In the last week, the press coverage of goings on at the New Era Estate in Hoxton have taken on a seasonal flavour. Westbrook, having purchased the 93 flats, are now the Ebenezer Scrooge of our story, having now laid plans to accelerate their rent review of 2016, which will bring the tenants in this housing estate into paying market rents for their EC1 flats. That means flats now providing homes for key workers in EC1 will rise from an average of £800 per month for a two bedroom flat to £2,000 per month. The tenants, headed (and headlined in the press) by Russell Brand’s support, are our Bob Cratchits, hoping for Christmas philanthropy and charity before Westbrook commit public suicide. The fact that the philanthropic owners of The New Era Estate for nearly a century sold to Westbrook at all remains a puzzler.
Westbrook is a Texan capital investment company, headed in the UK by a chap called Mark Donner. Having a name that reminds most of us of a kebab has done little to hold Mr Donner back in life, because according to The Guardian, Donner owns a £4squillion Herefordshire country estate with room for a butler’s dry ice ski slope etc etc and makes Steph and Dom from Gogglebox look like they live in…well…a flat on the New Era Estate. The New Era’s residents are, understandably, angry, fearful and beginning to become ill. On Monday at 12.30pm there will be a protest at Westbrook’s Mayfair headquarters in Berkeley Square by tenants and activists alike to try to get Westbrook to behave a little less badly. Westbrook have informed tenants they won’t be homeless by Christmas (Great!) but they don’t seem to get it. They don’t seem to recognize toxic press coverage when they are on the receiving end of it, they don’t seem to understand (or care) about Londoner’s anxiety regarding the disappearance of affordable, social housing and they don’t seem reconciled to the concept of behaving less like a bunch of shits. How naive.
Of course, Westbrook are under no legal obligation to give in either to the demands of Boris Johnson, who as mayor has expressed that Westbrook must do everything to keep the tenants of the New Era protected from harsh rent reviews and secure in their accommodation, nor are Westbrook bothered what the Mayor of Hackney had to say about it either. Ownership is ownership. The New Era is their capital investment and property and they can easily secure it to market rate rents should they wish to. The problem with the New Era is that it is not owned by the Council. If the Council had owned it they would have been obliged to rehouse those tenants, some of whom have lived on the New Era for 60 years, within the borough. Social housing that is owned and facilitated by the state presents the tenants with a clear set of rights. But the vulnerability of the New Era has always been there : it is a private estate, luckily run for many years by a philanthropic housing estate management company who were prepared to align themselves with the ethical principles of the estate. For years, the protection of the New Era Estate residents rents has been hanging on an informal, lucky thread of charity. Once the thread breaks, there is little legal protection for the tenant. The owners of the property sell the estate, and the new owners have the legal and financial right to do as they wish. It’s surprising The New Era Estate has managed to hold onto its ethical roots for as long as it has.
Tenants in private sector renting are being increasingly exploited by the property boom in London in two ways: firstly, the ludicrous rise in house prices means that most people are priced out of the market for good and have no choice but to rent, and secondly because the greed that is central to London’s forced economic growth is sucking and swallowing up social housing in areas that used to be for poor people and are now increasingly populated by the wealthy. EC1, where the New Era Estate sits, is a prime example. Private tenants increasingly come up against a range of problems regarding exploitative and negligent landlords, and discover their own legal protections are nil. Social housing provided by the public sector has a promise of obligation to house people in suitable, safe, damp-free accommodation. Urban poverty and neglect is manifest within the private sector.
This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced its report into the changing picture of UK Poverty (you can see it at http://www.jrf.org.uk/media-centre/young-working-and-renting-uk-poverty-65931) which highlighted two worrying trends. Firstly, more people are living in working households in poverty than before, and secondly, there are as many households in poverty in Council / social housing as there are in the private rental sector. The crisis enveloping The New Era Estate is a choice example of all of the issues currently blighting the London social housing scene – key workers (for whom the flats were originally built in the 1930s by the Lever family), crude, greedy foreign investors, prospect of trebling of rental incomes, and the idea that the tenants who are not obliged to be rehoused by the Hackney Council, will have to leave London altogether. But it’s easy to look at The New Era Estate as a black and white affair between the poor tenant and the greedy landowner. Have things for the estate got worse or better in the last few weeks? Press pressure forced Edward Benyon to sell his 10% stake in the estate – and the result of that was that the two year rent freeze that Benyon promised is now no longer in place. Lobbyists have called for London’s various housing associations to purchase the property instead, but how can you purchase something that is not for sale? Also, with housing associations dealing with government cuts in funding, they are going to have to glean their profit more and more from tenant based resources to survive. Will the residents of the New Era be any better off?
It is worth bearing in mind that only a dozen of the 93 properties at New Era are protected by the 1977 Rent Act. Private tenancies are swiftly turning into the Rachmanesque scandal of early twenty first century London. The truth is, as we all know, we simply do not have enough social housing. Perhaps we never did, even before the Right to Buy Act was implemented in the early 1980s, but what does one City do when its key workers have not actually got anywhere to live within the city walls? Most private tenants have something called an assured shorthold tenancy. Landlords can charge a market rent for properties of this type and there is little the resident can do. There is also no protection from eviction from an assured shorthold tenancy contract. Whilst the responsibility of protecting council tenants rests with local government legislation and the council, why should a tenant’s domestic security rest on the fragile shoulders of one philanthropic landlord? It is the law that must be interrogated, because it is the same legal system that has so spectacularly failed to implement Acts to protect the private individual that the residents of the New Era should be angry towards.
The London Bluebird is a blog that is updated every two weeks. So, please come back for our next update on Thursday 4th December. Thank you for reading! The London Bluebird. xxx