Rewind to late autumn 2014.
Residents on the New Era estate fear they will be evicted from their homes before Christmas, writes Paul Coleman.
A rich and powerful American property company now owns their east London estate – and apparently plans to raise rents to unaffordable levels.
The company wants to turn these 1930s-built homes into luxury rented apartments.
“I don’t know how these investment people were allowed to do it,” says resident Nell Hammond, whose husband Terry suffered a recent stroke.
“They want to destroy this community.
We thought we were going to die here.
But we might die here before this is all over because we can’t take all this worry.”
But the New Era tenants fight back and during November and December run a determined, high profile campaign.
Surprising themselves, they win – just a few days shy of Christmas.
There will be no rent rises in 2015.
Immediately, some commentators hail the New Era residents’ victory as momentous.
A sign that the London-wide decanting, dispossession and displacement of generations of born and bred Londoners can be successfully resisted.
And, that rent levels can be set on the basis of Londoners’ incomes rather than on London’s rocketing property values.
It also shows global investors don’t like campaigns against them.
Share values are vulnerable to protest.
Global capital sloshing around the world runs shy from bad publicity.
So, the campaign by New Era residents points to a possibility that the avalanche of profit-seeking global capital – descending so destructively on Londoners’ family lives – can be halted.
Or, at least, scared away.
Global capital, in flight.
But taking fright when confronted by tenacious New Era residents.
In large part, Lindsey Garratt, 35, a single mother who has lived on the estate for 22 years, spearheads the New Era fight-back, along with two other thirty-something mothers, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari.
In November, Garratt, whose own mother lives on the estate, vows bailiffs will have to drag residents from their homes if the American global property ‘asset management’ company succeeds with its plans.
“This powerful and rich company has been allowed to come over here and buy residential properties,” says Garratt, a National Health Service worker.
“It’s just horrifying.
But when people threaten the security of our children, what’s dear to us, then we come out fighting.
“Our message to them is leave our homes alone.”
Westbrook Partners, an ‘asset management’ company with an $11 billion global property portfolio, purchases the New Era in March 2014 for an estimated £20 million – a snip when set against central London property values.
Westbrook reportedly aims to raise rents, evict the tenants, and re-let refurbished at full market rates.
The New Era sits within Hoxton – close to the City of London financial district and to ‘Tech City’ – a zone taken up by media and tech start-ups.
A neighbourhood still home to generations of working people on average and lower incomes.
Yet, in the 21st Century, Hoxton becomes one of London’s most fashionable ‘urban quarters’.
With properties highly sought after by bankers, investors, media start-up folk – and by ‘hipsters’ seeking an ‘edgy urban lifestyle’ softened by honey vanilla lattes.
The company transfers New Era ownership to an offshore company registered in the tax haven of Jersey in the Channel Islands.
Westbrook buys the estate jointly with the Benyon Estate – a family property company run by Richard Benyon, a Conservative Member of Parliament for Newbury in Berkshire.
Benyon Estate plans to act as managing agent – and takes a stake of less than 10% in the New Era.
“We were told our rents were going to triple, going to £2,000 a month from around £600,” recalls Garrett.
Locally elected politicians at Hackney Council fully expect Westbrook to issue eviction notices to those tenants very likely to be unable to afford the newly hiked rents.
But local politicians – and Westbrook Holdings – underestimate the New Era fightback.
But not the Benyon Estate.
They pull out of their involvement as residents protest and media interest rises.
A Benyon Estate spokesman says “residents made it clear they wanted us to pull out, and this is what we have reluctantly decided to do”.
Now, the New Era campaign rounds on Westbrook.
Around 60 tenants in a 300-strong crowd rally outside Westbrook’s offices at Berkeley Square in Mayfair on 1 December.
Protesting residents then march through the busy West End to Downing Street – home of Prime Minister David Cameron.
They call upon the government to introduce rent caps, longer private tenancies and demand councils build more social housing.
“This is a widespread problem across London,” says Garratt.
“People are being pushed out of London because they don’t earn enough money.
“We want David Cameron to step in and protect us from large corporations coming in and buying up houses, pushing up rents and pushing out real London people.”
They call for London Mayor Boris Johnson to intervene – but Johnson is overseas, ironically promoting London as an investment target to property investors in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Finally, the New Era campaigners hand in a 300,000-signature petition to Number 10 Downing Street.
It calls upon Cameron to pressure Westbrook to levy affordable rents.
Hackney Council mayor Jules Pipe, joining the New Era rally crowd, reveals the local authority is privately talking with Westbrook.
“This protest puts pressure on them to think very seriously about transferring the estate to another form of ownership and we are talking privately with Westbrook to encourage them to go down that route,” says Pipe.
The politically active comedian Russell Brand, amplifying the New Era campaign’s media profile, talks of residents buying the estate and running it themselves as a ‘social co-operative’.
City Hall, London’s seat of government, can no longer sit back and ideologically let London’s property market to run freely over the New Era.
Negotiations widen to include London’s deputy mayor for housing, Richard Blakeway.
Garrett and colleagues call on London Mayor Boris Johnson to intervene.
They remind Johnson that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has condemned Westbrook.
“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,” says de Blasio.
“London is experiencing what New York used to experience…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.”
In an apparent effort to pacify tenants and evaporate media interest, Westbrook hand-delivers a letter to residents, saying: ‘There will be no changes to the tenancy agreements and no increase in rents during the first half of 2015.
‘To help us work more closely we will also be appointing a dedicated tenant liaison officer…We understand the accusations about us and our plans have caused concern and distress amongst tenants, so we hope that these commitments provide some further reassurance.’
The company says it wants to meet tenants on an ‘individual basis’.
Garrett sees this as a delaying tactic by Westbrook.
“They’re hoping this will die down and we are going to go away but we won’t because we haven’t got anywhere else to go.”
More pressure builds on Westbrook – and gets personal too. The media spotlight falls on Mark Donnor, 41, a managing principal of Westbrook’s Berkeley Square office.
Donnor reportedly buys a £3.9m, 12-bedroom mansion in the Home Counties, roughly at the same time as his firm buys the New Era estate.
Finally, at 2pm on Friday 19 December, comes news that sends Garrett, Spiteri and Molinari into raptures – and brings relief to elderly New Era residents like the Hammonds.
Westbrook agrees to sell the New Era estate.
The new buyer is the Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation – described as an ‘affordable housing charity’, dedicated to offering low cost rents to people on lower to middle incomes.
Rents will be kept at current levels for the next year.
“Tenants do not need to worry about this Christmas or next Christmas,” says John Gooding, chief executive of Dolphin Living, the charity’s wing that deals with residents.
Gooding says he understands the “disconnect” between rising London rent levels and Londoners’ stagnant wages.
He says Dolphin Living will consult with tenants about rents, repairs and renewals to secure the New Era’s long-term future.
“We will be proud to continue the long tradition of the New Era estate as a community of working Londoners.”
Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe promises the Council will monitor the situation: “We will continue to seek assurances from them about their future plans for the estate.
This news is very welcome for New Era, but there are thousands of private tenants in London suffering from escalating rents and insecure tenancies.
This case highlights the urgent need to reform and regulate the sector.”
In a letter to tenants explaining the Dolphin deal, Gooding signs off: ‘I hope you can now have a more relaxed Christmas.’
An emotional Garrett celebrates in the Stag local pub with Spiteri, Molinari and other New Era tenants.
Garrett says: “We beat a multi-billion dollar investment company.
“Who would have thought three single mothers from Hoxton could have done that?”
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, December 2014