even though she is trying to be happy, I know she's not."
Finally, outside, the arguing was done. The bailiffs ascended the stairs with the police escort. A shout went out. The crowd of supporters linked arms and packed themselves tight into the narrow passageway as the bailiffs advanced.
Benhill Road has long embodied London's social mix: local government-owned apartments, rented cheaply to the less well-off, giving way to privately-owned townhouses at the southern end.
But now it has come to embody a new way of being that is spreading inexorably across London: evictions, demolitions, and expensive new apartments built by private developers.
It is a story that has echoes in many major world cities, where young professional renters and investors jostle for space against the existing inhabitants of newly desirable boroughs.
But London also has a particular story, in which the pressures of the real estate market — rising rents and prices — have been augmented by government policies designed to cut costs, boost the private sector, and which make it hard or impossible for poorer residents to stay.
Most importantly, the social security payments which have subsidized housing for the unemployed and low-paid in the UK for generations have been cut. Private renters may now receive subsidies no greater than 30 percent of the average local rent. A newly reduced cap on the total amount of financial help someone can receive from the government has hit housing welfare the hardest, and those living in expensive areas have been particularly affected. Extra bedrooms also incur a penalty.
Evictions for rent arrears often follow, putting families with young children like Aminata's, who have both the highest housing costs and are among the few legally entitled to social housing, into the arms of local authorities. They are placed in temporary accommodation — in Aminata's case, a run-down block due to be demolished soon — where they wait to find out if they will be rehoused.
The local authorities, who once housed half of London's population, have been banned from borrowing against their housing assets to replenish or upgrade their stock, and have struggled to cope with rising demand. Local authorities will be forced to sell their more valuable properties under new rules. The already-low council rents have been cut — a temporary boon for residents that will make it harder for councils to maintain their dwindling stock.
'It's just private, eviction, private, eviction. If I go to private I'll be evicted again, because of rent.'
As a result, many councils resort to what is known as "gatekeeping" — ad hoc measures of dubious legal underpinning designed to avoid admitting the duty to house vulnerable people who present themselves, sometimes with shopping bags full of possessions, at local authority housing offices.
Cash-strapped local authorities have also taken to selling off social housing estates, decanting the residents to outlying areas, and selling the land to private developers who build homes for sale to young professionals and buy-to-let investors.
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In 2009, Aminata and her young children were evicted from private accommodation and, unable to find anywhere else, were given temporary accommodation by Southwark Council. She has been shuffled from one condemned temporary let to another — one had no boiler and broken windows — for the past six years.
"It's just private, eviction, private, eviction," she said. "If I go to private I'll be evicted again, because of rent."
The constant instability has affected the children's education. Safie, 15, was due to sit a mock GCSE (General Certificate of School Education, roughly equivalent to a US high school diploma) science exam on Tuesday, but had to stay home instead, waiting for the bailiffs. She had been supposed to take three higher papers in science, which give access to the best grades, but all the disruption has made her fearing that she may only be able to take the lower, foundation level.
"It's been terrifying because there are moments we just have to pack up clothes in a case, and then the bailiffs come," Safie told VICE News. "My mum even has to sleep downstairs. We don't have freedom, even for my sisters to go out, in case the bailiffs come."
It was Safie who saved the family from eviction in May over rent arrears, since paid off. She got talking to a local activist who was campaigning for a socialist group during the general election. The group circulated a letter by Safie, and joined with Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth (HASL), a local activist group, to stop the eviction.
But then, Aminata said, a former boyfriend had taken revenge against her by lying about their residential history together to the council. She says the council used his testimony to find her "intentionally homeless," and secure a new eviction order. (Aminata's lawyer had not yet sent her the paperwork from the case, she said, making it impossible to clarify the reason for the judgement.)
The very spectacle of an "intentionally homeless" young family resisting eviction is emblematic of the legal contortions local authorities undertake in order to shrug off the responsibility to provide housing, and ease the pressure on their dwindling housing stock.
Activists say that vulnerable homeless people, often distressed and unaware of their rights, are regularly rebuffed by council officers on spurious grounds.
When VICE News visited Southwark's housing office with HASL in July, council officers not only refused to allow HASL caseworkers to accompany homeless applicants to their interviews as council policy allows, they also closed the office to homeless applicants until we left. A pregnant woman and a young family were left sitting by the side of the road in the midsummer heat.
A murmur passed through the crowd — success?
During Aminata's eviction, a text message came from a similar group in the North London borough of Haringey, protesting in support of a person who they were arguing was "vulnerable" — another contested legal category — and therefore entitled to help.
"If it's got a pulse, it's not vulnerable," a Haringey council officer told them, the text message claimed.
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In 2010 the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, hit back against critics who predicted that the social security changes his Conservative Party was introducing nationwide would make London unlivable for many of its poorest residents. There would be no "Kosovo-style social cleansing," he promised. "On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots."
But thousands of families have been evicted.
Figures show that the number of children claiming free school meals — an indicator of social deprivation — has fallen by a quarter across central London boroughs in the past five years, more than eight times faster than the national average. Meanwhile, the numbers claiming free school meals in several outer London boroughs have accelerated, implying a shift of the poor to the city's periphery.
One reason is that councils have shifted temporary accommodation for homeless applicants outside the home boroughs, and sometimes even outside London. One leaked report suggested that some 50,000 families had been moved out of London in the space of three years, albeit in many cases temporarily. Southwark Council tried to persuade Aminata to accept accommodation in the northeast city of Newcastle, she said.
A smaller number have been permanently resettled outside their home borough, or out of London altogether.
Concrete Action, a housing pressure group, estimates that at least 30,500 social housing units have been demolished, or are slated to be demolished, under plans currently underway. Most will not be replaced. Research looking at what was once known as the Heygate Estate, just a few miles north of Aminata's apartment in an inner city borough, has shown that both leaseholders and tenants were moved far from the city center. The council didn't even make any money from the deal.
Before the police arrived on Tuesday morning, local residents told VICE News that a large part of the Elmington Estate had already been demolished to make way for new-build apartments and that Aminata's block would soon join them.
Inside the new development's showroom, a few minutes' walk north up Benhill Road, I introduced myself as a potential buyer. A smartly dressed salesman talked me through the development, laid out as a wooden model.
He said the apartments have mostly been bought by young couples attracted by the "arty vibe" — there is an art college nearby — who saw them as a "stepping stone," a first step on the housing ladder before they moved on elsewhere. The estate's former name has been erased, and the new properties have been christened Camberwell Fields.
Camberwell Fields is a project of Notting Hill Housing, a housing association who say they build "affordable homes for Londoners." Yet a two-bedroom apartment in this development costs between £495,000 ($765,000) and £660,000 ($1 million).
Based on one method of calculating mortgage affordability, a couple would need a combined income of at least £100,000 ($155,000) in order to purchase one, placing them comfortably inside the highest-earning 10 percent of British households.
The development also has some "affordable rent" units, which means they can be no more expensive than 80 percent of market rent. But with average rents in London jumping by more than 10 percent a year, what was unaffordable two years ago becomes defined as "affordable," even though wages have barely risen.
Notting Hill Housing's Chief Executive Kate Davies wrote an introduction to a 2008 report on housing poverty by an influential think tank close to the Conservative Party, the Centre for Social Justice.
"Social housing as it is deployed today is an expensive, poorly targeted investment," she wrote. "[It] is not a desirable destination."
The report argues that local authority tenancies should be made temporary, rather than permanent as they are now — a policy which would likely make it easier for Notting Hill Housing to buy council land and build expensive new apartments for sale. The report also recommends the removal of targets for affordable and social housing provision.
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A burly bailiff, backed up by the police officers, approached the activists gathered outside Aminata's apartment. "There will be no eviction today," he said.
A murmur passed through the crowd — success? The police seem to have decided that the dozens of people unwilling to move were too much to deal with that day.
The activists say they will continue to help Aminata put pressure on the council, but the threat remains. The bailiffs could come back at any time, this time with no warning.
"Sometimes I say to myself, what's the point of living?" Aminata said. "You live in a world where you can't even have your own space, where you can't even have your own life. I'm so tired, I can't even tell the children to study. I go to bed, I'm so stressed and depressed."
"This is happening because the government is only considering the rich people," she said. "There are new homes they are building, but those new homes they are not for us, they are for rich people who can afford them. They are evicting me because they want to come and build luxury houses and give them to people who can afford to pay."
"I put the blame on the system, the way they structure things, for us," Aminata concluded. "They are making us suffer."
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