Members of what used to be shortlife accommodation 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 GP writes, before suggesting – quite reasonably – that Trace shouldn't be taken to court or evicted any time soon.
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 programme. She lives in a property owned by Lambeth council in Clapham, South London – a council 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 on to developers, who will convert it into a luxury residence for someone with the kind of salary you need to buy a house in South West London.
I first met Trace over 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 anxiety, 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, who she depends on when she's unwell, and how the council 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 reckons she's moving towards being diagnosed with the rare disease Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Her potential eviction came about because Trace lives in a "shortlife" house. Back in the 1970s there were a load of council-owned properties in London that couldn’t legally be rented because they were sub-standard 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 shortlife deals. Lambeth is the last borough to deal with its shortlife 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 shortlife communities formed cooperatives and people made proper homes with their own cash and DIY skills. Hopes of council-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.
Shortlifers picketing a house to protest their eviction.
This aggressive stance towards shortlifers is unique to Lambeth, but it fits into a wider pattern. 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, Labour councils have been leading the charge to turn the capital into an exclusive playground for the wealthy. To name a few examples, the Labour council in Southwark is transforming the Heygate Estate from 1,100 socially rented homes into 2,500 swanky new apartments, just 79 of them socially rented. 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 £65.5 million.
In Labour-run Hackney, the Woodberry Down is being subjected to what the Guardian described as “planned poshification”. And in Newham, also governed by Labour, 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 nearly all been 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 spat in the local Labour party, which runs the council. Local Labour MP Kate Hoey regularly calls out her comrades for being unfair to the shortlifers. This took a bizarre turn this week when Hoey popped up on a leaflet appearing to back Labour 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 Labour organised a terrific campaign and fought to save the local fire station from closure.”
Hoey demanded that the leaflet be withdrawn and called the quote a “work of fiction”, with the evictions reported as one 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-Labour propaganda, I met Julian Hall, another shortlifer, who’s standing for the Green Party. He handed me a leaflet, calling bullshit on a letter Nigel and two other Labour councillors signed a while back. "Please be assured that your Labour 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 deselected as a candidate. Julian told me it was "like a localised 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 realisation that perhaps they never really stood for anything.”
An evicted resident clearing her belongings from her Brixton shortlife 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 do up crumbling council houses. The argument goes that with some of the shortlife homes being worth around £2 million, selling just one could bring hundreds of dilapidated council homes up to standard.
It’s a problem that was thrown into stark relief at a local election hustings in a Brixton pub I attended last Tuesday evening. An angry local social housing tenant addressed a question to a suitably apologetic Lib Peck, leader of Lambeth’s Labour council. “All day today I’ve been dealing with rainwater coming into my bedroom. My bed moulded away. My sheets are always wet,” he started. “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 social housing.
"I don't know how it can be a pro-social housing policy to sell social housing... these are virtually free houses,” said Trace. “They should be stacking them up, trying to get more cheap houses, not flogging what they've got.” According to an FOI request, the money raised might not even be going towards housing – the £55.65 million raised so far has gone into a general pot 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 Labour is failing to live up to its image as the party of housing. To be fair to them, when I contacted the local Labour 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 council house 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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