As I travel into Waterloo each morning, I play a game.
I try to spot, through the dilapidation I had to put up with for five years, exactly when the train hits London. More accurately, I try to spot the capital when the dilapidation forms a contrast: the southern limits of the city are marked when houses on the same street are either immaculate - all plate glass extensions and manicured gardens - or a shambles, paint peeling away from rotten door frames, condensation peppering single-glazed windows.
In short, London can be mapped by its housing crisis.
It’s not that the vast inequality of the housing market is confined to the capital. Average prices are out of whack with average incomes across most of the UK. But in London, home to one in ten of the population, it is worse than anywhere else. At the end of last year, the average price of a home in London was over half a million pounds. Similarly, since January 2011, rent has increased by 15.3%- almost double the rate of increases in the South and six times those in the North.
Yet with 22% of the UK’s wealth generated in the capital and a large number of careers based there, demand remains high. Those trapped in the private rented sector therefore end up paying through their noses for property landlords have no motive to keep in good condition: homes will grow in value as long as they’re not falling down and if tenants won’t put up with what’s on offer there are thousands of others who will. The result? The worst living standards in Western Europe.
But all of this didn’t happen by accident. Eileen Short of Defend Council Housing says that London’s problems are “driven by developers, financiers and landlords, and facilitated by politicians: privatising council housing, knocking down estates, the bedroom tax and benefit cuts - all of these were political decisions.”
Trade Unionists For Housing, meanwhile, reel off a depressingly long list of bad policy and greedy practice in addition to Short’s: “the erosion of social rent through pegging it to market rates rather than median income... the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings, the shredding of planning regulation which resulted in the National Planning Policy Framework, pandering to constantly increasing development pressures by large developers in the...local planning frameworks, [and] no penalties for land banking or empty properties.”
To cut a long story short: a few people are making a lot of money out of the inequality of the housing market and are going to all sorts of lengths to keep doing so. Outright dodgy practices such as identifying existing social housing as brownfield sites, and Boris Johnson riding roughshod over local authorities to allow property developers to forgo commitments to affordable housing, are coupled with a pro-austerity political establishment who refuse to commit seriously to making housing affordable.
It’s all pretty depressing. But at the same time, the housing crisis in London is anything but. Because it’s where people are starting to fight back. When I get off the train at Waterloo and catch the bus over the bridge, what stares back at me and all the other overtired commuters is a bristle of glassy, under-occupied luxury homes - a far cry from the shabby overcrowding most of us are expected to put up with. “In London the extremes of inequality are most blatant and on our doorsteps,” says Short. Those visible extremes have spurred on hundreds if not thousands of campaigners across the capital to get things fixed.
Perhaps the group which triggered much of the campaigning to come, and helped more than any other to put housing back on the political map, were the Focus E15 mums. Back in August 2013, this small group of single mothers were served with an eviction notice from their hostel accommodation in Newham. They fought for their right to stay and took a campaign for affordable housing for all London-wide. They’ve occupied empty social housing and got their council to make forty properties available to rent again. They’ve attracted the attention of Russell Brand. They have, as Eileen Short puts it, “sent up a flare, and gave others confidence that they could fight.”
Two years later, London is home to dozens of renters rights’ groups, tenants organisations, occupations and angry renters who want to see a change. Collective spirit is key: the majority of these are linked to others through organisations such as the Radical Housing Network or London Renters, and most are allied to or in contact with long-running campaigns such as Short’s Defend Council Housing or national organisations specifically concerned with the housing crisis, such as the powerhouse of Generation Rent, who’ve been instrumental in getting the issue noticed by the mainstream media, or PricedOut who campaign about the cost of housing.
What’s even more heartening than the solidarity on show is that the battle is slowly but surely being won. Campaigns to stop evictions and demolitions at Sweets Way, the Aylesbury Estate and the New Era estate have all affected huge amounts of change, the New Era in particular, meaning there’s barely a borough without a housing campaign. Property developers can no longer carry out social cleansing - which, as TUFH point out is a term now given traction in the media - without expecting resistance from local communities.
I’ll be exploring exactly how that battle is being won in my next blog. But for now, we can all take heart in the fact that injustice is being countered, that not everyone’s response to a housing crisis has been to purchase a season ticket and to gaze sadly at the city they once called home from an overcrowded train full of people doing exactly the same.
Written by Rebecca Winson, a writer and activist whose response to the housing crisis hasn’t quite been to just run away from London: she is Secretary of GMB Young London, young trade unionists who campaign on the housing crisis and staged a Revenge Evictions protest outside Parliament last year. She can be found on Twitter @rebeccawinson.