Focus E15 Mothers campaign. Photo: Focus E15Stratford, East London, postcode E15. Home of the Olympic Park which hosted the 2012 games. Host to Europe’s largest ‘urban shopping centre’, Westfields. And, for the last two weeks, site of the E15 Open House.
On September 21st, the Focus E15 Mothers, a group of young mums, all under the age of 25, entered a boarded up block of four former council flats scheduled for demolition on the Carpenters Estate and opened up the property for use as a community centre.
The E15 mums started their campaign for ‘social housing not social cleansing’ one year ago when 29 of them were given eviction notices, informing them that due to spending cuts, they were to be moved from their hostel and relocated out of London, away from their friends, family and community.
These young women got organised and fought back, first with a petition and then by occupying council offices and the luxury show flat of the housing association that was evicting them. And they won. They were allowed to stay in the hostel and told by the council they would be housed locally. It was a partial victory – they have been re-housed, but in poor quality homes paying inflated London rents.
And so their next stop was the Carpenters Estate. Next to the Olympic Village, and overshadowed by Anish Kapoor’s £19.1m Olympic sculpture, the Carpenters Estate lies mostly empty, most of its residents already moved elsewhere by Newham council, leaving around 600 council homes empty.
In a borough where more than 24,000 households are waiting for somewhere to live, there is something wrong with this picture. The women decided to do something about it and occupied the boarded up building on the one year anniversary of the start of their campaign with the slogan “these homes need people, these people need homes”. And again they’ve secured a victory. The council are now going to make up to 40 of those homes on the Carpenters Estate available for homeless families, including the four occupied flats.
Focus E15 march. Photo: Focus E15
When I spoke with two of the E15 mums, Sam Middleton and Jasmin Stone, earlier this week they had just finished cleaning the block as they prepared to end the occupation. They wanted to make sure they left the building in a better state than they had found it after deciding to end their occupation, heads held high, on October 7th.
Jo Beard: Why did you occupy this building?
Jasmin Stone: We’re having a political occupation in this house on the Carpenters Estate to highlight the issue of people being sent out of London or becoming homeless when there are perfectly good homes already here. Some of these buildings have been boarded up for over eight years so we really wanted to raise awareness and put pressure on the council to reopen them and stop moving people away.
JB: Do you feel like it’s been a success?
Sam Middleton: Yeah, definitely. We’ve had a lot of press coverage, we’ve had lots of people coming down, we’ve had thousands of people that have supported us through social media as well and it has been overwhelming.
JB: I noticed posters in the window of the shop across from the flats, and in the windows of other houses on the estate, supporting your campaign. What’s the reaction been like from other local residents?
SM: Well we knew that with housing there is a big crisis at the moment so we would be getting a lot of support but I never thought as many people would actually come from the estate. We’ve had loads of residents come on the march as a sign of support [the E15 mums marched from the Carpenters Estate to the Bow County Court where they were faced with an eviction order]. The community got together to do up the downstairs flat that is excellent because we are trying to prove to the council that it doesn’t cost to do up these flats. If you let us redecorate, we can repopulate.
Occupied building on the Carpenters Estate. Photo: E15
JS: The shopkeeper [in the shop opposite the occupied building] asked us ‘are you leaving?’ and he had tears in his eyes, he was so upset.
JB: Not everyone has been supportive of what you are doing, I read that Councillor Andrew Baikie referred to people here as ‘agitators and hangers-on’, I also saw the Evening Standard piece saying that your protest had been ‘hijacked’ by ‘activists’. Do you think of yourselves as political activists?
SM: To be honest with you it’s a bit patronising that people think that young mums couldn’t take a stand and fight for what they believe in and what they think is right – yeah we have had a lot of support from loads of different people, but they’ve stood side-by-side with us.
We were made activists because of what happened to us because we wanted to fight back, we didn’t want to get evicted and sent somewhere else in the country. We chose to stay with our families, we chose to let our kids grow up and know their families and we’ve had to act upon the situation, we were forced into it.
JB: Councillor Baikie, who is mayoral adviser for housing, also said that ‘the Carpenters Estate is simply not viable’. What’s your reaction is to that?
SM: Council homes were never supposed to be ‘viable’. You’re not supposed to be making money off council housing.
JB: Tell me a bit about the relationship with Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham.
JS: We went to our local Labour mayor thinking we were going to get help. I told him ‘we’re the mums from Focus E15’ and immediately the first thing he ever said to us was ‘I know exactly who you are and I think it’s disgusting what you are doing’ and later on in that meeting he was saying to us ‘if you can’t afford to live in Newham you can’t afford to live in Newham – what do you want me to do about it?’. I was shaken up by that, it was the first time we’d gone to see him and I felt really intimidated. I was crying and shaking and then when we went to see him after that we were locked out of public meetings, we weren’t allowed to go to surgeries.
SM: If we were allowed in they made us wait until last to see him then we’d only get five minutes to speak to him.
JS: When we questioned him about the Carpenters Estate he’d say they’re in a ‘bad way, they’re in a bad way’ [Jasmin does an impression of Robin Wales] – they’re apparently derelict…
SM: They look perfectly fine to me [laughter]…
JB: And that they’re marked for demolition
[The mayor of Newham has since apologised for the way the Focus E15 Mothers have been treated.]
JB: Well that’s the mayor of Newham, now to the Mayor of London. Do you agree with Boris Johnson that London flats with rents of £2,800 per month should be considered ‘affordable’ homes?
JS: Yeah well affordable housing is 80% of market rates so if the market rates are too high then it’s going to be extortionate – no working class people are going to be able to afford it.
SM: Them houses are not built for the poor at affordable rates.
JB: Those three people I’ve quoted to you, who have been critical of you, are three men. Why do you think it is that in national public politics there are a lot of men in prominent positions whereas in grassroots politics it’s often women leading the way?
SM: Because men can do the talking but women do the walking [laughter]. How can I put this, I think people listen to a lot of men rather than women.
JS: I think that a lot of women are put in a situation of poverty more than men because these women have children and therefore they’re less likely to work. Women sometimes rely on the system more than men, so women struggle with housing and things like that because of their children.
JB: Final question. What next?
JS: We’re planning our next action – we don’t know what it is yet but it is definitely coming.
SM: We’ll keep campaigning. We’ve got our campaign stall next Saturday, we’ve got our meetings every week. We’re going to carry on putting them under as much pressure as possible.