On Sunday 21 September, a nearly empty council estate in Stratford, East London was turned into a children’s party venue by a group of young mothers and their supporters. The Carpenters estate, normally so eerily quiet since Newham Council decanted most of its residents, was bathed in the sound of dance music, children’s games and impromptu speeches as people of all ages gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of Focus E15 Mothers, a campaign organised by young homeless women for decent social housing and the right to stay in London. At around 4pm the party reached its crescendo to the sound of live samba drumming as, to the surprise of most of the revellers, the metal security grating was removed from one of the windows of an empty block of flats to reveal several of the mothers inside. As the crowd below cheered, a banner was hung from the window that read: ‘social housing not social cleansing’.
The occupied block of flats has been opened to the public and will be run as a social centre with an evolving programme of daily events, including a free comedy gig from Josie Long. All are welcome to come and view the house and engage in discussions about how to address the housing crisis. Here are four key lessons we can learn from the Focus E15 Mothers:
1. Displacement is not inevitable – it can be resisted.
Rising rents, the bedroom tax, the benefits cap, public spending cuts and the sell-off social housing are all forcing people out of London. Instead of accepting their fate, the women behind the Focus E15 campaign got organised, ran a weekly stall in Stratford to collect signatures and occupied the Council’s housing office. This won them exposure in the local and national media. The result, according to Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton, was a ‘partial victory’, as Newham agreed to house them in private accommodation locally. However, the mothers now have to contend with poor-quality housing, high rents and insecure tenancies. As such, they are determined to continue to campaign for decent, local social housing for themselves and all those who need it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that 12 months after being told they would have to leave London, these women are now at the centre of an exciting movement and are not going anywhere soon. The E15 Mothers show that contrary to the everyday narratives about the inevitability of market forces and austerity politics, displacement can be, and is being, resisted.
2. Housing is a concrete issue around which a new popular movement could emerge.
For the first time since 2011, it feels like something new is happening on the left in the UK. One of the remarkable things about the campaign, the fun day and the occupation is the diverse range of people involved. The mothers have been joined by current and former residents of the Carpenters estate, students, artists, community workers, university lecturers and seasoned revolutionary activists, to name a few. The ability of people from such different social and political backgrounds to work together to pull off such an impressive action is extremely refreshing in an age when splintering and sectarianism are the norm on the left. This collaborative spirit is a reflection of the fact that, with the exception of the 1%, almost everyone in London is being hurt by the housing crisis, albeit to differing degrees of severity. The fact that middle class professionals such as schoolteachers are increasingly struggling to afford the cost of living in the capital raises the possibility of a new movement based on a cross-class alliance over the issue of housing. If such an alliance is to emerge, then Focus E15 Mothers’ refreshing and inspiring campaign may provide the kindling, and maybe even the spark.
3. It is only right that women are at the forefront of the struggle against austerity.
If the E15 Mothers had followed Newham Council’s instruction to leave London, they would have been isolated from their local support networks, making it extremely difficult for them to bring up their children. This vividly illustrates how austerity polices have a disproportionately large effect on women, who are often solely responsible for childcare and other forms of important socially-reproductive labour. As such it is exciting that, while men dominate many political organisations, the leading figures in this housing campaign are all women.
4. Beyond resisting austerity, we must take action to decommodify housing.
The Focus E15 campaign is not just about resisting austerity: it challenges the status of housing as a market good. The occupation draws attention to the fact that people are being forced out of London due to a ‘shortage’ of affordable housing while around 600 perfectly good social housing units sit empty on the Carpenters estate. This is because Newham Council has decided to capitalise on rising land values in the vicinity of the Olympic Park and try to sell off the estate to private developers. The flats are in perfectly liveable condition, and one even has a brand new kitchen and power shower, but the Council would rather they sit empty than use them to house some of the thousands of households in need of homes in Newham.
Focus E15 Mothers refuse to accept this logic and have decorated the occupied block of flats with banners that read: ‘These people need homes, these homes need people’. This reflects a commitment to the principle that, rather than an asset or a commodity to be traded on the market as a source of profit, housing is a basic human right that should be allocated according to need. It makes no more sense for access to housing to be determined by the market than it does for there to be a free market in water or healthcare. The tactic of occupation is a rejection of the commodity status of housing. Whereas the Occupy movement engaged in occupation as a form of spectacular protest against the excesses of neoliberal capitalism, the Focus E15 Mothers’ action demonstrates how we can collectively tackle the shelter crisis and address unmet needs by decommodifying empty houses and turning them into homes.