A Future for the Occupy Movement? Occupy Our Homes in the US, And People Before Profit in South London

As the Occupy movement signals its reappearance, many observers have been wondering where its focus will be. In fact, even before the coordinated wave of evictions of Occupy camps across the US last November, and the later eviction of Occupy London outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, questions had been raised about where the movement should direct its attentions next, and empty property had arisen as a regular focus.

In the US, activists began to examine the foreclosure crisis, and the disgraceful situation whereby a vast number of houses are empty because those living there and paying mortgages couldn’t keep up with their payments or were swindled by unscrupulous lenders, even though there are no buyers for most of these properties, and homelessness is reaching epidemic proportions. In December 2011, Amnesty International reported that “approximately 3.5 million people in the US are homeless, many of them veterans,” and, “at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.”

On December 6, in more than two dozen cities across the US, Occupy Our Homes, “an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, took on the housing crisis by re-occupying foreclosed homes, disrupting bank auctions and blocking evictions,” as CNN described it. Representatives of Occupy Our Homes said they were “embarking on a ‘national day of action’ to protest the mistreatment of homeowners by big banks, who they say made billions of dollars off of the housing bubble by offering predatory loans and indulging in practices that took advantage of consumers.” For a report on the opening of a foreclosed home in Brooklyn, used to house a family in need, see this Guardian article, and also see this article by Amy Dean for Truthout.

Also in December, for CNN, Sonia K. Katyal and Eduardo M. Peñalver law professors and the authors of Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership, published by Yale University Press in 2010, wrote about the historical precedents for a shift “from public spaces toward private property” — in this case, foreclosed homes, and stated:

This shift may end up leaving Occupy even stronger than it was before the ejections began. It answers critics who have accused Occupy of lacking a political program and will help the movement build stronger ties with working-class Americans. To understand why, it helps to view Occupy in the context of earlier social movements that employed similar tactics.

A straight line runs from the 1930s sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, to the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins to the occupation of Alcatraz by Native American activists in 1969 to Occupy Wall Street. Occupations employ physical possession to communicate intense dissent, exhibited by a willingness to break the law and to suffer the — occasionally violent — consequences.

Effective occupations, however, have managed to do more than convey intensity. They have crafted visible signs of the reality protesters hope to create, thereby spurring legal change. The sit-down strikes arguably laid the groundwork for the enforcement of federal labor laws; the lunch counter sit-ins led to the enactment of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the Alcatraz occupation paved the way for a milestone reversal in Federal Indian policy, leading President Nixon to support tribal self-determination.

In the UK there has been less of a focus on property, although it is clearly of significance, with the Tory-led coalition government close to criminalising squatting in residential properties, even though this is both unnecessary and cruel. This is because there are robust civil procedures in place to allow squatters to be evicted from residential properties, and squatting only exists because: a) people cannot afford the disproportionately high rents that have arisen in an unregulated greedy market, and b) there are around a million empty properties in the UK (of which around 350,000 are long-term empty properties), and at least 500,000 homeless people — in accommodation provided by councils, in hostels, squats and on the streets. For further information, see this Guardian article, and Channel 4′s campaign, “The Great British Property Scandal,” which over 100,000 people — myself included — have joined to express their support for “stop[ping] this senseless waste.” You can join here — it will only take a minute.

After I joined, the campaign let me know that in the London Borough of Lewisham, where I live, there are an estimated 1,322 empty homes, according to Freedom of Information requests filed in 2011, and 16,060 people on the housing waiting list. Via the website’s “Report an Empty” page, I also learned that 121 empty homes in Lewisham have been reported since the campaign began at the end of last year.

I do encourage those who are concerned with homelessness to join Channel 4′s campaign, and also to find out what is happening to the most vulnerable homeless people — rough sleepers — via the website of The Pavement, the free magazine for homeless people in London and Scotland, which a very good friend of mine, Val Stevenson, is involved with.

However, following up on the theme of occupying empty property as part of the Occupy movement, I’d like to discuss the recent activities of People Before Profit, a Socialist, activist political party which began in Lewisham, and which promotes a policy of resisting cuts by the Tory-led government and providing jobs in the local area.

In February, People Before Profit discovered that Lewisham Council was planning to sell five houses — and a non-residential property — in an auction, despite the fact that there are, as Channel 4 noted, 16,060 people on the housing waiting list in Lewisham, and as PBP noted, around 1,000 families in temporary accommodation, a further 350 in hostels, and around 50 families in bed & breakfast accommodation, paid for by Lewisham’s council tax payers.

In response, activists staged what the Evening Standard described as “an audacious occupation” of the houses to halt Lewisham Council’s “‘knock-down’ sale of its properties.” The Standard added, “Teenagers and pensioners are among dozens of locals who swooped on the houses, mostly traditional Victorian terrace homes, during an open viewing day at the weekend. At the end of the viewing, the protesters refused to leave.”

A video that was made following the initial occupations is below:

With the three- and four-bedroom houses submitted with a reserve price of as little as £130,000, the auctioneers, Savills, cannot have done their cause much good when they told the Standard that “with improvements they could fetch as much as £400,000 on the open market.”

The Standard also noted that the council claimed the homes were “run down and too expensive to refurbish,” but a spokesperson for PBP explained that they needed “relatively little spent on them and the sale would only exacerbate the area’s housing crisis,” and added, “The council claim it would cost them £40,000 per house. But even if you spend that it’s still cheaper than using taxpayers’ money to put people into private sector housing. This is only making our housing crisis worse.”

A second video, dealing with the refurbishment of one of the houses, is below:

Over the next week, following the occupations, as the council withdrew the properties from the auction, activists worked on making the properties habitable, tidying them up, getting the electricity and gas working, and getting hot water running, and a petition was launched via Change.org, entitled, “Lewisham Council: Stop Selling Our Homes,” which stated:

We call upon Lewisham Council to ensure that ALL the council’s housing is made available to rent by the 16,500 people on the housing waiting list. Where refurbishment is necessary local people should be employed and training opportunities created for unemployed people to learn skills.

At the end of February, and the start of March, PBP — having had no luck in getting the council to talk to them — called for a family in need to move into one of their refurbished properties. As the website explained, “We heard from several families who wanted to move into the house in Angus Street and the council failed to nominate anyone from among the families in temporary accommodation, so we have agreed with a family of two parents and three young children that they can move into the house. Of course we have explained that it is possible that they will be evicted if the council chooses to apply for a court order for repossession.”

The News Shopper reported the story here, and a video about the Angus Street property is below:

After these initial successes, People Before Profit then received a tip-off that London & Quadrant Housing Association was selling off two flats at auction, and, at viewing time, visited the flats, in Hazeldon Road, Crofton Park, to investigate. As they explained:

[We] found two purpose built flats in need of redecoration but in perfectly good structural condition. The auctioneers’ catalogue showed a guide price of £275,000 to £300,000 for the whole building, not giving first time buyers the option of buying just one of the flats. We occupied the flats on Tuesday 27th March, shortly after the last viewing had been held and have cleaned the flats thoroughly, changed the locks and had the steel security doors removed. We have written to L & Q asking them to make the flats available to families from Lewisham’s housing waiting list and are awaiting a response. We have had several enquiries and the first family is moving in this weekend.”

Soon after, the Greenwich People Before Profit group expanded the campaign to SE12, occupying “a huge mansion” in Eltham Road, which is owned by Greenwich Council and “had been boarded up for about two years.” Greenwich PBP explained, “According to a previous resident, his family was evicted when the previous owner couldn’t afford to renew the lease on the building and it became the property of the freeholder — the Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Greenwich,” who have since boarded up and abandoned the property, which was previously converted into seven flats.”

The News Shopper, reporting the story of the occupation, stated that People Before Profit had announced that it intended and to clear the house and reconnect the heating and electricity supplies, although a Greenwich Council spokesman “said legal action would be taken.” Disregarding PBP’s call for council housing to be provided to local people in need. he claimed, “A decision has been taken to dispose of this property as it is in need of extensive repairs. The money raised from the sale will be put towards the provision of affordable housing and essential fire safety works in other properties which could now be delayed as a result of the actions of this group.”

In the South London Press, a front-page story announced, “Squatting drive ‘could work in other boroughs,’” and the report explained that the People Before Profit activists “want to widen their campaign across South London,” and are “demanding councils hand empty homes to people in need to combat the council’s housing shortage crisis.” Speaking of the Eltham Road property, campaigner John Hamilton told the newspaper, “Why Greenwich hasn’t been using this building to help re-home people on its housing list is a mystery,” adding, “We have also had interest from campaigners in Southwark who want to do the same thing with unused Southwark council properties, so the campaign could stretch across South London.”

Personally, I think that would be appropriate, as direct action tends to sharpen politicians’ minds to problems that ought to be staring them in the face, but as this story rumbles on I’d also like to mention another interesting initiative undertaken by People Before Profit — the occupation of the non-residential building that was also withdrawn for the auction, a decrepit garage on Harts Lane in New Cross. Occupied on March 10, it was cleaned up by volunteers and renamed Harts Lane Community Studios, and, on Saturday April 21, was opened up to the public with an art exhibition and live bands playing on the roof.

Local artists Boudicca Collins and Katie Surridge curated a show entitled “Heaven Baby,” which they described as “featuring sculpture, installation, drawing and painting from locally active artists,” and “exploit[ing] the idea that there is a paradise to be found in the abandoned, neglected and disused spaces in our everyday mundane surroundings.” Other artists included Andrew Clarke, Mark Anthony Brown and Tisna Westerhof, and the musicians on the roof included Black Dove and Alex & Richard (who I missed), and teen rockers Sunbeam, whose last number, “Rosie,” I caught the end of. Not venturing up onto the rickety roof for Beatles “Let It Be”-style glory were the Strawberry Thieves Choir, who sang their Socialist songs at street level.

With a free food kitchen and a sunny day, this was a great event, and one which, without this community takeover of the garage, would not have happened. What particularly struck me was what a lovely friendly vibe it was, and how little those who are elected to our councils and our government do to provide us with the opportunities to entertain ourselves and others in public spaces — and to be frank, how few opportunities exist for events that are’t corporate in nature. It felt very much like a new twist on the kind of events that were widespread in the 1970s and the 1980s, and even in the pre-Blair 1990s, but that almost became extinct after New Labour presided over the biggest housing bubble in British history, which made almost every single space in London into something that someone owned, or was to be flogged off as an investment opportunity.

I’m pleased to note that People Before Profit liked the event so much that they stated, “The event was such as success that we’d like to offer the venue to any group supportive of People Before Profit’s aims who can organise an event and publicise it. NO CHARGE — IT’S THE PEOPLE’S VENUE.”

On May Day, I can’t think of anything more appropriate, and I wish Barbara Raymond, People Before Profit’s candidate for the Greater London Assembly, the best of luck in Thursday’s elections, when, as I also hope, the Tories receive a massive blow to their electoral standing with the ousting of Boris Johnson as Mayor.

With photos at http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2012/05/01/a-future-for-the-occupy-movement-occupy-our-homes-in-the-us-and-people-before-profit-in-south-london/