On Saturday, thousands of people marched through London, converging on Boris Johnson's City Hall to demand an end to the capital's housing crisis. While this crisis – and campaigns to fix it – have been intensifying for over a year, the March For Homes was the first mass protest attempting to unite the call for affordable housing. If anything, it's surprising that it took so long. It culminated in the short-lived occupation of some luxury flats – the kind of small-scale direct action that has characterised the housing campaign so far.
This was not a march motivated by empathy or altruism – people were personally affected. From families evicted from sheltered housing to professionals paying two-thirds of their wages on rent, the march was packed full of housing horror stories to make you wince. The march itself took a route that was kind of like a guided tour of London's housing crisis.
People were angry, and they knew what they wanted: officially, the organisers of the march were calling for rent controls, more social housing, and an end to the Bedroom Tax – in short, "secure and affordable homes for all". Unofficially, people were shouting that they wanted to "burn the estate agents!" and "all landlords are bastards – ALAB!" – a twist on ACAB, or "all cops are bastards". You know London's housing situation is screwed up when people hate landlords as much as the Met. The chants echoed through the Square Mile as about 1,000 people marched from Shoreditch Church down to meet another 1,000, coming up from South London. Some estimates for the day's overall attendance went as high as 5,000.
Michael James, a private tenant in Tower Hamlets, told me he'd twice resisted eviction from his flat, after his landlord decided to turf him out for reporting dangerous housing conditions to the council. His flat, which he has lived in for 26 years, is damp and has no central heating. "People are moving into homes owned by my landlord that cost £1,400 a week, with a washing machine that doesn't work. When they ring up and say, 'the washing machine doesn't work', the landlord responds: 'find somewhere else to live if you don't like it'."
The Ismail family have their own housing nightmare. They are part of the Focus E15 housing campaign, which hit the front pages last summer when their occupation of the Carpenter's Estate forced Newham Mayor Robin Wales to begin repopulating homes that had been left empty for eight years. The Ismails have been helping to run a stall with the E15 Mothers outside Stratford shopping centre every Saturday since they got evicted from their home and offered housing outside of London. They've been staying at a relatives house for a month. "It's everybody's problem", said Mr Ismail, "I can see many people homeless while rich foreign investors buy homes to leave empty: something's got to change".
For many others, the rent is quite simply too damn high. If food prices had risen at the same rate as housing since the mid-1970s, the average weekly shop for a family of four would cost £453.23.
The first stop along the route was One Commercial Street. This luxury redevelopment gained notoriety last summer when anarchist group Class War began protesting against a new architectural-detail-cum-class-divider: one door for the rich, and another for the poor. It is towering monument to London's spectacular inequality, developed and owned by Redrow, a housing giant who recently withdrew a sociopathic advert depicting a thoroughly miserable banker who tramples his way to the top, only to be rewarded by an over-priced glass box overlooking London – "at his feet".
Lovers of an angry gesture, Class War were not about to pass up the opportunity to stop by and do some more shouting and banner holding.
Cold, wet and loomed over at all times by London's icons of super-wealth, the march itself seemed like some sort of allegory for the housing situation for the poor in London. Once the freezing march had reached its destination and some speeches had been made in the shadow of City Hall, everyone was just about ready to go back to their overpriced shoe-box apartments.
But then, someone shouted, "If you don't want the protest to end, follow us!"
Around 50 people broke off from the speeches, rushing round the corner to another luxury development, One Tower Bridge. In these luxury blocks – half-finished on "one of London's last great riverside sites" – they won't need to build in any poor doors. That's because there won't be any poor people at all. Apart from maybe any army of cleaners, concierges, porters, and whatever other clichéd Victorian characters are required to provide a "5-star luxury living experience in the most exciting city in the world". The cheapest one bedroom property on offer costs £1,475,000. Coming in at a cool £15,000,000 is apartment number 501, complete with four bedrooms, "a 24 hour Harrods concierge", "an iconic riverside location", "luxury spa and gym facilities" and two living rooms (one "formal", one "informal").
Protestors piled through the entrance to the building site, passing security guards and attempting to barricade the way behind them. The police chased some of the activists and slogans were sprayed in the walls.
One guy even surfed on a wheelie bin to try and get away from the cops. Some people managed to reach balconies and hang banners off them, while most people got blocked at the foot of the staircase.
Later on another occupation took place on the Aylesbury Estate – an old council estate fallen victim to the regeneration-cum-gentrification of Elephant and Castle.
All in all, the March For Homes was like trying to cram all the ups and downs of London's monumental housing saga into one short, drizzly walk. Protestors knew what they wanted – secure, affordable homes for everyone – but did they know how to get it?
This is where the differences between the myriad groups that organised, supported, and mobilised for the march began to show. It's not hard to imagine how the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, trade unionists from Lambeth, and anarchists from Lewisham, or people who just turned up to vent, might offer very different solutions to the housing crisis. Who exactly is the demand for affordable housing being levelled at? Boris Johnson? The Labour Party? Or perhaps the Green Party? Property developers? Crooked landlords?
One thing is for certain – despite housing being billed a "key" electoral battle ground, nobody I talked to was feeling particularly inspired by the upcoming General Election. Perhaps that's not surprising when there are more landlords than women in Parliament. Labour councillors have become the bad guys in many boroughs, pushing through regeneration schemes from Waltham Forest, to Southwark, to Newham. Sonia, an angry resident from Fred John Towers – an estate in Leytonstone earmarked for redevelopment – made herself crystal clear: "do not vote Labour". Then there are the Tories, funded by their luxury property bedfellows. Are they gonna pursue any policies that solve the housing crisis if it costs their mates money? It's hard not to be cynical.
When it comes to housing, the choice at the election seems to be between two parties who are more likely to be seen at the Champagne opening reception of a property developers conference than picketing the poor-doors outside some luxury flats. That said, housing protests have been some of the most successful of the last few years, so all's not lost. The housing crisis may determine the outcome of the election, but it seems unlikely that the election will determine the outcome of the housing crisis.
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