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Butterfields housing victory: "We showed that if you stick together and fight you can win"
Linda Taaffe, Waltham Forest Socialist Party
I have never experienced a day like it in my life. The news that Dolphin Living Trust has agreed to buy all Butterfields flats, allowing the tenants to stay, came from an unlikely source. I was stunned. We had worked on an absolutely fantastic and ferocious campaign for nine long months. Now we have won far more than we could have imagined. All tenants can stay in the homes they have lived in, some for more than a decade! Not one, or two, or ten but 49 households just got back their future.
We had arranged an activity for the morning of 8 October. Tenants and supporters intended to drive to Ilford in the neighbouring borough to do another 'estate agents crawl'. The agents in our borough had already agreed, amazingly, not to handle the sale of the few empty flats in Butterfields. The words 'no onward chain' meant in reality that a family had been harassed out of their home. We suggested that their standing in the "awesome" community of Walthamstow would be badly tarnished if they were to be seen dealing in such dirty business. Landlords Butterfields E17 Ltd were then forced to venture further afield and try their luck with little one-shop outfits.
One by one as tenants gathered the news spread. "No!", "never!" - they could not believe it, laughing and crying at the same time, some wiping away quiet tears of joy and relief. An end to the waking up in the middle of the night 'thinking where will I be waking up next month, next year', happy that their kids can stay with their friends in their own school. Relieved to be able to stay in the local job that keeps our heads above water. One family had half their possessions already packed in boxes in case the bailiffs should come unexpectedly.
The worst thing in the world is to have an insecure roof and live daily under the constant threat of having to move. Being thrown onto the streets is a horrible prospect. Some actually had court possession orders hanging over them - but now thankfully all wiped out! Jigging about, arms waving, if it would have been a football match, it was the World Cup and the FA cup all rolled into one! A real celebration.
One woman rushed back home and reappeared with a huge plate of her delicious Turkish cakes. The community of workers, hailing from every corner of the world, in danger of being ripped apart by a greedy capitalist company backed by a greedy bank, was reasserting its strength in a united struggle for homes.
When the first street meeting in Butterfields took place on a freezing cold rainy Saturday morning in February, nobody could have predicted the outcome. A small gaggle of tenants, shocked by having received notices to quit from the landlords, exchanged comments in muted tones. What were they going to do? They felt doomed. Rents in upwardly mobile Walthamstow were rocketing out of their range. Sixteen families had formal letters to leave and had to be gone by Easter. All had correctly figured out this was only the first tranche of the 63 flats bought the previous November by Butterfields E17 Ltd, a ruthless asset-stripping property company. Who would be next?
Well, we showed that if you stick together and fight like the devil you can win something. Thousands of people supported us in so many different ways. We started by disrupting auctions in swanky hotels. We became national news. The landlords thought they could easily scare off poor families, often exhausted working long hours on low wages, many from an immigrant background and loathe to raise their heads above the parapets. They even told one tenant not to worry, that the council will eventually rehouse them! Isn't the council building thousands of new homes? Well yes, private property developers are, but not for social rent, and not for the 16,000 in the borough already in housing need, of whom only about 1,000 of the most vulnerable can be helped in any one year. And that is often an allocation far away in another part of the country. The landlords thought wrong.
We turned the tables on them. They sent heavies round the estate to knock on doors to frighten tenants. We took a demo to the landlords' big posh mansion and handed in a letter to their family! We scared the landlords off! We forced them to the negotiating table.
If we can do it, why not others too? A trail has been blazed; a precedent set. The housing crisis in London has reached catastrophic proportions. If masses of tenants declared we are not moving and faced down the system in large numbers, we might have a chance. After all, a similar tactic worked against the Tories twenty five years ago, it defeated their flagship policy the poll tax and even helped see off Thatcher. And that all started with workers saying we can't pay but, crucially, getting organised to defy an unjust law in their millions.
In council and parliamentary elections Socialist Party candidates have flagged up rent controls as the main policy and made a promising start on developing the 'We Won't Move' campaign, when workers are threatened with huge rent hikes.
The recent developments in the Labour Party have presented Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with a golden opportunity. They could propose a new security of tenure law as an election promise. Such a law was on the statute books 30 years ago, until Thatcher started to dismantle this precious gain. A few older Butterfields tenants actually enjoy that protection to this day. One time I mentioned this fact to another tenant - after we had picketed a sushi bar part-owned by the landlord. As his eyes gazed into the far distance, he sighed "that would be a dream". But that "dream" could be made a reality again. That law is basically already written. It only needs extending to all tenants. If security of tenure was made into a bold election policy, then workers across London would vote for Labour in landslide proportions.
Now that might turn out to be another very exciting day!
In The Socialist 19 October 2016:
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