Thirteen years ago when I first moved to Walthamstow, it was kind of gritty but affordable, the place people moved to when Crouch End's dog turds, omnipresent police helicopter and extortionate rents outweighed the charm of its bistros and minor celebrities. Now Walthamstow is brilliant. We have famous bacon jam, pop-up bars, craft beer, pétanque in the Village, farmer's markets, fine dining, music festivals, garden parties, dog agility competitions, award-winning cakes and locally produced gin.
On Saturday, Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, hosted the constituency's "second annual housing awards", an initiative intended to help address the housing crisis by, in Stella's words, "shining a spotlight on the good and bad practice in our local housing market."
You see, we also have the dubious honour of the most estate agents per square mile in the UK. The UK's housing boom is particularly amplified in Walthamstow. Homes for let or sale are snapped up within hours, 'open days' for even the ugliest, fagnolia painted tumbledown flat attract 30, 40 prospective buyers. Bidding wars, sale by tender and gazumping are the norm. The demand for properties far outstrips supply. That's when the social cleansing wrecking ball swings in.
Readers of my previous two blogs will already be aware that my family are staring down the barrel of a compulsory purchase order. Elsewhere on Marlowe Road, my neighbour has been moved into residential care as he's too old, too infirm to be bounced around the temporary housing system when the bulldozers come. His son has three weeks to clear over five decades of history from this house - a home his family has loved since the day it was built - before it's snatched back by the council to be knocked down. Alfred, another elderly neighbour, was moved out within a couple of weeks of talking to the BBC about his distress at losing his home of over 20 years to the developers. They boarded up his sweet bungalow in the days between Christmas and New Year. Stay classy, London Borough of Waltham Forest.
It's not just us. The whimsically-named Butterfields is a street of charming red-brick 1930s properties close to Walthamstow Village housing long-staying private tenants on affordable rents. All suddenly face eviction after the charitable trust that owns the freehold to their properties sold it off to a developer. The homes are being auctioned. This - rightly - attracted criticism from Stella. "This conduct is being driven by those speculating on the profits to be made within our local housing market," she states in her Working for Walthamstow Newsletter. She goes on to condemn the trust and the developer for "...destroying our community as well as placing further pressure on our social housing stock."
Yet Stella is supportive of the Marlowe Road regeneration that places further pressure on social housing stock by actually reducing it - a fact that became apparent at the Planning Committee, despite repeated earlier denials that there would be any reduction from both Stella and LBWF.
One also has to question why Stella's social conscience wasn't triggered by the mass eviction of private tenants from the same estate as the buy-to-let leaseholders sold out to the developers; developers commissioned by the Labour-run council. So what is the difference between London Borough of Waltham Forest and Butterfields E17? Is it just that when LBWF delivers a kicking to the community, Stella holds their coats rather than a pithy placard?
People lose their homes daily from repossession, CPO, massive rent increases and evictions as buy-to-let landlords cash in their investments. The threat of the Housing Bill looms large. Those who aren't fortunate enough to have got on the housing ladder before the boom can't even see the bottom rung, let alone touch it.
But it's OK, Walthamstow. Everything's going to be fine. Stella's done a SurveyMonkey!
The joyous climax of the Walthamstow housing awards is where Stella presents the prizes for the Best Estate Agent and Best Letting Agent, a fabulous bit of free advertising for them but a photo opportunity that seems astonishingly out of touch with the housing issues affecting many of her constituents. Last year, there was some pantomime booing for the Worst Estate Agent (Central Estates, in case you were wondering). I would be willing to bet my house (it's being demolished anyway) that Central's profits did not suffer not one jot as a result of this "award". We are in the middle of a crippling housing shortage; buyers and renters have little enough choice without eliminating properties sold by an agency that -rightly or wrongly - have a huge market share in Walthamstow.
Of last year's event, Stella was quoted as saying "It was very powerful. There were people in tears after hearing the stories from people who in the most awful situations." But then what? What tangible benefit did the awards bring to those desperate people once the champagne had been drunk?
On the eve of the awards, Stella posted a photograph on Facebook of herself looking pensive in Luton, where many of Walthamstow's social housing residents have been "temporarily housed" for over a year now. She also bafflingly reproduced a PDF of a letter sent to LBWF in October 2015 asking them to clarify to her how long it takes to travel from Luton to London; something most smartphones enable anyone to find out within seconds. Some four months later, Stella finally took the trip to "see for myself" what kind of conditions these people are living in, and to get a sense of how difficult it is for them to be facing the lengthy rush hour commute with young children that are still being educated in Walthamstow. There was no suggestion that anything will be actually done to help these people now Stella's curiosity is sated. It's not enough to ask continual questions of already exhausted, frightened people without providing any answers, any solutions.
This year, Central Estates won both the Best Estate Agent and Best Letting Agent by a landslide. This is possibly more indicative of the voter apathy for these awards in Walthamstow (0.03% turnout) than any sea change in its shiny-suited team members' behaviour. Social media is already buzzing with cries of "FIX"; this year's publicity shots feature a more grim-faced Stella than last. It's all a bit awkward. I suspect there won't be a third awards ceremony and I'm glad for that.
So now what, Stella?
I hope my family are still in Walthamstow a year from now to find out. No offence, Luton.
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