Just over a year ago, Westbrook Partners bought the New Era Estate in Hackney planning to redevelop the homes into luxury apartments. Threatened with major rent hikes, ninety-three families were facing eviction from their homes before Christmas.
Lindsey Garrett, whose own family home was among those vulnerable, refused to cave in to the corporate's demands. When I first received the letter from Westbrook Partners informing us of their redevelopment plans, my initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief. My family had lived on the estate for generations, but with rents almost tripling to market value, we could no longer afford to stay.
Disbelief quickly turned to outrage when I thought of my daughter. I had been so lucky to grow up as part of this London community and wanted to provide her with the same upbringing and opportunities offered to me. Standing by while she was cheated out of her home and future by someone else's greed was simply not an option.
At a meeting with all the New Era residents, we decided to take matters into our own hands and formed an Official Tenants' Association. I also contacted the Daily Mirror, having recently read its article on Richard Benyon's housing scams. Not long after, our story was splashed across front-page news and attracted a flurry of coverage.
But the media is a fickle creature. As quickly as the interest had appeared, the coverage died and the press fell silent. We resorted to a little local campaigning - handing out leaflets at the market, giving interviews to local papers and trying to secure the help of our MP. There was little significant support. Our luck changed when we met the comedian Russell Brand at the market and he gave us his backing. The publicity he bought to the campaign reignited the press' attention and we were off again!
A petition started on Change.org formalised the campaign and with the accompanying spike in media coverage, helped it became one of the fastest signed petitions on the site. It sounds naive, but at the outset I didn't appreciate the power and impact of a simple petition. Spurred on by a few thousand signatories, we launched demonstrations outside Westbrook Partner's offices, and by November we marched on Downing Street alongside a thousand members of the British public.
Finally, bowed down by pressure, Westbrook Partners announced they had sold the estate to The Dolphin Square Foundation, a charity for affordable housing. Ninety-three hardworking families were saved from eviction just in time for Christmas. I was hit by an overwhelming wave of relief at the news because we hadn't just been fighting for a roof over our heads, but for the future of our families and our community.
The months following Westbrook's announcement have given me a chance to mull over the reasons for the campaign's success. The publicity that Russell Brand attracted was pivotal. Without the media attention, we wouldn't have been able to generate as much noise and exert so much pressure on those in power. It still irks me that at the start of the protest, Diane Abbot (our local MP), the Council and Boris Johnson all turned their backs. However, as soon as the media furor was ramped up, each figure, buoyed up by their own political agendas, attempted to recast themselves as the 'saviour' of the estate. It just goes to show the ever-symbiotic relationship of the media and British politics.
Russell Brand's involvement was incredibly valuable, but the timing of the story and power of the narrative were the keys to success. The housing crisis was deepening in London: social housing cuts were intensifying and there was a lack of legal mechanisms in place to stop landlords and foreign investors ratcheting up rents. Tensions were therefore already at breaking point by the time our story exploded onto the scene. Added to this was a narrative that was easy to empathise with - the struggle of hardworking families facing eviction.
However, I often wonder if we would have had quite the same impact a year or two before. Much credit is also due to the people on the estate and those involved in the campaign for their sheer hard work and determination. I campaigned alongside people who were passionate about their homes, Hackney and London. It was tough and exhausting but we were a strong team, juggling jobs and children and working around the clock to secure a positive result. I still don't feel that we got much support from anyone in a position of power - it was really down to the people at the grassroots campaigning, and the determination of ordinary people. It was an incredible achievement and I am so grateful my daughter will be able to experience growing up in London, just as her mum did.
This article was originally published by The Brewery at freuds, in partnership with Change.org. Read the full publication here.