It's a beautiful day in west London. Really beautiful: cloudless, gentle, pure, the sunshine washing in soft waves over grass and stone, the first Maseratis of spring buzzing happily down Park Lane, the kind of day that almost makes you think this might actually be a place where you could really live and love and prosper, not some monster that bubbled and hardened out of the Thames silt, a sprawling mind-demon that exists only to tempt you with dreams and promises and then sadistically tear them away.
It's just a really nice afternoon, basically, and I'm standing in a loose clump of people outside Grosvenor House, shouting "cunt" at anyone who walks past in black tie. It's the 21st Property Awards, an annual event at which the British rentier class gathers to give slightly naff-looking Perspex trophies to itself, and campaigners from groups including Kill the Housing Bill and the Radical Housing Network have assembled to shut it down.
There aren't very many of that latter group, though. At its peak, the protest consists of about 25 people, with roughly the same number of periphery people: cops practicing their best stern expressions, security guards half-leaning against the railings, journalists and photographers faffing awkwardly around the tattered edges of the protest, hoping against hope that someone might put a brick through the Foxton's around the corner. Nobody does. Instead, they fix themselves like lichen by the entrance to the Great Room, an unofficial welcoming party for the landlords and developers who've arrived expecting their nice institutional pat on the back.
When there's a steady stream of partygoers, waddling all spiffed-up with their hair combed back and streaked with distinguished grey, it's quite fun. The demonstrators sound air-horns in their faces, wobble placards angrily, scream "scum" and "get a real job". One spirited and increasingly hoarse protester greets each visitor with a cordial: "Homelessness! You're celebrating homelessness!" But the problem with disrupting an awards ceremony that you haven't been invited to is that most of the time there isn't much to disrupt. In between blasting stragglers with loud noises, a kind of sullen calm falls. Protesters roll cigarettes, and dab at their phones, and wait. Occasionally there's some friendly fire: men in bow ties and women in gowns are given the small crowd's full opprobrium, before walking past the entrance and on to wherever it is they're actually going. Clearly the evil they're busy with has to do with something other than the property sector. "Shouldn't have walked past in a suit," someone comments.
The Property Awards remain entirely un-shut down, but it's not as if these things can't be effective. Last year, I visited the MIPIM property conference, which had its own knot of angry people padding about doggedly in the rain – another small group, but as far as the people inside were concerned, it was an intimation of the apocalypse; the panellists were concerned about riots on the streets and their heads ending up on pikes. There really is some value in refusing to let professional landlords – people who, let's not forget, don't really provide any services whatsoever, who make their money solely by dint of already having money – pretend to themselves that they're heroes, people who really deserve their award. That way, they might think twice before pushing things too far.
As the attendees file past taunts and horns, most of them give a nervous, sheepish little smile, the guilty grin of someone who's been caught out and always knew they would be. That said, there are the others: mini-moguls who stop to have a condescending little chat with the protesters and instantly find themselves in the nucleus of a ring of photographers. I hear one admit to being a landlord, but excuse it by saying that "so are most people", and then go on to defend his industry's practices by referring to the Right to Buy scheme. So you don't like the problem – but what about the thing that caused it?
For some of the activists assembled, this is the point of the protest: get them property industry top dogs feeling guilty, and then something might change. I speak with Susanna, a grandmother who started getting involved with the housing movement in part after seeing the difficulties her sons faced trying to find somewhere to live in London. "I do believe," she says, "that there are some of them inside who are going to change their behaviour. It doesn't have to be like this – it really doesn't."
And it doesn't – but as plenty of renters in London have discovered, you won't get far by appealing to a landlord's humanity. "You can't change it," says protester Dave Clark. "It's too fucking late; it's been going on for 20 years." So why bother turning up? "You've just got to do it. You've just got to see it through and blow the horn at them. I'm here, I'm shouting at them, I'm making up the numbers and giving some support."
You do it because that's what you do. This might be why so few people turned up – 2,000 invited on Facebook, 129 marked attending, about a fifth of that number actually present, even though the housing crisis is affecting millions. It's just depressing. The sunshine settles lazily over Hyde Park, while you stand facing your own powerlessness, watching people far richer than you'll ever be going to a party, and you're not invited.
As far as the property industry is concerned, it's just doing its job, which is to build houses and make a profit, all perfectly legal – but in the process they've made many of the world's major cities uninhabitable for the average person. And then they give each other awards. Most people are landlords, they say, and because they spend so much time dealing with each other they might actually believe it. They might be living in a different world, but it's one that's slowly assimilating our own.
So what else can you do except stand, however few and however feebly, and remind them that you too exist?
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