Earlier this summer, 20-year-old London resident Jasmin Stone spoke in front of a crowd of 50,000 people. “We are fighting for social housing, not social cleansing,” the young mother proclaimed. It was June 21, and Stone was addressing a demonstration of people who had gathered to march in London against austerity. For her, the economic cuts were intensely personal. She is one of 29 young mothers who have been fighting their eviction from an East London hostel in a year-long struggle that has become a symbol of growing resistance to the housing crisis across the city.
Stone and the other women are part of a campaign group known as Focus E15 Mothers, which was started by 29 young mothers living at Focus E15, a temporary hostel for at-risk people under 25 years old. In August 2013, the mothers were informed that the local council funding had been cut and the hostel was closing down. The announcement sparked the organizing effort to keep the affordable housing program open, especially because London has been growing ever more unaffordable for women like Stone.
According to Stone, everyone living at Focus E15 was there for a reason. “A lot people suffered from domestic violence or came out of social services care,” she said. She moved into the hostel two years ago while homeless and pregnant with her daughter Safia. Although the hostel is intended to be a temporary arrangement, especially for those with children, some of the mothers have been living there for over four years. “It is not suitable for children,” Stone explained. “Everything you have is in one tiny room. My daughter used to cry, because she had no space to walk around. It was really claustrophobic and stressful.”
The alternative, however, is worse. Private rental prices in Newham, one of London’s low-income boroughs, were so high that the mothers were told by the council to look for accommodation in Birmingham, Manchester or Hastings — cities hundreds of miles away from their families and support networks. Even if they had agreed to leave London, the women would have faced insecure contracts, having to move every six to 12 months. “If we wanted to go back to work — and a lot of us are at that stage now — it would be impossible to pay for childcare and rent and everything else,” Stone said.
In response, Stone and three other mothers drafted a letter to the local council refusing to move out of London. “Then we knocked on all of the mum’s doors and asked them if they were interested in putting up a fight,” she explained. “Twenty-nine said they were up for it.”
When the women received no response to their letter, they started a petition calling for fairly priced social housing in the borough and began looking for wider support. They noticed that the socialist group Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! held a weekly street stall on Stratford Broadway. The mothers approached the group and asked for advice on how to campaign.
Every Saturday since, Focus E15 Mothers have held their own eye-catching stall, complete with brightly colored banners and a blaring sound system. By Christmas they had face-painting, lucky-dip and Santa hats at the stall, where they began to connect with other people also facing housing insecurity. “We’ve met with so many people from just standing on the street,” Stone said. “We’ve met hundreds of people struggling with housing situations.”
By the beginning of 2014, the mothers’ petition had thousands of signatures, yet they had almost no support from local politicians. Newham’s mayor, Robin Wales, was recently caught on camera repeatedly yelling at the mothers to go away as they handed out leaflets at a public event. Finally, they decided to take more confrontational direct action.
In January, they held a flash occupation of a showroom apartment in the East Thames Housing Association, throwing a small party for their children, complete with cake and balloons. Next they occupied Newham Council housing offices. When staff tried to remove the women and their supporters, they refused to leave and began chanting, “Newham Council hear us say, Focus Mums are here to stay!” That day, there were two women in the waiting room of the housing office who were also facing eviction. “They both had children, and they were being sent to Birmingham on that day,” Stone said. “They started crying and thanking us for standing up for their rights.”
The direct action prompted immediate results. The next morning, the Housing Association knocked on all of the mothers’ doors, apologized, and withdrew the eviction notices. The women were told that they would still have to leave, but not until they found alternative accommodation. One by the one, the women found privately rented apartments in Newham. Stone called it a half-victory, because the mothers are still faced with insecurity once their year-long contracts finish.
While the United Kingdom does not yet have the type of national housing movement to fight evictions that has been successful in Spain, for example, the resistance appears to be growing, and the Focus E15 Mothers are far from unique. Across London, communities living in affordable housing are losing their homes as a result of funding cuts or so-called “regeneration” programs, and some are fighting back.
In Hoxton, East London, residents of the New Era estate are facing eviction as a result of sharp rent increases after their homes were bought by the family firm of Britain’s richest Member of Parliament, Richard Benyon. Local community activist Glyn Harries explained that although the mood among residents is defiant, the families face losing the homes where some have lived for up to 70 years.
“They’ve got nowhere to go,” Harries said. “It’s as simple as that. If it goes to market rents, they will be dispersed hundreds of miles away from London, because that is all they will be able to afford.” Although the campaign at New Era is in its early stages, residents seem determined to resist. Harries believes local battles around housing are important not just for the affected residents but also on a wider scale. “It is a fundamental issue of people’s right to housing; the right to have somewhere to live,” he said.
This sentiment is echoed by Betiel Mehari, a mother of two who has been living in the Loughborough Park estate in Brixton, South London, for 10 years, and is currently facing eviction. “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going to lose my home,” she said. “I am not going to give up and let go.” The estate, owned by the Guinness Trust is undergoing a “regeneration” program that will lead to the displacement of 150 families. Mehari is worried about uprooting her children and moving them far away from their school and community. She participated in a picket of the Guinness Trust office on the estate and organized a Twitter-storm to draw attention to the campaign. Some tenants, she believes, are afraid that protesting may make them targets. Nonetheless, she is determined to keep fighting — not only for her family, but also for others facing the consequences of gentrification. “I will see it right to the end, to the eviction and beyond,” she said. “It’s on principle: You can’t just get rid of people who are part of a community.”
Meanwhile, the E15 Mothers have broadened their campaign beyond their own situation, and they are now fighting for decent and fair social housing across east London. Last month, the women joined residents from the Carpenters Estate, a 23-acre public housing block, which Newham Council has earmarked for demolition and so-called “regeneration.” A group of residents on the estate, called Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan, are resisting what they see as Newham Council’s project of “social cleansing.” The council has already moved hundreds of residents off the estate and much of it stands empty. The women and their supporters wheat-pasted large photographs of themselves and their children onto the boarded-up windows accompanied by the words: “We Could Be Here.” Stone explained, “We went to have a look at the estate and saw it was empty. So we thought it would be good idea to put our pictures up there to say, ‘there are so many families that need a home, but these homes need families.’”
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