With the London housing shortage at crisis point, a group of young moms have taken matters into their own hands by squatting in abandoned affordable housing in the Olympic Borough of Newham. As of the weekend, four boarded-up flats have been “reoccupied” by the Focus E15 Mothers group and turned into a makeshift social welfare center and open house for the homeless.
“People need homes, and these homes need people. We were all told there were no places in the borough for us, well we found them sitting empty,” says Sam Middleton, 20, one of the founding women of activist group which began when she and 29 other young mothers faced eviction from the nearby Focus E15 hostel just over a year ago today.
“It’s as simple as that. There are people sleeping on the streets in Newham and empty, boarded up homes everywhere around here. They say there is no housing and they're regenerating the area but why do these houses need to be empty while they do it? The places have been boarded up for years. We’re just doing what the council [local officials] won’t.”
Last year, a heavily pregnant Sam, then 19, was living in the hostel in the shadow of the London olympic village. Along with the other women in the hostel, she was told it had to close because of funding cuts. Local officials offered to have them re-housed, which would have been fine, except they were to be tossed outside London. The neighborhood had become expensive thanks in part to "regeneration" of the area around the Olympics, so moving people out of their own city seemed like the most cost-effective, if heartless, option for the stretched housing budget.
Some mothers, most of whom have lived in the area their entire lives, were told they could be sent as far away as Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings, away from their families and support networks. Sam was due to give birth the day before the eviction, but instead of accepting the council’s offer, the women formed the Focus E15 Mothers group and successfully campaigned to remain in London.
Sunday saw the one-year anniversary of their battle and a family day was organized in the estate with facepainting and live music to celebrate. This culminated in a small number of the group entering the properties and occupying the empty buildings—a surprise for many of those in attendance.
All of the original Focus E15 Mothers and their children have now been housed in private accommodation in the nearby area, but this, they say, is very insecure. Most of the units cost about $1600/month, are barely covered by their benefits, and have short-term leases that they don’t know will be renewed. So they're occupying the flats to protest their insecurity.
As of today, two of the mothers are inside the building, along with about 20 other supporters who come and go on a shift basis. They are cleaning and setting up activity and kids rooms for the residents of the estate. The building has electricity, hot water and relatively new kitchens and appliances. Several of the protesters slept in the building on Sunday night.
“We want it to be a place where people can come and get housing advice, use the phones and talk about these issues, get advice on letters to the council," says Jasmine Stone, also 20 and an original resident of the hostel, who is inside with her two-year-old daughter Safia. On the wall you can see the plans for the building, which state activities such as “plumbing classes," “house meetings," and “advice about stop and search."
Local officials are aware of the occupation but have so far taken no action. Councillor Andrew Baikie, mayoral adviser for housing in the borough, described the situation in a press statement as a “petty, expensive stunt” and indicated action could soon be taken “get protesters off the estate." On Monday, two police officers and a local official visited, but after not being allowed access, left after a short period. Private property security and clearing company Clearway Group have also been present outside the buildings at various times, checking other empty properties nearby. They could be heard complaining to passersby about the protesters “undoing” their efforts to secure the building, which was sort of exactly the point in the first place.
Asked about the occupation, local officials put forward the following statement from Baikie: “It is disappointing to see empty homes in the Carpenters Estate being occupied by agitators and hangers on." That seems like a pretty weird thing to call a group of precariously housed young mothers. "It is equally disappointing to see them attempt to misrepresent the truth for their own ends," Baikie added.
“I don’t know what they think we’re lying about—we’ve been in these situations faced with eviction," says Sam, just as disappointed as the officials say they are. "We’ve lived round here all our lives and it makes me so sad and angry that these places are empty while there are vulnerable people with nowhere to go.” Throughout Tuesday, Sam and the other protesters can be seen beckoning in people she recognizes or other residents from the street, who seem rather supportive of the move.
The estate has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2010. However, many flats have been empty for up to ten years, which Sam says is “unjust” given the need for housing in the area. Officials claim the current waiting list for affordable housing stands at 14,000 “homes." That sounds like a lot of people hanging around waiting for somewhere to live. Critics, however, estimate that this really means approximately 24,000 individuals are waiting.
Local officials say they're counteracting this by building new affordable housing units, but Jasmine points out that the situation has become dire. "They say they want all these new developments but they are just geared towards rich people. We need affordable housing, not new housing. None of us can afford to live in them. These flats are clean and affordable and just sat empty. There are places here already."
When asked why the site was empty, officials said, “The Carpenters Estate is not viable. The tower blocks are simply too expensive to renovate and will need to be demolished.”
“They say the buildings are unsafe and you can't live in them but some of them are nicer than my flat,” Sam says, laughing while showing a photograph of a mouse skeleton she found when she moved in to her current home. "My little friend I call him."
Jasmine says she is constantly worried about her daughter’s future—and her own. Like Sam, she has been relocated nearby but says she is constantly anxious about what will happen to her and Safia.
“I’ve never ever met my landlord and I have no idea if we’ll be able to stay beyond the end of our lease early next year. I want to be back in work now but we can’t put down roots. I don’t want to put her in nursery and then school to have her move again and again.”
Like many people, she's angry that residents are continuing to sleep rough when there are, by the local government's own admission, 400 empty homes on the estate. This is the same area whose mayor, Robin Wales, wrote in a column for the local newspaper about cracking down on the local homeless by issuing "anti-social behavior orders"; some 28 in the last year. The women have met Wales but it is clear they are not fans. He's previously told the women: "You just can't afford to live in London."
As of yet, it is unclear how long the occupation will last, but Sam says they hope to remain in the premises for “as long as possible” and fix-up the two downstairs flats which are in worse condition. “I really hope we can stay. I really hope we reoccupy the estate,” Jasmine says. London's housing situation is at a breaking point and the Focus E15 Mothers show that if the authorities can't or won't take action, the people will.
Follow the Focus E15 Mothers on Twitter at @FocusE15