Lambeth Council is at an advanced stage of flogging off the last of its ‘short life’ properties to private property developers. Evictions of the people in them were already due to have started as Red Pepper went to press and those emptied are being sold at auction.
At one time the council had about 1,200 of these properties, houses in such bad state of repair that they were given to people on the housing list at no or low rents to do up themselves. Today they have about 170 left. Some residents have been in these short life houses for 30 or 40 years and are now in their sixties and seventies.
Many are run by housing co-operatives, a number of which have now grouped together in a ‘super-co-op’ to campaign against the sell off and propose an alternative co-operative solution (see www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk). But this is no block to the council selling off these houses off on the private market and destroying the co-ops, and with them well-established communities. The residents have often spent thousands of pounds putting in new windows, central heating and on general repairs. The housing was given to them precisely because at the time the councils wouldn’t spend that money.
In July 2011 a small group of cabinet members decided to push ahead and terminate all short life properties, revoking the licences and putting them on the market. Since then there have been a series of court cases with the council trying to evict or harass people to leave. Private Eye reckons that at least £175,000 has been spent paying the legal firm Devonshire’s bills so far.
Lambeth Council rejected offers from social landlords to take over these properties. A local co-op, Ekarro, offered to pay 25-27 per cent of value to keep them in social ownership – it was refused. For a long time Lambeth claimed it was negotiating a deal with Notting Hill Housing Association and needed the tenants to leave to achieve it. It soon became clear this housing association turned property developer was going to sell off 80 per cent of the properties on the private market, keeping only one fifth for social housing. This deal fell through as well. So with its eyes on £32 million worth of property Lambeth turned to the private market itself, entering a hugely expensive process and paying off a series of corporate vultures.
When a property is vacated the council pays to make it uninhabitable to ‘stop squatting’. Later, it pays the multinational Camelot to go in and make it habitable again for its ‘guardians’, people often in desperate housing need who live in the property. The council then pays a fee of anything up to £100 a week for Camelot ‘protecting’ the property. The guardians, who have no tenancy rights, live in the property paying Camelot a deposit of £500-600 and a ‘rent’ of up to £65 a week. Little wonder this Netherlands-based multinational had a turnover of £20 million in 2011.
The council then has to pay auction houses such as Andrews and Robertson fees to sell properties at an average of 30-40 per cent below market prices. A recent 10-bedroom house in The Chase in Clapham, cleared of short life tenants, was sold for £1.6 million. At the same time a much smaller house in the same street was being marketed for £2.6 million.
How much will be left of the £32 million after the lawyers, multi-nationals and auction houses take their cut is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that very little will go into providing new social housing because Lambeth Council does not build any. It has said: ‘We are selling off properties that are uneconomic to refurbish and part of the money generated will go into the Single Capital Programme of which part will be used to allocated housing.’ (Our emphasis.)
Lambeth Council argues that all evicted short life tenants will be offered priority in council housing. But this misses the point – the members of these co-ops do not want to move and see their communities destroyed. Neither do they want to take someone else’s place on the council waiting lists. Lambeth already has 25,000 on its waiting list and only 25,000 council properties; by selling its housing it is just contributing to London’s housing crisis.
The co-op members are not going quietly. They are fighting the council in the courts, where in a series of shambolic appearances by council lawyers, things have moved very slowly. The co-ops have the support of local MP Kate Hoey, who even forced an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on the issue last December.
A protest at Rectory Gardens, where some of the properties are located, at the beginning of November halted a planned viewing organised by auctioneers. But with evictions now starting, protests must be stepped up locally.
For more information go to www.lambethsaveourservices.org