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This London Rebel DIY Regeneration Shows How to Solve the Housing Crisis

When a huge investment firm moved in to evict the residents of Sweets Way, they fought back.

by Ben Beach
Aug 31 2015, 1:00pm

Houses boarded up on the Sweets Way estate in North London. All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

We're told the only solution to the housing crisis is to build more homes. Just throw up enough new apartments and the market will sort itself out and make things a bit more affordable, right? But if you're a person who's getting kicked out of low-cost housing so that the structure can be flattened and then gentrified, it is in fact the building of houses that is the cause of your housing crisis, rather than the solution.

House building is an increasingly violent process forcing us further from our cities and our lives. Following colossal privatizations initiated in the 1980s, the stratospheric rises in property values have seen investors transform homes into financial instruments and bricks into gold. With housing allocation focused on generating profits, developers are demolishing public housing to construct private fortunes—buying up the price controlled homes of the poor to build properties designed solely to exploit the market.

The violence of turning homes into piggy banks is clearest when you witness an eviction: the moment when the human need for shelter and the meaningless abstractions of investors brutally collide. First legalized by a court system that has repeatedly shown itself to be unjust, evictions finally manifest in court papers thrust at people by gangs of police and bailiffs who throw families into the street while mumbling that they're "only doing my job."

A private security guard patrols the estate.

For the 142 families of Sweets Way in North London, the shattering effect evictions have on people's lives has been grimly demonstrated. Annington Homes—the UK's largest private landlord—plans to demolish all traces of the existing residents to build 288 new units. Annington was almost given Sweets Way in a controversial 1996 privatization of government housing, but now, by kicking out the low-rent social housing tenants and cramming the site with market rate properties, a community is being butchered so the investors can make a killing.

An inhabitant of Sweet's Way for over five years, Anna's story is typical of what has become commonplace for residents at estates across the country. When Anna received her eviction notice, she searched for alternative accommodation only to find that as a single parent with two young children, no landlord would rent her an apartment. As bailiffs dragged her neighbors screaming from their homes, Anna turned to the local council for help only to be told that as she was not yet homeless, she would first have to be actually evicted before they would assist her. Left stranded on an emptying estate and not knowing where she was going to live, life became a tortuous wait to be dispossessed. This limbo had an effect on her children that Anna describes as "heartbreaking."

Just one hour before her eviction Anna finally discovered she was expected to move to a flat just outside the borough. As she frantically rushed to move three bedrooms by herself, the bailiffs ran out of patience, sealing the doors and her remaining possessions inside her former home. To prevent reoccupation, workmen used sledgehammers to smash the walls, ceilings, sinks, and toilets. In spite of this, Anna was one of the lucky ones, as some residents were being relocated as far away as Birmingham, while others were billed for the cost of their own eviction.

Annington Homes is part of the portfolio of Terra Firma—a multibillion-dollar investment fund. The brainchild of financier Guy Hands, Terra Firma has interests in everything from cattle farms to trains, planes, and Odeon cinemas—netting Hands an estimated personal fortune of $385 million. Hands describes Annington as "a pure play residential property company... with the ability to benefit from the strength of the property market." When asked by the Guardian in March about the impact his investments have had on residents' lives, Hands declined to comment.

Unsurprisingly, the residents have given Hands the finger. By occupying their former homes and resisting evictions, they have now delayed the destruction of their estate and its community for over five months. Following Annington's alleged wanton vandalism of perfectly serviceable buildings, the residents' latest initiative has been a collaborative action they have termed "Do It Ourselves Regeneration"; sensitively refurbishing semi-demolished homes back into an inhabitable condition.

Intending to demonstrate how grassroots solutions can trump the astro-turfing of private finance, the "People's Regeneration Show Home" has been collectively built by a community with no formal construction skills. Use of reclaimed materials from the sort of palette "edgy" designers can only aspire to, has created an architectural vocabulary unique to Sweets Way. The holes in the walls left by Annnington's sledgehammers have been carefully re-plastered and rooms repainted; reclaimed timber cabinets have been built into a kitchen with a floor imaginatively retiled with surplus roofing slate. On hearing about the project, local tradesmen came to donate sinks and toilets, and installed them for free. Local electricians did the same thing with the wiring.

Anna excitedly told me about residents' dreams of a self-sufficient neighborhood, comprised of eco-homes nestled among communal gardens and allotments, populated by children's play areas and a strong community. Throughout the reclaimed estate the residents' fantasies have begun to become a reality, as brightly colored structures containing everything from kids' playhouses to vegetable gardens are being combined with artwork to produce a vision that is certainly more interesting than a cookie-cutter development would be. Proof, Anna reckons, that if granted residency rights and a small amount of money, existing social housing could not just be preserved but enhanced.

A bathroom destroyed by bailiffs, and another renovated by residents.

Annington's planning application claims Sweets Way is "unsafe" and "out of character" with the local area, whereas occupiers have demonstrated that urban improvement can be undertaken through the democratic participation of communities.

Annington proposes to create a neighborhood of "Traditional Private Aspiration"—comprised of suburban homes, but it seems that what is actually being constructed is more along the lines of a tax efficient investment opportunity; the same bland nothingness that has given rise to a thousand identical towers lofting everywhere in our cities, with the obvious effect of making England even more boring than it has already become.

In just one week and for less than $615, the residents have sustainably returned a home to use. With over a million properties lying empty across the country, the self-built solutions of Sweets Way offer a route out of the crisis that we could begin to take immediately.

Residents have built greenhouses and planted makeshift allotments to take back the estate.

Far from being a single historical event, this process is ongoing. Yesterday, the residents of Sweets Way appeared in Court, and a possession order was granted, meaning they can be evicted at any time.

Building our own homes—with permission or otherwise—not only materially improves our immediate situation but asserts political power. By using our own agency to shape our built environment we do not simply demand a right to our cities but take it. The residents of Sweets Way are calling for urgent reinforcement to prevent their eviction and dispossession. When the future will only contain what we put into it today, we would be foolish not to support them.

Ben Beach is an activist with the Radical Housing Network.