London Housing Activists Stopped a Disabled Woman Being Kicked Out of Her Home Today
For Trace Newton Ingham, gentrification is a matter of life and death.
Today, residents and activists in Clapham, South West London faced down and halted bailiffs sent to evict Trace Newton Ingham – a disabled 56-year-old woman from her home of 35 years. For Trace, this is a matter of life and death. Her doctors say that the stress caused by eviction attempts such as today's could kill her.
As Suzie, her partner told me, "When she heard from the solicitors that they hadn't managed to get the eviction suspended, her blood pressure just went through the roof and I had to take her to see the doctor. The GP told her that if her blood pressure goes over a certain level – she was way over that yesterday – she's under the severe risk of a stroke or a heart attack."
Trace has a long list of medical problems: 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.
Today's eviction attempt was the culmination of a years long campaign by Lambeth Council to kick Trace out of her home. Following her story has been a lesson in the inhumanity of the housing crisis and the callousness of the bureaucracies waging it.
When I fist met her in 2012 he 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. She currently has an offer of a new house which she deems unsuitable.
Trace is one of Lambeth's last remaining "shortlife" residents. In the 1970s, there were thousands of council-owned houses in London that were too sub-standard to be rented out legally. Councils came to agreements with residents, allowing them to live in shortlife properties for a nominal rent. Essentially, it was a way for councils to wash their hands of houses that they couldn't afford to look after.
Lambeth is the last council to deal with its shortlife housing stock. It is now doing so by kicking people out of what, over several decades, have become much-loved homes. Trace was instrumental in formulating an alternative strategy, which would have seen houses like hers turned into council-owned cooperatives, but Lambeth has been blind to this vision. For the council, what used to be undesirable, run-down properties are now boutique cottages and luxury flats in waiting for development sharks waiting to snap them up, redevelop them and sell them on a crazy market for huge profit.
Clapham is a place synonymous with gentrification. Last year, the Brixton Buzz joked on April Fool's day that Brixton was to be renamed "East Clapham". The word evokes images of a thousand blue-jeaned, brown-brogue and blazer-wearing estate agents vomiting their salaries up the wall of a faux tiki bar bar on a Friday night. It seems apt that one of London's cruelest dispossession stories should take place here. But the residue of the London that's being lost was apparent on arriving at the house. This guy with a guitar, for instance, does not appear ambling through an artists impression of a plaza in a gated community.
Trace's supporter's were holed up in her house. There were perhaps a hundred or so local people and housing activists standing outside, as well as Simon Matthews, Lambeth's Shortlife housing officer and therefore the man in charge of the eviction. People started shouting at him, asking, "Why are you here?"
"Are you here to gloat?" said one, as Simon stared deep into his smartphone in a vain attempt to ignore the dozens of people shouting at him. It was pretty awkward.
Before long he mooched off, but it wasn't long before another hated council bureaucrat turned up – this time a press officer. For a communications man, he was weirdly quiet as people heckled him and asked him if he was happy with what was going on. His answers came as a barely audible mumble about how it was somehow "nothing to do with me".
Soon, people started clamouring, "Bailiffs! Bailiffs are coming!"
People rushed to block the entrance to Trace's front garden and blocked the path.
A solitary, large bailiff in a stab vest marched up to attempt to evict the house.
He was to have no luck. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, the eviction resisters used the narrow passage to their advantage – a dozen activists is a lot when they're blocking a path that is two people wide. He quickly gave up on his perfunctory attempt, after bouncing off the activist wall a couple of times, with the police trying to calm everything down.
The following quarter of an hour was a little tense, as people wondered if there was a larger squad of heavier bailiffs, perhaps moonlighting from bouncer gigs at the nearby Infernos nightclub.
As it turned out, there weren't. Gingerly, victory was declared, for today at least. "This is the true spirit of cooperation" shouted Suzie out of the window – a reference to Lambeth Council's laughably inaccurate branding as the "Cooperative Council". Nobody seemed sure when the bailiffs would come again, and how much notice would be given. People started compiling a list of phone numbers to be quickly contacted in the event of another eviction. Everybody was worried that they might come really early in the morning.
Plenty of people there had their own story about having to fight to stay in their home. Trace's story may be particularly astonishing, but her situation is far from unique. I asked Julian Hall, of the Lambeth United Housing Co-op, what he made of today's protest and other housing activism like it. "They're filling a vacuum that can't be filled by negotiation or consultation with the council because there is none," he said. "Had the residents been given at least some say in their future, it may not have got to this. Their priorities are not the same as the communities around them."
Vauxhall's four main election candidates – Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green – were there, showing their support for Trace. The incumbent Labour MP Kate Hoey was more than happy to round on the council which is run by her own party. "I'm ashamed that it's a Labour council", she said. It seemed to be another indication that the housing crisis is becoming politically impossible to sustain.
Lambeth Council continues to argue that by selling shortlife houses, they can plow the money into maintaining dilapidated council houses. A case like Trace's highlights the shortcomings of trying to solve a housing crisis by trying to play a broken market at its own game, and by valuing homes in pure monetary terms when the cost of property has gone completely berserk. The case begs the pertinent question: Is it really, definitely a great idea to kick someone out of their house for financial gain, if they might die because of it?
Questions like that and stories like Trace's are a reminder of what's really at stake when we talk about the housing crisis.
Watch our documentary on gentrification: Regeneration Game