Boarded-up and earmarked for demolition, the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, east London, would not be most people’s dream home. Yet for Jasmine Stone and 28 other homeless single mothers and their children who met while living in a hostel, it has provided refuge and freedom.
The women – who are almost all under 25 and were brought up in the local area – had until recently been living in the nearby E15 Focus hostel. It was far from ideal for the families, but at least it was a home of sorts.
Then its funding was cut. Unable to find social housing or pay private rents, the mothers and children were told they could be rehoused as far away as Hastings, Birmingham and Manchester – isolating them from their families who help with childcare, and friends who help them “stay strong”.
Instead, they have occupied the Carpenter homes that had been standing empty after being cleared of residents for a redevelopment project. “Enough is enough,” says Ms Stone. “We’re taking our freedom ourselves and saying ‘Actually, we’re going to live here’.”
The group say their story, of how they ended up having to force their way into abandoned homes, is symbolic of the way many others are being treated. Their tale is one that reflects the fortunes of low-income households across the UK, and the dismantling of the social housing that used to keep them in their communities.
Now 31-year-old Danielle Molinari, another mother-of-one among the group, says they are planning to join forces with other groups to fight eviction “like a war” – as the women call for “social housing and not social cleansing”.
Their case has brought national attention. Russell Brand visited the Doran Walk flat last week, taking a tour of the estate for his YouTube show The Trews. “These women are the ones that are going to change things,” he said. “These people living on our estates, they are the real politics.”
Newham Council is not happy. Councillor Andrew Baikie, the area’s mayoral adviser for housing, says the local authority is looking into ways to remove the group from the estate.
“It is disappointing to see empty homes in the Carpenters Estate being occupied by agitators and hangers on,” he said in a statement after the occupation. “It is equally disappointing to see them attempt to misrepresent the truth for their own ends.
“The Carpenters Estate is not viable. The tower blocks are simply too expensive to renovate and will need to be demolished.
“Now it looks as though we will have to spend more money to get protesters off the estate. It is clear that on the Carpenters Estate, the needs of the wider people of Newham are being ignored for the sake of petty, expensive stunts.”
This kind of language only makes the group more angry. Ms Stone, a former nursery worker whose family have lived in east London for as long as they can remember, said that while being moved out of their hostel was the last straw before they decided to take direct action by occupying the estate flats, conditions for them in the hostel had been desperate.
“We’re now beginning to realise that they have made prisoners out of the working class,” she says.
“In the hostel, my dad couldn’t visit me because every visitor needed a photo ID. He didn’t have one. My mum could come and visit me three times a week, and if she wanted to stay beyond that she couldn’t because my visiting hours were used up.
“Every time I went in or out I had to sign in and out. We started to realise what was going on.
“If we complained about anything they’d say we were about to make ourselves ‘intentionally homeless’. They said they wanted to shift us where they wanted, like prisoners. It’s London, Birmingham, Manchester, wherever there’s space.
Neighbours on the estate, who are themselves being shifted off “one by one” as Newham Council prepares to knock it down, say they have been making dinner and baking cakes for the mothers to “keep their fighting energy up”.
Inside the living room, more mothers living in council estates across London arrive to join forces with the “Focus E15 Mums”.
“On the estates, there’s this ‘Who’s the next to go’ fear,” says Lindsey Garrett, 35, a care worker and mother-of-one who lives in the New Era estate, also in east London.
“But if we leave, I won’t be able to work the 45-plus hours a week I do in the NHS. My mum looks after my daughter while I work, but she can’t do that if I’m in Manchester. They’ll make me jobless.”
Newham Council has said it will be submitting a repossession application for the property to Bow County Court today, and the final judgement should be heard on 7 October. Until then, this group is digging in.
Changing communities: Thatcher legacy
At the root of the Newham “occupation” is the right-to-buy scheme, introduced by the Thatcher government in 1979, that enabled council tenants to buy their homes and sell them on. The scheme changed demographics: 42 per cent of the population lived in council houses in 1979; by 2000 that figure had shrunk to only 12 per cent, according to the housing charity Shelter.
Changes to the law in 2011 ended lifelong tenancies in social housing, limiting them to five-year leases. The following year, the introduction of “affordable rents” resulted in low-income households struggling with unmanageable rent hikes, as social housing rents were allowed to climb from around 50 per cent of local market rates to 80 per cent. For people brought up in areas that had since become “fashionable”, ie, expensive, that equalled an increase they couldn’t afford – and the housing benefit “cap” introduced last year has cut available help.
Councils in high-rent areas say they have no option but to move their tenants to areas of lower rent, plucking families out of their communities.
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