How tenants and campaigners won against big landlords

Residents of the New Era estate in east London made headlines last year with their campaign against sell-offs and rent hikes.

Here two campaigners respond to latest developments.

Russell Brand marching with New Era estate tenants and supporters, 8.11.14 , photo Paul Mattsson

Russell Brand marching with New Era estate tenants and supporters, 8.11.14 , photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Paul Kershaw, Unite LE 1111 housing workers’ branch

Headlines such as “Rent control from below” greeted the victory for New Era tenants who have stopped the US-based property company Westbrook from tripling rents and driving tenants out. This victory shows that when tenants organise themselves and stand together they are strong.

But the future remains uncertain and the struggle is a reminder of the insecurity faced by all private sector tenants. This is a legacy of the Thatcher government that took away secure tenancies and rent control for private tenants. Reversing this attack would be a minimum first step to address the housing crisis – but it is a step none of the establishment parties support.

Congratulating the tenants, Hackney Socialist Party member Brian Debus wrote: “You have evicted the richest Tory MP and private property speculating profiteers Westbrook. This goes to prove we are many and they are few. Your victory will be an inspiration to millions of others fighting against a rapacious profit system that this Tory government is only too happy to promote.”

The new landlord, the Dolphin Square Foundation, is a charity that has given an assurance that rents will not be increased in the short run. But it charges ‘intermediate’ rather than social rents on its other properties and prospective tenants are asked to demonstrate that their income is high enough to mean they won’t have to claim housing benefit.

If the Dolphin Square Foundation implements a similar model on the New Era estate considerable rent rises will be demanded in the future. A three bedroom flat in the New Era estate is £340 a week – £200 less than on a comparable estate run by Dolphin.

Housing associations

Dolphin is not a regulated housing association so their tenants have less protection than normal housing association tenants. Even this wouldn’t be a guarantee of decent treatment. For example, Peabody, a long established housing association, took over 1,000 ‘intermediate rent’ properties from the Crown Estate and has increased rents by a staggering 36% over the last four years.

Big housing associations are making record surpluses and have huge resources. It is a significant indicator of their increasingly commercial approach that none stepped in to prevent New Era’s tenants facing eviction. It is also instructive that the Labour council, while making supportive noises, did not step in to give tenants security by turning the estate into council housing.

Politicians expressed concern at the plight of New Era tenants. But when Unite the union tried to raise the issue as an emergency motion at the London Labour Party conference it was ruled out-of-order.

Before 1989 private tenants had secure tenancies with the right to take their landlords to ‘fair rent’ tribunals. Some people who have old tenancies still have this right – a few tenants on the New Era estate were protected in this way. It would be legislatively easy to reintroduce this protection as an emergency measure.

Labour failed to address this issue during its time in government. Now the party opposes rent control while backing ‘build to rent’ schemes that support private landlords. This is all further evidence that Labour has now become another neoliberal party.

The fighting spirit shown by New Era tenants and a number of other ‘anti-social cleansing’ housing campaigns in London shows the potential for a party of working class campaigners. A party that called for nationalising the banks and a big programme of high quality council house building would gain a massive echo in London and beyond.


“Fight back and stick together”

New Era estate tenants march, 8.11.14, photo Paul Mattsson

New Era estate tenants march, 8.11.14, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Socialist spoke to Lindsey Garrett, one of the residents of the New Era estate.

The estate was sold to private investors Westbrook Partners and Benyon Estates in July 2014. They wanted to refurbish and to triple rents to market value (£600 a week). No one could afford that – it would have meant eviction.

Tenants were first shocked, upset and angry. We organised ourselves and set up a tenants association to look at ways to fight it. We had a lot of support from yourselves [the Socialist Party], Unison, Unite, FBU, the local priest, the local community and, of course, Russell Brand. People across the country were very supportive.

There were lots of campaign highlights – the march against Benyon Estates and them pulling out, the march to Downing Street where we handed in our petition with 300,000 signatures. Then Westbrook’s decision to sell the estate to a housing association.

We have a letter from the Dolphin Square Foundation (the new owners) asking to meet up as soon as possible. The letter said there will be no change to rents until 2016. The rents will be on longer term contracts. Rents will be means tested and no more than 40% of income. Some of us should have rent reductions – for example if you are on £1,500 a month, rent should be no more than £600 a month which is a reduction on what we are paying now.

We are aware of the previous links between the Dolphin Square Foundation and Westbrook Partners so we will approach them with trepidation and be cautious. They know what we campaigned for and know we are not just going to accept their terms. We want affordable rents for everyone.

In the private sector we need rent caps and long term, affordable leases – the same as council tenants. There needs to be more building of council housing – money has to be invested into it.

I will stay very involved with the future decisions affecting the estate. We will keep the tenants association going. There is a march leaving from here on 31 January to highlight the whole of the housing crisis, linked to the March for Homes in South London.

I really think our campaign highlights to people what can be done by coming together and taking direct action. We all need to fight back and stick together, get to know our neighbours. We will keep getting the message out there.

I will give consideration in the New Year to standing in the election as an anti-establishment candidate.

►March for Homes!

Saturday 31 January, 12 noon

Elephant and Castle, march to City Hall

  • East London feeder march: St Leanard’s Chruch, Shoreditch, 12 noon
  • Short or static protest (organised by Disabled People Against Cuts): Potters Field, Tooley St, 1.30pm

►Hackney Socialist Party public meeting – New Era victory, housing for all!

7.30pm, Wednesday 28 January,

Stag pub (side room), 55 Orsman Rd, N1 5RA

Speakers: Lindsey Garrett, chair New Era campaign and Paul Kershaw, chair Unite LE 1111 housing workers’ branch