London: DiY regeneration shows how to solve housing crisis

We’re told the only solution to the housing crisis is to build more homes. Just whack up enough new build flats and the market will sort itself out and make things a bit more affordable, right? But if you’re a person who’s getting kicked out of a council estate so that it can be flattened and then gentrified, it is in fact the building of houses or yuppy flats that is the cause of your housing crisis, not the solution.

House building is an increasingly violent process forcing us further from our cities and our lives. Following colossal privatisations initiated in the 1980s, stratospheric rises in property values have seen investors transform homes into financial instruments and bricks into gold. With housing allocation focused on generating profits, developers are demolishing public housing to construct private fortunes – buying up the price controlled homes of the poor to build properties designed solely to exploit the market.

The violence of turning homes into piggy banks is clearest when you witness an eviction: a moment when the human need for shelter and meaningless abstractions of investors brutally collide. First legalised by a court system that has repeatedly shown itself to be unjust, evictions finally manifest in court papers thrust at people by gangs of police and bailiffs walking emotional voids throw families into the street while mumbling that they’re “only doing my job”.

For the 142 families of Sweets Way in North London, the shattering effect finance and evictions have on people’s lives has been grimly demonstrated [as covered on S!N]. Annington Homes (the UK’s largest private landlord) plans to demolish all traces of the existing residents to build 288 new units. Annington was almost given Sweets Way in a controversial 1996 privatisation of government housing. By kicking out the low-rent social housing tenants and cramming the site with market rate properties, a community is being butchered to make a killing for investors.

An inhabitant for over five years, Anna’s story is typical of what has become commonplace for residents at Sweets Way and estates across the country. When Anna received her eviction notice she searched for alternative accommodation, only to rapidly find that as a single parent with two young children no landlord would let her a property she could afford. As bailiffs dragged her neighbours screaming from their homes, Anna turned to the local council for help only to be told that as she was not yet homeless, she would first have to be evicted before they would assist her. Left stranded on an emptying estate and not knowing where she was going to live, life became a tortuous wait to be dispossessed, with an effect on her children that Anna describes as “heartbreaking”.

Just one hour before her eviction Anna finally discovered she was expected to move to a flat outside the borough. As she frantically rushed to move three bedrooms by herself, the bailiffs ran out of patience, sealing the doors and her remaining possessions inside her former home. To prevent reoccupation, workmen used sledgehammers to smash the walls, ceilings, sinks and toilets. Anna was one of the lucky ones: some residents were relocated as far away as Birmingham, while others were billed for the cost of their own eviction.

As part of the portfolio of Terra Firma (a multi-billion pound investment fund) Annington have little interest in housing apart from extracting as much money as possible. The brainchild of financier Guy Hands, Terra Firma has interests in everything from cattle farms to trains, planes and Odeon cinemas – netting Hands an estimated personal fortune of £250 million, which he holds in offshore tax havens. Hands describes Annington as “a pure play residential property company […] with the ability to benefit from the strength of the property market”. When asked by the Guardian in March 2015 about the impact his investments have had on residents’ lives, Hands declined to comment.

Unsurprisingly, the residents have given Hands the finger. By occupying their former homes and resisting evictions, they have now delayed the destruction of their estate and its community for over five months. Following Annington’s alleged wanton vandalism of perfectly serviceable buildings, the residents’ latest initiative has been a collaborative action they have termed “Do It Ourselves Regeneration”; sensitively refurbishing semi-demolished homes back to inhabitable condition.

Intending to demonstrate how grassroots solutions can trump the astro-turfing of private finance, the “People’s Regeneration Show Home” has been collectively built by a community with no formal construction skills. Use of reclaimed materials from the sort of palette “edgy” designers can only aspire to has created an architectural vocabulary unique to Sweets Way. The holes in the walls left by Annnington’s sledgehammers have been carefully re-plastered and rooms repainted; reclaimed timber cabinets have been built into a kitchen with a floor imaginatively retiled with surplus roofing slate. On hearing about the project, local tradesmen came to donate sinks and toilets, and plumbed them in for free. Local electricians did the same thing with the wiring.

Anna excitedly told me about residents’ dreams of a self-sufficient neighbourhood, comprised of eco-homes nestled among communal gardens and allotments, populated by children’s play areas and a strong community. Across the reclaimed estate the residents’ fantasies have begun to become reality, as brightly coloured structures containing everything from kids’ dens to vegetable gardens combine with artwork and planting to produce a vision way more interesting than a developer’s anaemic artist’s impression of a new build estate. Proof, Anna reckons, that if granted residency rights and a small amount of money, existing social housing could not just be preserved but enhanced.

Laced with the semaphore signals of social cleansing, Annington’s planning application claims Sweets Way is “unsafe” and “out of character” with the local area. Whereas occupiers have demonstrated that urban improvement can be undertaken through the democratic participation of communities, the centrepiece of Annington’s “consultation” process consisted of an exhibition of “proposals”, which seemed to many to have already been decided, open for two hours on a Friday night. Undertaken by a PR firm specialising in helping property developers secure planning permission, this perhaps explains why Annington’s marketing literature claims the evictions at Sweets Way constitute “meeting local housing needs”.

Annington propose to create a neighbourhood of “Traditional Private Aspiration” comprised of suburban homes so dull that even their prospective yuppie occupants cannot seriously think they will be able to amuse themselves within them. What is being constructed is not housing, but a tax efficient investment opportunity; the same bland nothingness that has given rise to a thousand identical towers lofting everywhere and anywhere in our cities, with the obvious effect of making England even more boring than it has already become.

In just one week and for less than £400, the residents have sustainably returned a home to use. With over a million properties lying empty across the country, the self-built solutions of Sweets Way offer a route out of the crisis we could begin to take immediately.

Residents have built greenhouses and planted makeshift allotments to take back the estate.

The idea of building our own homes seems like the fantasy of a survivalist hermit, but this only emphasises how the crisis today is predicated on our enforced subscription to the housing market. The market’s existence depends on purging self-built housing, achieved through state violence enforcing an enclosure of common land. Far from being a single historical event, this process is ongoing. Yesterday, the residents of Sweets Way appeared in Court, and a possession order was granted, meaning they can be evicted at any time.

Building our own homes (with permission or otherwise) not only materially improves our immediate situation but asserts political power. By using our own agency to shape our built environment we do not simply demand a right to our cities but take it, directly challenging the mechanisms that allow theft of our neighbourhoods for a global elite. The residents of Sweets Way are calling for urgent reinforcement to prevent their eviction and dispossession. When the future will only contain what we put into it today, we would be foolish not to support them.

Ben Beach is an activist with the Radical Housing Network.