Support Hoxton’s New Era Estate Tenants in Their Struggle Against Rapacious US Landlord Westbrook Partners

3.12.14

The two young women in the centre and the right of this photo live on the New Era Estate in Hoxton, and were part of a group of protestors that, on December 1, 2014, had just handed in a petition - of nearly 300,000 signatures - calling on David Cameron to protect them from the rapacious US property developers (Westbrook Holdings) who bought their estate earlier this year and now want to remove the tenants from the flats in which many have lived for decades, paying rents similar to those in council housing or housing associations. If evicted, many of these hardworking people will have to leave London entirely, because of the rampant greed in the capital that shows no sign of abating (Photo by Andy Worthington).Congratulations to the tenants of the New Era Estate in Hoxton for mounting a major campaign to oppose attempts by the US property company that bought up their homes to price them out, in an act of naked greed that ought to make any decent person feel rather queazy about how greed has become the sole measure by which society as a whole measures success.

The New Era Estate — home to 93 families in several blocks of flats in Hoxton, where London’s hipsters mix with council tenants — was built in the 1930s as workers’ housing, a private enterprise by a socially responsible family whose activities echoed what was being undertaken at the time by the London County Council. The Lever family, which built the estate, ran it through a trust — and kept the rents genuinely affordable — until March this year, when it was sold to a consortium, led by the US firm Westbrook Holdings, in which Tory MP Richard Benyon’s family firm also had a stake — and the Benyons, it transpired, took over the running of the estate.

In June, the Daily Mirror reported how rents had already been put up by 10% and how, at a meeting with tenants — many of whom have lived on the estate for decades — Richard Benyon’s brother Edward “announced plans to ­refurbish the 1930s homes and build more flats on the roof,” as the Mirror put it.

“The goal, which is something I have had to say to all of you, is the fact that the rents will be going to market value,” he said, meaning, quite possibly, a tripling or quadrupling of the existing rents, because of the hipness of Hoxton and the complete absence of any kind of rent control. Landlords, if they can get away with it, can charge £2000 a month for flats whether they are new, refurbished or run-down (making a total of £24,000 a year), even though the average income in the UK is only £27,000.

Speaking about the 10% rent  hike, Edward Benyon said, “Bearing in mind the rents were so far below market value we ­considered a 10% rise to be fair,” which showed a complete failure to understand what kinds of wages ordinary Londoners earn. He added, “I’m not going to sit here now and tell you it’s going to be double, quadruple, whatever it’s going to be.”

The Mirror noted he also “caused uproar when he was asked about eviction and said, ‘We’ve never evicted anybody because when people haven’t been able to afford to pay the rent they’ve moved out.'” In response, one resident said, “What if they’ve got nowhere to go?” and another said, “You really don’t give a sh*t do you?”

The story rumbled on, largely in the local media, until it suddenly got a huge boost at the start of November, when Russell Brand, fresh from publicising the Focus E15 Mothers campaign in Stratford — where a group of single mothers, evicted from a hostel, occupied boarded up council flats — took up the cause. Under the heading, “Join me on our first action,” on his website, he wrote, “I am excited to invite you to participate in our first action. As you know property developers — in partnership with corrupt, inept or lazy politicians — have created a housing crisis for ordinary people all over the world. I bet your rent is soaring; I bet you are finding it hard to pay. It’s especially bad in cities, and for this first action we want to focus on London.” He proceeded to invite his supporters to sign a petition on Change.org, and to protest outside the Benyons’ offices, and stated:

If the Benyons get their way, an entire community will be forced into B&Bs all over the country. They will be sent hundreds of miles away, to places they’ve never been, where they don’t know anyone. Old people who have lived there their whole lives, working nurses with kids, single mums — They will lose all the work, money and love they have invested in their homes and their community. This is happening everywhere. Boris, their elected mayor (where did he go to school again?) is on the side of the property developers, not people like you. The New Era residents have decided to organise and fight back — and we can help them.

The story then took off — partly through Russell’s popularity, but also because, following on from the Focus E15 Mothers protest, the housing crisis in London and the increasing unaffordability of housing for more and more working Londoners has become a topic that cannot be ignored.

Hit with a wave of bad press, the Benyons withdrew from the New Era deal, but Westbrook, a rapacious New York company, which, ironically, aggressively pursues profits for US teachers and public sector employees through their pension savings, refused to back down. In a powerful article for the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty explained how Westbrook’s expansion from New York to London is part of a disturbing trend whereby the homes of those who live on the New Era Estate, as well as numerous other homes throughout London, “have turned into an international asset class, to be bought and sold by speculators from across the world.”

As Chakrabortty noted, “By buying New Era, Westbrook has become a giant absentee landlord. No one from that firm will set foot on the Hoxton estate, of course. Indeed, since the Benyons’ exit, tenants report they have not heard a word from the Americans who now own their homes. Instead, it’s been the council who’s conveyed messages back and forth. This relationship is extreme, but it’s hardly anomalous. Rather, it’s the inevitable result of property developers and estate agents renting out hotel ballrooms in Asia to sell flats off-plan to Singaporean dentists and the like” — Singaporeans who, he explains, live in publicly funded housing in Singapore that is protected by the government, and so invest instead in London, whose citizens have no such protections extended to them by their own government, or their Mayor, Boris Johnson, whose decision to set affordable rents at 80% of market rents has made a mockery of the entire notion of what is affordable and what is not.

As Chakrabortty also explained:

[I]n London the problem is that it is now almost impossible for anyone coming to the city to buy here, or increasingly to rent somewhere decent, either.

Contrast that with the founding ethos of New Era: built by a charitable trust in the 1930s in order to offer working-class residents affordable private rented accommodation. Even when the blocks were sold this spring, residents say they were assured that the old tenets would apply. Within weeks, new owners told them that rents would rise to market values: spiralling from £600 a month for a two-bed flat to something closer to £2,400. That was meant to happen by summer 2016. After Benyon’s firm pulled out of the deal last week, residents were told that Westbrook would accelerate the process.

Westbrook has form in rough treatment of those people who pay it rent. Earlier this year the New York attorney general ordered it and a business partner to make up for thousands of building violations and to pay $1m to tenants, to make up for illegal fees and overcharging. Foreign money has long flowed into and out of London in volumes — but it’s no longer going into business or other investments up and down the country; it’s been diverted into the Shard, countless private high-rises (somehow so much better than the council equivalents) and all the other new developments turning the capital into a new and unaffordable zone off-limits to the people who’ve lived there for decades.

Academics call this process financialisation: the sudden creation of new financial markets and instruments. Molinari and the other residents of New Era used to have homes: now they merely live in financial instruments.

I can think of one other aspect of everyday life where this has happened recently: food. Over the past 10 years, wheat and other staples have become a financial asset class, to be speculated in by Goldman Sachs and Barclays. The result has been misery and even starvation for the poor of the Third World. For the poor of London, the financialisation of property spells homelessness.

However, because of the success of the New Era tenants’ campaign, the various players in New Era’s story — Hackney Council and Boris Johnson in particular — cannot duck the problem faced by the estate’s residents. The petition, signed by nearly 300,000 people, was delivered to 10 Downing Street on Monday afternoon, and earlier Russell Brand joined New Era tenants for a lively protest outside Westbrook’s Mayfair headquarters, which drew significant media attention.

That morning, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London, weighed in, telling the Guardian, “The shameful New Era saga embodies everything that is wrong with London’s broken housing market. Ordinary Londoners are suffering, with their homes ripped from underneath them and their lives and families pulled apart, just so international investors can make a quick buck, with no regard to the community they are destroying. If Westbrook won’t provide affordable housing to families on the estate they should sell to a social landlord who can keep the community together.”

The Guardian also noted that there are ongoing “negotiations between senior London politicians and Westbrook’s managing principal, Mark Donnor,” adding, “Over the last ten days, the firm has held meetings with Richard Blakeway, the deputy mayor for housing, Meg Hillier, the tenants’ Labour MP, Jules Pipe, the elected mayor of Hackney, and Philip Glanville, the cabinet member for housing at Hackney.”

The Guardian also noted:

Hackney is proposing that Westbrook sells the homes to a social-housing organisation, but in the absence of clear powers to force the private company to act, the negotiations are understood to be delicate.

Pressure is now growing on the London mayor Boris Johnson. Last week, Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, where Westbrook is based, spoke out against the firm.

“London is experiencing what New York City used to experience,” he said in an interview with Russell Brand on his Trews show. “Our city government found a huge number of violations of our law by Westbrook for unfair treatment of tenants and attempts to interfere with tenants who organised for their own rights. I can’t tell you that what you are experiencing is news to us … Sometimes it is fair to say there is a limit to the amount of profit you should make, because you shouldn’t want to dislocate people from their lives.”

Success for the New Era tenants is crucial, because, although their position is unusually vulnerable — as private tenants treated for years as though they were social tenants — if they are turfed out and many of them find they can no longer afford to live in London and have to move elsewhere, it will not only send a chilling message to hard-working Londoners, but will also reassure the leeches who are constantly seeking to destroy the capital’s social housing — primarily council housing and properties run by housing associations, as well as co-ops — that no one is safe.

I’ve lived in London — mostly in social housing — for almost 30 years, through the horrors of Margaret Thatcher, the doldrums of the John Major years (surprisingly, in retrospect, something of a golden age for freedom and dissent), the tacky housing-based greed and illegal warmongering of the Blair years, and Gordon Brown’s tenure during the banker-led collapse of the global economy (and its disgracefully rigged resurrection), but since the Tory-led coalition government of David Cameron seized power in May 2010 we have moved into a new era of cruelty, selfishness and greed that surpasses everything that has come before.

In all previous recessions, the housing market collapsed along with everything else, but after a brief dip in the fortunes of the wealthy after the 2008 crash, the housing market has rebounded, as a direct result of the Bank of England (with the full blessing of the government) maintaining interest rates at close to zero so that there is no point in people investing in anything other than property — especially as there is also very little willingness on anyone’s part to invest in British manufacturing, industry and, in general, the creative arts. It is true that this artificially inflated and artificially sustained housing bubble was also partly triggered by a general shortage of housing in London and the south east, but its main driver, I am sad to say, is greed.

In the last few years, house prices in London have exceeded the giddy heights they reached in the New Labour housing bubble, which reached its pre-crash peak in 2007, and with landlords unfettered by any legislation determining their actions, and greed the only measure of success in modern Britain, the cost of renting has also gone through the roof.

Across London, anyone who is young or who failed to get on the housing casino merry-go-round when it was affordable is now being bled dry, paying, in many cases, well over half their income for a roof over their heads. This one-on-one exploitation is generally accepted, when greed is the only measure of human worth, and in addition the younger and the poorer — in general — are subsidising the wealth of the older and richer, whose properties are now worth five, ten or even 20 times what they paid for them, and who, as a result, are massively cushioned in their old age while their children and grand-children suffer — unless the individuals in question are particularly rich.

Social housing — genuinely affordable rented housing — is the only way hundreds of thousands of people in London can afford to stay here, bearing in mind that Britain’s median income (the amount that 50% of workers earn less than, and 50% earn more than) is just £14,000. Genuinely affordable social housing — by which I mean socially rented housing costing about £50 per adult per week — is needed more than ever, if London is not to haemorrhage everyone who is not rich, leaving the rich with a scarcity of those required to serve them — and a savage lack of culture and creativity.

The Tories — in Parliament and City Hall — need to learn an important lesson from Bill de Blasio before it is too late. As he said, wisely, “Sometimes it is fair to say there is a limit to the amount of profit you should make.”

How sad that this is a line you hardly ever hear in Britain anymore.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sun Beams wrote:

    Glad you are writing about this – such a horrible situation for these poor souls – and such a glaring warning signal to everyone. Just wait and see when the next ‘crisis’ hits how what we perceive as ours in right will no longer be so. Anything can be put up for sale — even the precious NHS. 🙁

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sun Beams. The housing crisis permanently concerns me, but I don’t have the time to work on it full-time, what with all the other stuff still going on in that corner of Cuba where US laws were taken to die!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Sun Beams wrote:

    Yes, we all know your area of expertise, Andy. And many of us are truly thankful to you for it. I hope you are successful in all aspects of your work – bringing Shaker Aamer home to his family and in helping to permanently shut down that wretched torture chamber. I am one of your (albeit, curvy) cheerleaders.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Sun Beams! Wow, my own poster! That hasn’t happened before!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Sun Beams wrote:

    There’s always a first time for everything.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. I added some links last night to the sections about the monstrous housing bubble in London and the unaffordability of housing for so many Londoners, which I hope are useful.

  8. damo says...

    lets all keep our fingers crossed for the residents of the new era estate that they win the right to keep there homes,the housing crisis in London is out of control and god help people next year when the imbeciel ids universal credit comes in as most landlords now will not touch hb ,I like russel brand he,s a good un xxx any way good article andy …dxxx

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Damo. I was wondering where you were! I think universal credit is such a disaster that I can’t see it being universally adopted, but any and all horrors are probably on the table if people don’t realise in May that they mustn’t let the Tories get back in. And it’d help, of course, if people also realised that UKIP aren’t the answer either!

  10. damo says...

    I hope your right andy about universal credit but I fear that it is going ahead disaster or not and unfortunately the people who it will be the biggest disaster for are going to be those on benefits as we all know most hb landlords [you know the type the ones who have made millions from the homeless and hb payments]are dropping there social tenants …mine included… so just were are people going to go……margate …god help them…..unfortunately we may and god help us see a torie ukip coalition next year..labour have well and truly blown it..they realy realy have the whole white man van thing last week..people hate labour there core traditional voters hate them they see them as a party of flakes and champaine socialists..and I can see why ..but I will vote for them because we need every vote against the tories..every vote..hopefully god willing we are seeing a return to some kind of dissident ,people takeing to the streets protesting …thank god ..lets just hope and pray that it continues ..the protests keep growing..dxx

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo. I keep seeing reports indicating what a disaster IDS’s universal credit is, so I don’t think its future is assured. This from Oct. 27 in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/27/unversal-credit-failure-timetable-costs-iain-duncan-smith
    And Johnny Void: https://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/dont-believe-the-hype-universal-credit-is-no-closer-to-being-workable-than-it-was-in-2010/
    And the Huffington Post yesterday: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/12/05/iain-duncan-smith-universal-credit-delays_n_6274140.html
    As for the forthcoming general election, what can I say? I despair that so many people think that this vile, flint-hearted right-wing government isn’t right-wing enough, and somehow think that Nigel Farage is a decent human being, when he’s obviously a sack of hatred and resentment. Labour are out of touch, but only in part because they are incapable of framing a new narrative, even though that is desperately needed. Like Nick Clegg, they seem to be drawing some of the poison that really ought to be directed first and foremost at the Tories.

  12. damo says...

    As we well know andy the wool has been pulled over peoples eyes the poorest and most vulnerable have been blamed for the financial crash and the worlds problems …how does that work again…???…..It seems like were in some kind of new dark ages..if you want to see what I mean just go to east londons …TRENDY…lol shorditch on a weekend and you will litteraly see whats wrong with boris,s London and camerons Briton ..the greed and squaler will astound you …litteraly….but you know wat there are chinks of light comeing thru ,theres a whole buch of people ready to fight back from you and your Guantanamo work to the young mums fighting for there homes to the anti fracking campainers…oooh man thank god for that..dxxx

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo.
    Yes, I was with friends yesterday and we were talking about Brixton Village, the hipsters’ part of Brixton Market, which has security to keep the riff-raff out – while outside, of course, austerity is hitting the poor more and more. I’m amazed that there’s so little unrest, to be honest, and I know it’s something that is preoccupying those studying social trends – is it just that smart phones sedate people, so that we’re not seeing the kind of increase in crime and violence that this kind of Tory rule would be expected to produce?
    Glad you appreciate my work on Guantanamo – chipping away at the injustice, I hope. I’m also delighted to see what The Focus E15 Mothers and the New Era Estate tenants have been doing – and glad that Russell Brand has been lending his support – and I’m grateful for the work of the anti-fracking campaigners.

  14. damo says...

    Brixton is dead consumed by the hipsters,lol,shepards bush is in the process of being consumed there like weevels or cockroaches ,lol rich white provincial uncool dorks trying to be cool and….EDGEY…..lol now ,now I musent be so mean,lol but its pushing prices up and people out and its the poor who suffer they are on the frontline..people are being brainwashed by the smartphones just go on the tube people are obsessed by them ..but we know all of this honestly andy they wouldn’t have put up with this in the 70s,80s or 90s people would have taken to the streets …good on russel good on that man.dxx

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo. Unfortunately, it’s not just individuals driving up prices; the entire establishment is clinging to a belief in a crazed housing bubble as the basis for an economy, with all the misery that entails. I can’t recall a time in my life when there has been such dedication to transferring money from the poorer members of society to those who are already rich – with the exception of those at the very bottom of the economic scale, who are being totally excluded, left to sink or swim without any state support at all. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, even just five years ago.

  16. damo says...

    your right andy its easy to see the hipsters as scapegoats,lol ..it is the establishment just on the vannessa show on glr this morning was a debate about who owns wot in London now ,lol,lol…sob…my neibhour from hungary cannot belive how the poorest people are treated in this country ,she is astounded by it she says this would never ever happen in my country…and that andy says it all..dxx

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s time for a revolution – in our understanding of what is fair, at least, Damo. I was brought up as a Christian, and this kind of greed just wasn’t generally acceptable. It needs to be made unacceptable again.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    The good news! Westbrook bows to pressure and sells the New Era Estate to the Dolphin Square Foundation, which the BBC described as an “affordable housing group.” The Independent noted that the group “pledged it would decide rents on people’s earnings, not market values, and did not expect any existing tenants to be forced to leave because their rent was too high. Its spokesman John Gooding promised to ‘develop a rent policy that is demonstrably fair’ and said rents would be kept at their current level throughout 2015, so tenants ‘do not need to worry about this Christmas or next Christmas.'”
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30563265
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/new-era-estate-victory-residents-with-russell-brands-help-stop-takeover-of-their-estate-9937074.html

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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