London evicts. Women and children first, thanks

One development (if you can call it that) I’ve really noticed in London this year is the increase in calls and contacts from people who are facing eviction, or trying to stop an eviction right then and there, or worried that they are being pushed out of their their estates and homes by planners and developers. I decided to start to collect the stories of some of the people affected. The first two are below in this post. They’ll form part of a longer piece I’m writing on these evictions.

A few thoughts on this –

The more I talk to people, the more obvious it becomes that the real problem is the terrible lack of decent, secure, well-maintained, well-managed social housing people can easily afford. Long-term lets are especially crucial. The expensive, wildly insecure private rental sector is a challenge for most of us who rent. It can be particularly challenging and unforgiving if you have support needs. If people had secure social housing with long-term lets, a lot of the problems they’re reporting now simply would never come to pass – problems like being forced to move because a landlord wants the house or flat back, the stress of uncertain short-term tenancies, having to live in single, tiny, dirty rooms that private sector landlords pass off as flats to collect housing benefit and all the rest. I’ve spoken with people who have serious mental health problems and who simply can’t handle the idea of moving home, or to an unfamiliar environment. They are offered other places in the private sector, but that’s neither here nor there. They don’t want to move. They can’t move. But they’ve been evicted – forcibly – because the landlord wants them out.

Unfortunately, social housing waiting lists in some boroughs run into the tens of thousands – about 24,000 in Newham, 28,000 in Camden and 20,000 in Lambeth, to give a few examples. The truth is that people’s chances of securing a place that way are non-existent. (There’s another point, too – with a bigger social housing stock and better security in it, people in social housing wouldn’t be facing eviction in the growing numbers they are now, either).

Without those places, it’s up to tenants to get by in a hostile environment. Doesn’t matter that many people struggle. You beat the odds yourself, or you go down. Ours is the great era of individual responsibility, after all. Iain Duncan Smith – a man who is himself housed in his rich wife’s mansion – is very big on this Do It For Yourself concept. Individual liability at any cost is one of Universal Credit’s many rotten planks. When UC comes in for all, if it does, the housing element will be paid to claimants, who then must pay rent from it. Anyone who fails to achieve that will be dismissed as feckless. Anyone who argues for direct payment to landlords will be written off as a Nanny State relic (*waves*). No matter that the odds in that game are already stacked against plenty of people. Cuts to council tax benefit and housing benefit mean that many already pay bigger council tax bills and bigger rent demands. Using rent money to cover council tax arrears because your council threatens you with a liability order to deduct tax straight from your benefits, say, would not be irresponsible. But we’ll end up there, anyway. We live in an age where individuals must sink or swim – which usually means a lot of well-off people blathering on about responsibility while they watch other people sink.

“They told us that we have to organise the money,” one very young housing benefit tenant said to me a week or so ago when she reported back from a Jobcentre Plus meeting about Universal Credit. “They said that we shouldn’t be having fun with our money.”

Fun, eh. I’m not sure about that. When it comes to housing, people like Kate Middleton have fun. They have a lot of fun. They have fun renovating palaces at outrageous cost and at the taxpayers’ expense. Doubtless, Maria Miller had fun snorkelling £90k from the public purse for her flash Wimbledon place. She probably had fun kicking back in her Tudor barn as well.  Insecure housing arrangements, on the other hand, aren’t fun. The scenarios I’ve described below aren’t fun. They’re about arrears, vicious battles over rights and responsibilities, vile three-way bustups between tenants, councils and landlords, and eviction. They’re complex and nasty and they do nobody any good.

This place looks like fun, though. This is Iain Duncan Smith’s weekend home – the house, presumably, in which he sits thinking about fun concepts like the bedroom tax and Universal Credit.

Nice.

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Gemma Sheridan. Has an eight-year-old son.

Photo of Gemma Sheridan by: @skinnyvoice

Gemma Sheridan

In and out of private rentals and hostels for years, Gemma was evicted from a Camden homelessness hostel earlier this year. Camden council says it no longer had a duty to house her. The council says that she made herself intentionally homeless by running up rent arrears in a previous let and carrying out repairs which damaged that flat.

Gemma says this is garbage: “Absolutely rubbish. I stood and fought eviction on my own,” she says. The disputes about works and rent nonwithstanding, her landlord renewed her tenancy – a move which, Gemma says, proves that neither the arrears nor the works were a problem. “Why would they renew the tenancy if I was in arrears?” As far as the works were concerned – Gemma says she had to pull down wallpaper and clean up plaster because the property was damp and affecting her son’s health.

This has been a nasty fight – complicated, messy and ongoing. A lot of it has to do with culpability. The council sent me a bullish response about the intentional homelessness decision: “Ms Sheridan was evicted for rental arrears, therefore making herself intentionally homeless under housing legislation.” The council takes the same sort of line in its paperwork. It defends that intentional homelessness decision vigorously.

But there’s one question that I haven’t been able get out of my mind as I’ve read through the piles of paperwork that Gemma’s case has generated. I just keep coming back to it. If the works and arrears were as problematic as the council claims they were – why didn’t the council sort the problems out? Councils can arrange for housing benefit to be paid directly to landlords if there are concerns – and certainly if arrears are likely to lead to eviction and homelessness. Why that didn’t happen if the problem was as substantial as the council claims? If it did happen, why didn’t it happen in time? Gemma had a support worker. Papers say that housing issues were canvassed in detail and over a period of some months. I wonder how hard councils fight to keep so-called difficult tenants housed. I asked the council for a response to the rent question. That was a week ago now.

The council says it will assist Gemma with advice and a deposit for a new private sector place – but that, of course depends on her chances at a private sector tenancy. It certainly depends on Gemma downgrading her expectations. Kate Middleton can renovate a palace pointlessly at endless expense and annoy the hell out of everyone, and Nadhim Zahawi can use public money to heat his horses’ stables, but that’s absolutely fine. The rest of us must take what we’re given. We will not be forgiven if we step out of line. The council puts that this way: it says that it has provided Gemma with “information about affordable areas where landlords might be more willing to consider prospective tenants who are dependent on benefits or have low to moderate incomes.” Right. Housing benefit tenants struggle to find decent places as it is. Plenty of people can’t find a place full-stop. An eviction history hardly helps. I wonder, too, about the genius of shoving someone out to find a home to rent if you’re saying things went badly the last time round. Nothing makes much sense.

Gemma, meanwhile, says she was evicted because the landlord wanted the property back. She doesn’t want to leave Camden. She worries about having to move her son to different schools. The private sector is her only option, though. Camden’s social housing waiting list is more than 28,000. You’d be a while waiting to filter to the top of that.

I know exactly what will happen next here: I’ll get messages and all sorts of people on facebook asking why Gemma thinks she should live in Camden, or get anything at all while “reliable” tenants get jack. I’ll  answer that one now. There is something fundamental going on here that affects everybody who rents. It’s about an equal shot. It’s about the same rules applying to all, or not. Nobody should be expelled while a pointless and pisstaking royal family lounges around in enormous palaces in London, or while MPs flip and sell homes for an easy London ride, or while mansion owners allow vast, empty houses to rot. That’s the context and people talk about that context all the time. They certainly talk about MPs’ expenses a lot. The feeling is that a certain class of people is cut slack and allowed to proceed. Everyone else has to prove that they’re deserving. If things fail for the average punter, the fault is entirely theirs. The political class is forgiven everything, of course – not least because it’s the political class that is doing the forgiving. Doesn’t matter how badly those people behave, or whose lives they ruin – or even who dies on their watch:

Let’s take another look at Iain Duncan Smith’s weekend place:

People have died because of IDS’ welfare reforms, but that sort of “transgression” is perfectly acceptable. Cameron keeps asking him back, presumably for encores.

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Keeda Wood. Has a 12-year-old son.

Photo of Keeda Wood and Gemma Sheridan by: @skinnyvoice

Keeda Wood and Gemma Sheridan

Keeda Wood, 31, is seven months pregnant. That didn’t stop CityWest Homes evicting her from her home several weeks ago. She was extremely upset when that happened. And I have to tell you this – it is difficult to understand why she was evicted while she was pregnant. Evicting a pregnant woman is an outrageous act.

Keeda is now living in temporary accommodation in Hendon with her 12-year-old son. Her son is a very bright young man – very gifted academically. This is important. Her son has real talent. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Latymer Upper School in West London. That’s one of the reasons why Keeda wants to find a home nearby – and another reason why pushing her out of the area would be outrageous. I’ve seen school reports about Keeda’s son and they are glowing. He obviously has a great deal of ability. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the birthright. Instead, he has an uncertain housing situation. At best, he faces a very long commute to school. And yes – everyone should have the right to a great education and a great school in their local area. They most certainly should. The point is that they don’t. That’s why people hold onto chances with everything they’ve got. If Keeda’s son had been born to a certain family just up the road from the CityWest house, he could commute to school from Buckingham Palace. If you have the money, you get the access to the schools, the homes, the people, the networks and the opportunities. If you don’t – you don’t. And that’s the point. These are the reasons people fight so hard to stay put.

Keeda’s story: she lived in a CityWest home for several years with a former tenant for whom she worked as a carer. She was not a partner or relative of that tenant, and so technically didn’t have the right to inherit the flat when he died in 2010. But there seems to have been a lot of confusion about this. CityWest set Keeda up with a rent account and a rent card – and collected rent from her for several years. Keeda – not unreasonably – assumed she had inherited the tenancy and that discretion had been shown. There was an arrears dispute – possibly pre-existing arrears, Keeda thinks, and latterly an extra charge because she had a “spare” bedroom. The papers I’ve seen (like Gemma, Keeda has a mountain of paperwork) show that by 2013, the arrears were much reduced.

Ultimately, CityWest began eviction proceedings against Keeda, saying that she had no tenancy rights. She was offered a temporary let in Purfleet in Essex – which really is miles away from her son’s school. And this is the point. You would have thought that councils and housing associations would do everything they could to keep him near that school and in stable living conditions.

I know I’ll hear the same thing again here – that Keeda does not have a right to her expectations and that she can’t live centrally and must take whatever she is given and so on. Actually, that’s rubbish. She and her children are as deserving as anyone. Her son is certainly as deserving as, let’s say, Prince George. All PG has done to date is model overalls. Keeda’s son has won a competitive scholarship and kept up with his academic work even while living in terror of bailiffs. That’s the equation.

I asked CityWest Homes for comment on this, but got nothing back.

So –

Here’s a brief list of other battles for housing at the moment (feel free to send others through as I will keep updating this list and interviews):

The Guinness Trust

From Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth:

“Guinness Trust residents on Assured Shorthold Tenancies (ASTs) on the Loughborough Park estate are facing eviction as their so-called social landlord, Guinness Partnership, has written them out of the regeneration plans. After many years living on the estate and being a part of the local community, AST residents are being evicted, made homeless and forced out of their community. We have written about this previously here, and have held a lively protest on the estate.”

Residents’ facebook page.

Interviews on the excellent Brixton blog

Focus E15 mothers

This group of young mothers are fighting for social housing for all. First faced with eviction from their temporary accommodation at the Focus E15 hostel in Newham, some of the women and their children were placed in year-long private lets. Those lets will be up for renewal soon.

Focus E15 facebook page

Lambeth co-op evictions

From the Lambeth United Housing Co-op

“Lambeth Council is currently destroying housing co-ops that have existed in the borough for 40 years, while at the same time marketing itself as a ‘co-operative council’.
Lambeth’s ‘recall’ of ‘shortlife’ housing means that members of these co-ops (including OAPs and other vulnerable people) are being taken to court so that the council can gain possession of their homes – homes that co-op residents have maintained across this 40-year period – and sell them on the open market, at auction.”

5 thoughts on “London evicts. Women and children first, thanks

  1. Oh, Kate, I should have mentioned this to you – you remember my estate regeneration plans? Well, Manchester City Council (and I think Guinness Northern Counties are also involved, but I can’t be sure as they’re not precisely clear about that) have decided that, instead of replacing the demolished homes with social housing so that people from West Gorton who moved elsewhere in the city (temporarily, they were all led to believe, on the promise that they would be able to move back when the new homes were built) can move back to the estate they’ve lived in for whatever amount of time, they’re selling the lot off to developers for private rental property development – to “mix the character of the estate”. Despite claiming that everyone who was obliged to move away due to the low number of new buildings already built would be able to come back. I’m fairly sure some of the people in question have kids who are still at school in this estate, and some were moved as far out as Wythenshawe. I’m still furious about this behaviour on their part…

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  4. There is no excuse for these evictions. Council housing should be a priority. Even after the last war when many homes were destroyed the ‘prefab’ came to the rescue. I am ashamed of the way those struggling to fiind and keep a home are treated.

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