Demonstrators hurl eggs and abuse at developers attending the city’s 2016 Property Awards
In the London property market, £5.6 million doesn’t fetch much: tasselled drapes, a chintzy pouffe, a revolting leopard-skin lampshade and a two-bedroom flat. Proudly advertised in the windows of a high-end Foxtons in Mayfair, the Kensington maisonette embodies the grossly inflated housing market celebrated at the 2016 Property Awards in the adjacent Grosvenor hotel. Last night, a crowd of protesters descended on the red carpet, hurling eggs and abuse at the letting agents and property developers they say are responsible for London’s housing crisis.
“It’s brutal. More than that, it’s barbaric,” says demonstrator Dan Glass. An activist who campaigned to save the queer co-operative pub the Joiners’ Arms, he notes that queer youth are particularly at risk of being driven onto the street by the housing crisis, as LGBT venues, refuges and support centres are driven out of London. “It’s rubbish to say that it’s solely the responsibility of the government. People here are immersed in a world of hyper-individualism and profit, when the reality is fuel poverty and homelessness. People are dying tonight, literally dying, because of their actions. We’re here to shut it down.”
Yet for large swathes of the demo, there were more journalists present than protesters, and more police than journalists. At its height, there were about 50 assorted anarchists and class warriors blocking the pavement, brandishing vuvuzelas and placards reading ‘The French Aristocracy Never Saw It Coming Either’. Away from the camera, a couple of landlords were pelted with eggs, ruining their cummerbunds if not their evenings. Most of the revellers trotted in with a smirk, occasionally giving an ironic wave to the demonstrators as they brandished their tickets to the £3,000-a-table event. On a nearby terrace, two ‘yuppies’ in white chiffon blouses and aviators sipped cappuccinos (complacently).
This weekend past, a protest calling on David Cameron to resign brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of London. Yet housing reform would arguably have a more tangible impact on ordinary peoples’ lives than the effective coronation of Prime Minister Gideon Osborne. So why the low turnout?
“There’s a smoke-and-mirrors veneer around issues of housing and gentrification,” says Dan. “It’s easy to make a stand on migrant rights, or on war. But the issue of ‘housing’ presents a bland frontier.” The suited men scuttling into the four-star hotel live their lives out of the public eye. The slow crawl of gentrification has no Tony Blair or Jeremy Hunt as a beacon for discontent, and the homeless freezing to death in the streets of London seldom produce Alan Kurdi-style photo opportunities.
Another demonstrator named Susannah says that she is old enough to remember the poll tax riots, but that the fight has since been knocked out of the population: “People are so worn down, so exhausted, so apathetic. You have to make yourself seen every day, but it’s so hard to resist.” Damp, asbestos-ridden housing saps people’s health, the need to work inhuman hours to pay rent keeps people occupied with their occupation rather than Occupying, and the constant terror of eviction reduces the public’s willingness to strike.
“Without roots you’re agitated, you’re nervous,” Susannah continues. “Proper shelter is a fundamental human right, and without that it’s very difficult to focus on work, or on bringing up your children. It’s making people ill, with huge mental and physical health problems. And if you haven’t got room to swing a cat, how can you focus on your exams? How can you focus on a job interview?”
Dan says he and his boyfriend pay £800 to share a basement: “There’s no natural light. It does your head in.” Another demonstrator, Katie, says: “I work hard for my money, working with vulnerable adults. I’m living with 25 people, and I was lucky to find it.” Susannah knows many people who have only evaded homelessness because of the kindness of friends and family. “Every family has its vulnerable members, whether it’s because of illness or addiction. A person I know, who’s disabled, was evicted from a council flat, because the council didn’t know they were subletting. They were thrown out on to the street.”
However, both Dan and Susannah point to a groundswell of resistance against the overwhelming pressure of the housing market. Susannah references the rent strike mushrooming across London’s university campuses, while Dan says it “doesn’t take a genius” to see the number of housing campaigns emerging across London as proof that people are taking action. Organisations such as Focus E15, Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and the umbrella group Radical Housing Network organise direct actions which have saved people’s homes, and quite possibly their lives. Tonight’s demo is organised by rabble-rousing window-smashers Save Foxtons and Class War.
Dan, a descendant of Jewish refugees who works for a Holocaust memorial charity, cites Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil when explaining the importance of protests like this one, however small. “We can all easily be the oppressor. They’re utterly complicit in people sleeping rough, people dying, and an event like this legitimises it. It’s easy to carry out devastation when you’re alienated from the oppression it causes.” He is here to try and make the landlords and property developers contesting for gongs like ‘Property Fund Manager Of The Year’ realise that their profits are directly responsible for pushing working-class people out of London and on to the streets.
With this in mind, I try to find out what London’s property-shotting elite think of the housing crisis, or of being told they are “directly responsible for deaths and homelessness” on their way to a champagne reception. The first eight bowtie-clad men I approach all decline to comment (remarkably, almost all of them are running late for the reception, which doesn’t start for another 20 minutes). The glances the revellers shoot at the protestors are uniformly derisory – or amused.
Eventually, someone stops for a chat, though he will not give his name or place of work. “There’s a clear need for new housing,” he says. “I’d put the burden on the government to relax planning laws and increase supply.” And what about the role of property companies in making London a city unaffordable for anyone save the super-rich? “Oh. I wouldn’t comment on that.”
As the last attendees shuffle into the Grosvenor, a protester blocks the path of distinguished, silver-haired gentleman. “Scum. You drink our blood. How do you sleep at night?” she demands. But the tuxedoed passer-by demurs with an awkward wave of his hands, indicating that he’s not actually going to the Grosvenor, but passing by on his way to another exclusive Mayfair soiree. The protester is momentarily taken aback, but rapidly recovers herself. “Well,” she screams at his hastily retreating back, “it applies to you too”.
Photography by Ayman Ramsey Al-Juzi