It’s no secret that the cost of keeping a roof over your head is getting higher and higher. While private rents across England and Wales soared to record highs of £757 a month, the situation is particularly acute in London: pretty much everyone has a story about being priced out of their old rental, or losing exorbitant sums to an unscrupulous landlord. Meanwhile, luxury property developers are bulldozing council housing like the Heygate Estate to erect monumental, glass-fronted apartments for uber-rich private buyers.
But how do you protest being priced out of your own city? For Let Down, a campaigning group of frustrated London renters, the answer is direction action: namely, holding a party in a flat you’ll never be able to afford.
This weekend, a group of fifteen Let Down activists sneaked into the new Stratford Halo development in East London (average rent: £1,700/month for a two bedroom flat) and hijacked an apartment viewing to throw a housewarming party – complete with cheap Cava and crisps – and draw attention to the housing crisis. Think of it as a kind of arch ‘fuck you’ to estate agents and everyone jacking up rent in the capital. Dazed spoke to Tom Gann, one of the founders of Let Down, about the protest.
“The £1 billion being loaned to property developers could have built 10,000 new council”
Dazed Digital: So, why did you occupy a luxury flat in East London, and whose idea was it?
Tom Gann: The flat we occupied is being let by [property developer] Genesis, who are applying to receive large sums of government money through the Build to Let scheme. The inspiration for our protest was a French militant housing group Jeudi Noir who have occupied expensive rented properties and held parties in them to highlight France’s housing crisis. We thought if public money is subsidising Genesis, we should move into our homes and have a housewarming party.
Dazed Digital: What’s so detrimental about Build to Let?
Tom Gann: Build to Let provides subsidised finance that is going to cost the public at least £90 million because of the low rates of interest charged by the government, and the cheap money is being offered without any demand from the government that the properties built are genuinely affordable. In order even to be allowed to view the [Stratford Halo] property, four of us had to pretend our annual income was £150,000 a year. The government should be addressing the housing crisis by building more council houses, reintroducing rent controls and making tenancies more secure. The £1 billion being loaned to developers at a loss to the public could have built 10,000 new council houses.
Dazed Digital: So what did the protest involve?
Tom Gann: About 15 of us occupied a flat for just over an hour and held a party with cheap sparkling wine while ten more people handed out leaflets to the public outside the tower. The weirdest thing was that the letting agent was showing someone round while we were holding our protest. When the police arrived and turned off the music we cleaned up to avoid being arrested for criminal damage and left. Genesis described the protest as “relatively peaceful”. I’m not sure where that relatively comes from.
Dazed Digital: What did the police say when they came to break it up?
Tom Gann: The police seemed fairly sympathetic – much more sympathetic than at other political action I’ve been involved in. I think some of this is due to the fact it would be increasingly difficult to live in London on a police officer’s pay. We asked one police officer whether he would be able to live here and he said he wouldn’t, but then said that was “just the way of the world”. That long-suffering attitude is what we need to fight against.
“It will be close to impossible for all but the very rich to raise a family in London... Living any sort of creative or artistic live will become close to impossible”
Dazed Digital: Why do you think the rent is too damn high?
Tom Gann: On one level nobody is to blame. Except for the rump of remaining council housing, housing in Britain operates within a capitalist system. This is becoming even more acute as housing associations abandon, with some government encouragement, social duty in favour of profit. Unsurprisingly, developers and landlords want to make as much money as possible, so not only are they extremely resistant to any policies that will bring down rents, they also influence the government to introduce policies that will help them make more profit.
Successive British governments have made the housing situation much worse for the vast majority: Thatcher’s for abolishing almost all rent controls and selling off council housing in such a way that councils couldn’t replace it, Blair’s and Brown’s for doing very little to address the situation and the current government for making a horrendous situation worse through caps on housing benefit and the bedroom tax.
Dazed Digital: What kind of future do you envision for London, if the situation continues at the same pace?
Tom Gann: Much of London will become affordable only for the very rich, particularly as housing benefit cuts take effect. It will be close to impossible for all but the very rich to raise a family in London. Finally, and compared to these it’s much less significant but vital to the “character” of the city, living any sort of creative or artistic live will become close to impossible. All of this is happening now but it’s going to get much worse.
DD: Are you planning to occupy more luxury condos in the future?
Tom Gann: Given that the problems private renters face aren’t going to be solved soon, we’re going to be taking more action.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing