Once upon a time it seemed like the vagaries of the London housing market were only whined about by the same rich tosspots who thought Nick Hornby invented football, but in the last couple of years that's all changed. Housing in the capital is now a problem for the masses, the frontline in the city's war on people who aren’t mega-rich. In the last two years, much of central London has been bought up by foreign investors and, with the government capping Local Housing Allowance, an increasing number of households are in the process of being squeezed out into the city’s peripheries. Thanks to Westminster offering cash incentives for people to relocate to smaller housing – nearly all of which is located in the city’s outer boroughs – areas such as Newham, already suffering from homelessness and high levels of illegal immigration, are being stretched to their absolute limits.
The situation is getting so bad that earlier this year it was reported that Newham council had been sending dozens of homeless people to live in a hotel in Birmingham’s red light district. When I called the hotel to find out what was going on, the receptionist panicked and threatened to sue me if I came anywhere near the building, which would have been tough for her, because at that point she didn’t know my name or what I looked like. When I tried my luck with Newham though, I was told that the council’s housing department was in a state of crisis. Sending asylum seekers and council housing claimants to another city over a hundred miles away was, they claimed, the only option left to them. To hammer their point home, they invited me on a raid of illegally rented properties earlier this month.
I gratefully accepted.
Turning up to meet the reps from Newham council, I saw that I wasn’t alone. Eight ludicrously bulked-up officers from the UK Border Agency were also there to greet me, crammed into two black people carriers like a Navy Seal team sent to protect the British public from – shudder – the threat of financially incapacitated foreigners.
It seemed weird to me that UKBA would want a journalist along for the ride, given that they seem to have spent the last few months making themselves as unpopular as possible – with the “go home” vans parading through immigrant communities, racial profiling paper checks at tube stations and a Twitter feed that often reads like it's being manned by someone whose usual political communiques are swastikas scrawled in pub toilets. But anyway, here we all were, a merry gang of #immigrationoffender hunters.
But here’s the thing: foreign immigrants are a fairly low-key bunch on the whole, just trying to fit in and, you know, not get deported. Alright, so there might have been a few more windows covered by newspaper rather than curtains, but this road in Newham, this illegal immigrant stronghold, looked a lot like any other street in suburban London. In order to get into the houses, the plan was this: get the meek looking council workers to knock at people's doors, before suddenly springing the giant robocops on them once they’d opened up. It seemed a questionable one to me.
I followed the police up the stairs to the first of the flats being inspected that morning. Cramped and sparsely lit, the air was stale and it felt like the window had been closed for days. It wasn’t great, but it was liveable – something between Anna Wintour and Amanda Bynes's standards, or any house occupied by people under the age of 25 in the country. The border police weren't impressed though, as they considered with horror the unfolded duvets in the hallway, the curry splattered over the walls, the shocking spectacle of kitchen rolls, in packets, stored in a broken cubby-hole above the stairs.
Unsurprisingly, the occupants of the flat weren’t into my camera. The police assured me I had a right to be there but after taking a couple of photos I left and went outside anyway, not wanting to invade their privacy as they were being interrogated. That’s when a council rep told me about a property they’d recently discovered housing 38 people, 16 of whom were children.
Despite their dilapidated state, rooms in flats like that one were still going for £300 a month, lining the pockets of property investors who in many cases rely on them as their sole source of income. The council worker told me that one landlord, who owns an extensive network of properties across Newham and who lives in a large estate in Essex, is currently under investigation. However, as the police piled out ten minutes later with one of the men in cuffs, it was hard to tell who this raid was meant to punish: dodgy landlords or the desperate illegal immigrants they lease their properties to.
The man, who was suspected of over-staying his visa by a matter of weeks, joked with his friends as he was bundled into the back of a police car. A female officer explained that they were students, here to find work and a better education for a few years before heading home.
We carried on to a bunch of properties on the same road but at around 10AM things went quiet and people stopped answering their doors. If I was an illegal immigrant going about my morning routine – making some eggs, picking up a few tips from Cowboy Builders – I'm not sure I'd have opened the door to the border police marauding around in the street outside.
Minutes later though the sound of a struggle could be heard over the traffic from the main road. We made our way round to the back of a property and climbed onto its roof. A window was open and the border control police shrugged. Their verdict? That the occupants had either a) scaled the building and run off down the street, or b) gone to their neighbour’s house. Apparently there was no point in testing the latter theory, because they were “obviously not going to open the door to us now”.
The police looked forlorn, they had been defeated by the obstacle of locked doors. There we all stood, conspicuous and stumped, on the roof of the empty house. From our vantage point we could see rows of breezeblock “sheds” built in the flats’ narrow yards. No bigger than a single room and often without windows, the police told me that they'd been put up by landlords to maximise the number of people you can pack into one property. I was led downstairs and shown one that had seemingly been abandoned at short notice, with blankets strewn across the floor and an iPhone 5 perched on top playing an incessant marimba.
Back on the other side of Green Street, an Indian woman opened the door, insisting that only she and her grandmother lived there. After some persuasion, the police and council went inside and I followed, to find two men asleep in a bedroom at the far end of a long corridor. A policewoman roused them and asked for their name and age. The first agreed, but the second said in a Punjabi accent that he was first 22, and then 25. The mood didn't improve when he insisted that he was English, but had forgotten how to spell his own name. The woman who had invited us in didn’t seem to know very much about her two male housemates, backing away into a living room decorated with large, brightly coloured posters of Hindu gods.
Up till now, things had actually been pretty calm. While I'm aware that my presence probably meant that the day's hunt was at least 30 percent PR exercise, for all the haring about on roofs and the cuffings and the stab-proof vests, the police hadn't really grown aggressive at any point.
But then things went a bit wrong. A second policewoman barged her way into the room the two men were in, and threatened the one who'd fluffed his lines – you know, the English guy who'd forgotten his age and how to spell his own name – with the passive-aggressive threat: "You don't really want to upset me, mate."
What would she do if she got upset? None of us knew. The man garbled some more, he was garbling himself into a hole. "I'm getting angry, mate," she said. "Don't try to lie to me, mate." At this point, the poor guy wasn't making much sense and decided to adopt a strategy of appeasement. "I'm sorry, my darling," he said.
This isn't a good thing to say to a female police officer. "I am not your darling," she screamed back, before launching into a bewildering speech on the basic tenents of women's lib. As you can imagine, this was awkward and I kind of wished someone would deport me out of the room. Even her colleagues began to shuffle and fidget nervously.
Perhaps this was some kind of “good cop, bad cop” routine played out for people who hadn’t seen enough episodes of The Sweeney to understand it. Or perhaps not, after all the other cops were keen to placate her, and get me as far out of hearing distance as possible. A few more piled into the bedroom to play peacemaker, which obviously had the adverse effect of seeming, well, you know, like six police officers in the bedroom of two non-violent men: excessive.
When the hysterical policewoman refused to leave the room for a minute so the two men could get dressed, I turned heel. In a bedroom at the other end of the corridor, a kid-size England football hat hung from one of the room's four bunkbeds. The woman who had answered the door to us stepped inside with her husband and explained to me that the hat belonged to her son, who lived in India with his grandmother. They try to visit him as often as possible, she said, and hope that one day they can bring him to the UK to live with them permanently.
The invite from Newham council was meant to offer an insight into the area’s housing situation. In some respects, it succeeded, but more than anything, it reinforced how fearful we still are of displaced people just trying to improve their own existence. As I left the bedroom, the woman followed me back down the stairs, past the police and on to the street outside. Before I left, she wrote directions back to the station on a piece of paper and wished me a safe journey home. Which, to be honest, was more than the police had said to me all morning.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah