22 July 2013 — Open Security
The marketisation of access to housing security is central to the increasingly normative experience of housing precarity in London. Lambeth Council’s eviction of long-term squatted and short-life housing co-op communities is pouring fuel onto the fire: making people homeless to clear the way for public housing stock sell-offs.
On Monday 15th July, 75 people were evicted from Rushcroft Road, a long-term community of squats and former short-life housing co-ops in central Brixton. The eviction represents a major step by Lambeth Council towards the further gentrification of the area. Determined to realise the (high) financial value of the Rushcroft Road properties, Lambeth Council has made 75 people homeless to clear the way for sale of much of this public housing stock to private developers.
Denied legal aid, and thus access to challenge the eviction in a court, the residents were left with narrowed means of resistance, a situation all too common for many precariously housed people. The eviction itself displayed typical levels of violence from police and high court enforcement officers (HCEOs). But evictions are also moments in which broader structural and social violence becomes manifest. During the UK’s severest housing crises in decades, processes of ‘social cleansing’ such as these in Brixton demand that we re-examine some assumptions about security of home – and of property.
Reclamation: from empty to loved
The Edwardian mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road were first squatted 32 years ago. Bought by Lambeth Council in the mid-1970s, they were intended for demolition to make way for a motorway and high-rise council housing block. The development plans fell through, and many of the Rushcroft Road blocks were left empty by the council, falling into a state of disrepair.
Representing a classic example of squatting as the reclamation of neglected housing resources and a means to push for secure housing where the authorities fail to do so, those who occupied the empty flats on Rushcroft Road undertook repairs, started families, and built a thriving community at the heart of Brixton. One person, who had entered a flat as a squatter in 1988, won adverse possession in 2001 after 13 years of habitation without a single word from Lambeth Council. Another, evicted on Monday, had lived on Rushcroft Road for 32 years.
In the early 1980s, short-life housing co-ops were established in some of the flats, with the council handing management of them to housing associations tasked with housing single homeless people. In 2000 this agreement was terminated by Lambeth Council, and the residents served eviction notices. With nowhere else to go, many stayed. An ensuing legal challenge from 2002-6 ultimately granted the council power to evict, but it has taken Lambeth until now to do so.
Access to court scrutiny
Lambeth Council’s eviction of Rushcroft Road reflects a broader violence: the imbalance of power between landlord and precariously housed within the arena of legal justice. This has been entrenched by the recent Legal Aid reforms and the criminalisation of squatting in residential properties. Excluded from the opportunity to oppose the eviction in the courts, the occupiers were left with only physical resistance to the bailiffs.
Recent changes to case law brought new grounds for a legal challenge of the eviction of Rushcroft Road under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (the right to a home and peaceful family life). Some Rushcroft Road residents sought to mount a legal challenge under Article 8, but were denied legal aid. This effectively denied residents access to court scrutiny of Lambeth’s decision to evict. Without legal aid they would have been personally liable for court costs upwards of £50,000, including the costs of any cancelled evictions, if they lost the case. The financial risk of pursuing legal justice was prohibitive.
Recent changes to Legal Aid – which caps applicability at a monthly disposable income of £733 – further narrow the ability of the precariously housed to seek justice in the face of an eviction threat.
One former resident told me that the Council had been renewing its possession writ each year since 2006, but had moved this process to a court in Cardiff – leaving the residents unrepresented at the hearings. In a statement in 2012, Councillor Pete Robbins, cabinet member for neighbourhood services, seemed to reflect a broader council attitude towards having the legality of their decision making scrutinised in the courts:
“The squatters at Rushcroft Road have absolutely no right to be there and I am determined to take a zero tolerance approach…rather than force us to spend taxpayers money on legal proceedings it would be better if they just left now.”
Better for who?
Lambeth used a tired rhetoric demonising squatters to legitimate the eviction, removing any obligation to house them as homeless people. Its neglect of the properties for three decades was quietly forgotten. This is part of a broader discourse in which the payment of rent is consistently asserted as the marker by which the right to secure housing is determined. Social need, length of stay, association with a place as ‘home’, or caretaking of neglected property, has no part to play. In turn, ‘the homeless’ are all too often imagined as an abstracted phantom, sleeping rough in the frightening spaces of marginalised desperation. Burrowed deep into our social consciousness, these spaces are disciplinary – to claim ‘homelessness’ is to claim total abjection.
But homelessness, and moreover the constant threat of it, exists in many hidden forms: the sofa surfer, the private tenant on a 6 month contract, the squatter facing eviction and criminalisation, the council tenant threatened with eviction due to the bedroom tax, the ‘social’ housing tenant facingdisplacement due to re-development. The neoliberalisation of housing has cast its net of precarity wide: whilst the market is the generalised means to access housing, but the means to ‘do well’ within it are not. Consequently, homelessness and housing insecurity is for many a persistent feature of living in London.
Behind the demographic-scale vision projected by the term ‘housing crisis’ lies an increasingly normative lack of housing security, particularly in cities such as London. Not least because councils such as Lambeth routinely displace responsibility for its provision, privatising its own housing stock and buying wholesale into the marketisation of access to it.
As organisations such as SQUASH have argued, the criminalisation of squatting, and the wave of evictions seen over the past couple of years, is anattack on a fundamental safety net turned to by many facing housing need within this precarity. Squatters are amongst the vast numbers of ‘hidden homeless’ people. Research by homelessness charity Crisis has shown that40 percent of single homeless have squatted at some point as a means to find temporary shelter and avoid street sleeping.
But squatting also has a long history as a mechanism to achieve greater security in housing; to reclaim housing resources, often ‘socialising’ them; and prevent the delapidation and decay which comes from a property left empty in the long-term. This is precisely the history of Rushcroft Road. In Brixton, squatting played a large part in the area’s diverse and radical history, an interesting example of what is made possible by squatting. As the Rushcroft Road residents articulated, this possibility extends beyond the salvaging of buildings, but also the facilitation of unwaged and low-paid (but socially necessary) work: “We are a community of people who all attend to priorities that capitalism neglects.”
The violence of ‘social cleansing’
The police, as ever during an eviction, claimed their intervention to be to prevent a ‘breach of the peace’ and to facilitate a ‘lawful eviction’. Whilst they intervened to physically clear those resisting the eviction, no action was taken against the multiple instances of violence used by the private high court enforcement officers (HCEOs) hired by the council to carry it out. HCEOs hit and pushed those present, going far beyond their power to use ‘reasonable force’ to ensure an eviction. I personally witnessed a HCEO holding someone by the throat, which video and photographic documentation of the eviction reveals to be a repeated occurrence. This video shows the actions of HCEOs, in jumpsuits and hard hats, towards the end of the eviction (note the HCEO in the left-hand side of the doorway and the person on the floor visible towards the end of the video):
However, the violence of this eviction is also the long-term structural violence of housing marketisation and commodification. During the eviction, a police officer remarked to me that: “if they [the occupiers] can’t afford the rent here, they’ll have to leave”. The comment expertly reflects the logic of a fully marketised understanding of ‘home’, and the means by which access to housing security is acquired in our society. There is no place for social need in this equation.
Amidst the worst housing crisis in decades, with the official homelessness rate rising by 14% in 2011-12 and social housing waiting lists reaching a cumulative total of five million people, it is clear that the logic of this equation does not add up. With rents and property prices skyrocketing across London, those who can afford to live in places like Brixton are increasingly only the highest earners. A single flat in one of the Rushcroft Road blocks was recently sold for £475,000.
Lambeth Council has announced intentions to sell three of the six Rushcroft Road blocks on the open market. With one estimated value of £5.5 million, these are headed quickly into the ‘luxury flat’ terrain. Two additional Rushcroft Road blocks, evicted a couple of years ago, were already sold on the private markets.
This sits alongside the eviction of 50 people from Clifton Mansions, a Brixton hub of arts and music culture occupied by squatters for two decades. The council spent £380,875 on the eviction alone, and then £63,976.80 on private security company Camelot to make the flats ‘habitable’ for their live-in ‘property guardians’. After being sold to property developers Lexadon, a three bedroom Clifton Mansion’s flat is now available to rent for £2,100 a month. In an era of low wages, high unemployment, and caps on housing benefit Lambeth’s ‘disposal’ of this public housing stock is fuelling gentrification processes that are narrowing who can afford to live in the area.
Whilst Lambeth Council had the ability to evict since 2006 it did not. One can only speculate at present on its reasons for this. But the fact that the property market crashed spectacularly in 2008, with depressed housing prices now again reaching record heights, must surely have some part to play. The price of property, particularly in a rapidly gentrifying part of London such as Brixton, is now ripe for this kind of council sell-off of public housing stock.
Attempts by Rushcroft Road occupiers to negotiate with Lambeth towards the transformation of some of the blocks into housing co-ops were met with intransigence. Indeed, the self-proclaimed ‘co-operative council’ is currently implementing its plan to re-call its properties in which short-life co-ops are still running (ironically for a long time). After neglecting these properties for over 30 years, leaving the residents to pay for upkeep out of their own pockets, Lambeth has suddenly ‘remembered’ their worth. Marketisation is prized over the continuation of this sustainable and secure form of ‘social housing’.
Within this privatisation, Lambeth Council have announced plans to retain 22 of the Rushcroft Road units and make them available for social rent. With this Lambeth not only claim the eviction as legitimate, but also necessary: the private sales bringing in the necessary finance for social housing provision. The irony of evicting 75 people to make way for a smaller quantity of social housing is palpable.
However, Lambeth’s claim also needs to be placed in context of the much larger sell-off of previously neglected and then squatted public housing stock outlined above. With each round of evictions, Lambeth Council has claimed the necessity of a private sell-off to fund social housing. However, as theBrixton Blog recognises: “The council isn’t legally allowed to ringfence money from the sale of one asset to spend on another, so the money will go into the main council pot and it is a separate promise to refurbish the remaining flats.” As the case of Clifton Mansion shows, this promise is not necessarily golden.
The criminalisation of squatting extends the sanctity of private property rights into ’empty’ space, unused and abandoned by the owner. This has dealt a blow to a historic mechanism by which people have sought to secure housing justice and satisfy the fundamental human need for a decent home. In reflecting on Monday’s eviction, rather than buy into the manipulative rhetoric illegitimating ‘squatters’, we should question the legitimacy of a council driving forward the marketisation of housing security.