On the home front: Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth

An excellent three-part interview with Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth whose organising sees them fighting both private landlords and local councils to defend tenants.

These articles originally appeared on the OpenDemocracy.net website.

Housing activists stand up to dodgy landlords and council bullies

The Grenfell tower fire forced a public debate on housing inequality in London. Tenants have long been at the mercy of landlords, private and social. But resistance is growing.

In the early hours on 14th June more than 70 people died when fire engulfed a 24-storey tower block in west London. More than 350 firefighters worked to extinguish the flames over several hours.

Hundreds were trapped in the upper floors of the building while the fire raged, including 6-month-old Leena Belkadi. The baby girl was found dead in her mother’s arms in a stairwell between the 19th and 20th floors.

Grenfell tower was home to a mixed community of working-class families, young couples, refugees, migrants, elderly residents living alone.

The final death toll is unknown. There are fears that unregistered migrants who lived in the block may never be identified. Just 71 victims have been identified so far. In June the Metropolitan police said it could take months to identify everyone. Last week the Met said: “Based on all the work carried out so far and the expert advice, it is highly unlikely there is anyone who remains inside Grenfell Tower.”

An inquiry has been set up to investigate the circumstances around the fire. The devastation and death caused exposed festering problems of neglect and mismanagement by Kensington and Chelsea Council. Hundreds of residents and survivors are still homeless more than five months on. Early November central government published a report which criticises council leaders for their lack of humanity. In a statement Sajid Javid, communities and local government secretary, said the council response to the fire was “sluggish and chaotic”.

But the government’s criticism of rotten local politics came too late. Residents and survivors fear the inquiry will ignore deep rooted problems of housing and inequality in London. Problems that created the conditions for the fire.

After all, residents tried to warn authorities years before the fire in June.

The Grenfell Action Group formed in 2010 and repeatedly raised safety concerns about the tower block. They published countless blogs outlining mismanagement and neglect at Grenfell tower and other housing estates in Kensington. They campaigned for decent housing and challenged the rise of luxury housing developments and managed decline of social homes. Their blog supported struggles against changes that would make London unlivable for all but the rich.

Their work is not unusual – across London radical housing groups fight for the rights of tenants in a hostile housing market. Social housing is scarce. Councils are broke and ill-equipped (and sometimes unwilling) to support people moving in and out of poverty, families with complex needs. Average private rents are high.

After the Grenfell tower fire, what will change?

Plenty, if London’s grassroots housing activists have their way.

We spoke to Izzy Koksal from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), a community group from south London, about their work challenging housing injustice. They are one of many radical groups working on housing inequality, racism, poverty, sex worker rights and migrant rights in London. Embedded in local communities, they are a mix of seasoned activists, precarious workers, and families moving in and out of poverty.

HASL is part of the London Coalition Against Poverty, known as LCAP, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The coalition is made up of local housing support and action groups from across the London boroughs.

Since 2013, HASL has organised around and blogged about the daily housing injustices they encounter at the hands of local councils and private landlords.

Below is an edited version of our written Q&A with Izzy, published in three parts, where she tells us about the group’s work, challenges they face and offers advice for readers interested in setting up their own housing solidarity groups.

What is Housing Action Southwark And Lambeth? Who is Involved?

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth is a local community group made up of people facing housing problems. We meet twice a month to support each other, organize action around our personal housing issues, and campaign for housing rights.

Most of our members are working class women of colour, migrant women, and their children. We have lots of children at our meetings. We’re thinking of different ways to involve them in what we do. We want to create something like the Radical Monarchs, an alternative Brownies in California. This summer we trialled our first homework club.

We also have supporters without immediate housing problems, but who are concerned about housing inequality, poverty and gentrification. In London, everyone is very aware that they could face serious housing problems at any moment.

Taking on dodgy landlords and council bullies

Common housing problems members face include overcrowding, pending homelessness, difficulty accessing housing help from the council, being housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Families can be stuck for years in cramped, expensive temporary accommodation while waiting for council housing.

Then there are dodgy landlords. Recently, one landlord tried to steal a member’s deposit. Another landlord harassed a female member and threatened to throw away her belongings.

To combat some of this, we accompany each other to homelessness assessments. This is where a housing officer investigates your case to see if the council owes you a homeless duty. If you are a single homeless person, council officers decide whether you are vulnerable enough to receive help with your housing. Our members have experienced bullying and gatekeeping during these sessions (Gatekeeping is when the council prevents people accessing services they’re entitled to).

Attending assessments with support makes the whole process slightly less terrifying. It means we can politely challenge gatekeeping and make a record of what’s happened.

There’s other work too. We help each other fill out forms and source good housing lawyers. We give each other moral support, understanding and anger. Other times, we occupy the town hall. For example, when one of our members was housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation and her children forced to take three buses to school, we marched to the town hall. We demanded the family be given a home close to school. After 30 minutes of us being there, suitable temporary accommodation was found.

HASL is over four years old now, a huge achievement for a group organised voluntarily by people dealing with homelessness, insecure housing, medical issues, childcare commitments, paid work and other stresses. On top of that, some members now have to worry about Brexit. “Will they throw us out?” a member asked at a recent meeting.

Why was Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth set up?

Where you have people suffering, living in poverty, unable to access secure homes or discriminated against because of their race, class or migration status, housing groups are vital.

Getting help when you are homelessness is made so difficult by local councils. Accessing basic housing help is impossible to do alone. There are even greater barriers when you don’t have English as a first language, which is the case for many of our members.

Gatekeeping when you face homelessness isn’t a problem unique to Lambeth and Southwark. All over London, people going through hard times struggle to access the most basic housing rights. Grenfell tower residents are experiencing that same struggle now.

We had hoped that Kensington & Chelsea council would make the re-housing process as swift and sympathetic as possible for Grenfell residents. Yet news reports suggest they are still struggling to get the right housing support.

The re-housing problems faced by Grenfell residents echo what our members experience. Things like the confusion and mixed messages from the council about whether people will be housed in temporary accommodation in the borough. Arrogance from individual councillors. Councils collectively failing to listen to what people need.

When the law falls short

While having access to good housing lawyers is important (if you qualify for legal aid), the legal process can be slow, stressful and limited. We organise collectively to complement legal action. One HASL member was congratulated by her lawyer for winning her case with the council. He admitted that his own role had been minimal!

This particular member was a survivor of domestic violence who had endured 30 years of abuse, yet Southwark council initially decided she was not vulnerable enough to qualify for help. She will soon be moving into her new council flat, having navigated the homelessness process with HASL support. She would have given up without our help, she says. In turn, she has since supported some friends in a domestic violence refuge to access their homelessness rights. The collective support, understanding and determination we have for each other is special and inspiring.

How housing activists are challenging town hall decisions

Using direct action, housing activists challenge unfeeling and harsh local authority decision-making.

For years the Grenfell Action Group fought for basic housing rights and raised safety issues. They warned that people would die if they were ignored.

Yet the council and landlords did nothing. In your experience is this common?

Do councils ignore people when they ask for safe and secure housing?

People are ignored by the council when it’s obvious they’re vulnerable. They are asking for help for a reason, but the council seem to operate a policy of disbelief.

For the last year, we’ve been supporting four HASL families who live in statutorily overcrowded housing in the private rented sector Southwark. Their living conditions are appalling and inhumane. The last Labour government said statutory overcrowding was ‘no longer defensible in modern society’. It happens everyday.

Southwark council tells people they’ve caused overcrowding themselves, that it is a ‘deliberate act’ to live in overcrowded housing. That they should have found something better, tried zoopla.com. And they even ask why the families choose to live in Southwark. These are families who left Spain because they were homeless and couldn’t find work.

Last December we went to a Southwark Council cabinet meeting. One of our members stood up and said: “I ask you to please help us with our housing. My children especially are suffering at school. Their headmaster is willing to help us and said they are severely underperforming due to the stress of the living situation.”

Another member said: “I have been trying to apply for a long time and my applications have frequently been closed. I am asking you to help me because we are living in a very small space.”

We held up a drawing of her overcrowded house for the councillors to see. “This is a folding table,” she said pointing at the drawing. “This where we have dinner and we have two beds. And a cot and now she is walking so it is getting more difficult. Thank you very much for listening, I ask for your help.”

One of our younger members made a video about her living situation. Filming after school one day she said: “We need help because we have a small room and there is 16 people here. There’s six rooms. It is complicated when it is time to eat and go to the bathroom.”

Another young member, Juan, filmed his home. In the film Juan shows us his bedroom which he shares with his two brothers. His bed is a blanket on the floor. “Let me show you where I do my homework,” he says. “Where we eat, where my brothers do their homework and they always stress me because they don’t let me concentrate to do my exams.”

The council continued to ignore us. We started a petition addressed to the councillor with responsibility for housing.

At Grenfell people raised concerns and were ignored. We’re afraid of what will happen if we’re ignored too. Overcrowded housing is unsafe housing. Victim blaming is not an acceptable response.

We’ve had similar problems with Lambeth council too. One of our members lived with her family in one room. It was tiny. She shared it with her husband and their two daughters. They shared kitchen and bathroom facilities with other families, who lived in the other bedrooms of the small house. In total there were 12 people living in three rooms.

The council refused to help.

Months after this member first went to the council, she was physically assaulted by someone from another household sharing the accommodation.

After the assault, our member went to the housing office again to make a homeless application. The council said she would need to report the assault to the police before they could open a homeless assessment. Because she had a buddy with her, they managed to fight this gatekeeping and get a homeless assessment and temporary housing for the family. But the temporary housing was out of borough meaning long journeys to school for the children.

Together we fought the council’s position and demanded suitable accommodation: we conducted a Twitter campaign, we held a large protest, we made official complaints. The council refused to engage with us directly, but after a protest outside the housing office, our member was given higher priority on the council housing waiting list.

What has the council response been to HASL directly intervening in cases?

The councils’ responses are mixed. But one thing is for sure, both Lambeth and Southwark councils have failed to engage meaningfully and respectfully with us.

They have failed to address the housing issues and abuses we’ve highlighted. They were not interested in supporting some of their most vulnerable residents. Reading through a recent council letter sent to a number of members, councillors seem horrified and resentful that poor migrant families could even consider making Southwark their home.

Most London private renters struggle to find suitable housing. This is more complicated if you have children, claim benefits and don’t have English as a first language. Five families were living in statutorily overcrowded housing because they struggled to find suitable homes. They were locked out of the private rental market because of discrimination and racism. Yet Southwark council deemed them living in overcrowded housing a ‘deliberate act’. This is a quote from the council’s letter:

Quote:
“...having conducted several searches on the external property website www.zoopla.com we found several properties within southeast London which fell within the local housing allowance rental level.

“I am satisfied that the overcrowded circumstances your household is currently residing within has been caused through a deliberate act ... I have not found any grounds to conclude it is a necessity for your household to reside in the borough to maintain employment.”

Last year we were invited to a meeting with Southwark housing officers to discuss the problems we face. In advance of the meeting we gave the housing officers details of the cases we wanted them to investigate. But when we arrived they hadn’t even looked at the cases. Their response to our questions was, “Yeah, we'll look into it.” They refused to commit to anything there and then. For us, the meeting was a waste of time. Someone noticed that the manager had kept looking at his watch throughout the meeting.

That’s not to say we haven’t had any success. When the council refused to house a woman and her children fleeing domestic violence we campaigned against the decision. Within 24 hours the council changed its mind and housed the family.

Recently, we met another woman made homeless after fleeing domestic violence a year ago. Last October she had approached Southwark housing office, but they stalled in helping her. They should have started a homeless assessment, but failed to do so. She was homeless, forced to sleep on a friend’s sofa.

Earlier this year, she went back to the council this year with a buddy. Still no homeless assessment. This is something she was legally entitled to. During that visit, the woman and her buddy got a copy of the council’s refusal. It was a handwritten note. We shared the note on Twitter. Soon after that the council got in touch and a homeless assessment was arranged.

Direct action, case by case

Other times our influence is indirect. Before HASL and in our early days, we heard reports of Southwark council turning away homeless families without legal help. People said the atmosphere in the housing office was one of bullying and intimidation. People would turn up to our meetings saying they had tried to make a homeless application but had been turned away with nothing.

One family came to our meeting and said they had visited the housing office eight times and each time they had been turned away without any help.

A few years ago, we met a father and his toddler leaving the housing office having been turned away with no housing assistance. “You guys were my saviour that day,” he told us later.

He explains what happened:

Quote:
“I was sent there to a caseworker, judging me, this man judging me straight saying, ‘no, you can’t have a house, you have to go and look for private accommodation’. And they said I made myself intentionally homeless without investigating my case and they threw me out.

“I came out and I met you guys … you accompanied me and then there was a commotion there [at the housing office] … From there on they had to change. The manager came and then the decision was reversed. I was given another appointment. I came back and it was a bit [easier] for me. Because of the intervention? I don’t know. And from there, we are alright.”

We blogged about what was happening. We helped people get council appointments. We leafleted outside the housing office so people knew their rights. It was a way to show solidarity for people going into appointments.

The council could not ignore us. They began to deal with the gatekeeping. People at HASL meetings stopped saying they couldn’t get homeless appointments. Some of our members were able to secure homeless applications themselves. Others remarked that the atmosphere inside the housing office had improved considerably.

However, there is still work to do. For over a year the council has ignored a number of HASL families who are statutorily overcrowded.

How to start a housing movement

Radical groups working on housing, racism, poverty, sex worker and migrant rights are springing up all over London. Embedded in local communities, they are seasoned activists, precarious workers and families.

What does HASL’s work involve?

Our regular meetings are probably the most important part of our work, as this is where we build experience in different types of housing issues, housing law, how councils behave, and possible solutions.

The group meetings mean that we can draw on this experience and everyone can contribute in whatever way they feel able. One of the best things is when someone who came to the group with a housing problem, sorts it out and is then able to share their experience with a new member doing something similar.

We try to make the meetings as accessible as possible. We have Spanish-English translation and we are working on making our meetings much more kid friendly.

We run legal training sessions, again to develop the knowledge and capacity of our group so that we can stick up for each other.

And there’s buddying. A buddy goes along with you when you meet the council. They give moral support, take notes. They support you in asserting your rights. Having a buddy can make the difference between getting temporary accommodation or getting fobbed off. Some of our long-term members (having resolved their own cases) have been really forthcoming about offering this help to new members of the group.

We organise actions together if we have been ignored by the council or if there seems to be no other available options. We plan actions around campaigns that we have been working on. For Southwark council protests, we gather as large a group as we can organise and head to the town hall. Going together as a big group means we’re harder to ignore. It is also a really accessible action, everyone can be involved and it breaks down language barriers.

Sometimes it works and gives direct results. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it is part of a longer-term campaign. Organising together means we don’t give up! Through occupations at Southwark town hall, one family were re-housed by the council back in their local community.

Our tweets and blogs draw support and share experience and intelligence. We’ve used Twitter storms (a coordinated mass campaign) to force Southwark council to house a domestic violence survivor and her children. Councillors don’t like their appalling decisions being publicly exposed.

Building solidarity with other activist groups

We work with sister groups in the London Coalition Against Poverty, such as Haringey Housing Action Group and other groups. These include English for Action, North East London Migrant Action, and South East London Sisters Uncut. We’re planning housing rights workshops with United Voices of the World and a local mums’ group called Espacio Mama.

We’ve been supporting North East London Migrant Action’s campaign and legal challenge against the government’s policy of detaining and deporting EEA nationals caught rough sleeping. Yesterday we joined them outside court for the first day of the judicial review to challenge this hateful government policy. It’s great to support each other’s work and make links between the issues we face. It helps us feel a lot bigger too!

Do you have advice for people wanting to fight for decent housing where they live?
Don’t give up. This came up repeatedly at the last London Coalition Against Poverty meeting we went to. It’s like a mantra of collective organizing. We support each other and we are stronger together. Our successes, like forcing the council to reconsider making a family homeless, show that when we work together we can achieve a lot.

So many of our members deal with difficult situations. Families live in overcrowded housing, people face imminent homelessness, survivors fleeing abuse. All unable to get adequate help.

On top of this, members of our group deal with health problems (often exacerbated by bad housing), they balance this with parenting, full-time paid work, unpaid work. The pressures on us are relentless.

But returning to the group helps relieve some of these pressures. We make progress by dealing with them together, by drawing on each other’s strengths and experience. Our members remain involved even after their cases are resolved. Most of our new members come through recommendations by friends. We have members who’ve been involved in a really committed way for over a year. That they keep on coming to meetings shows how important it is to them.

Setting up a housing solidarity group

There’s a booklet written by LCAP with good advice about organising together on housing. When HASL first started, we used this and the inspiring stories we’d heard about Hackney Housing Group’s organising.

In the beginning, the most useful things that we did include:

Make your meetings accessible. Organise translation and childcare for example. Come up with concrete steps and action points. Allocate jobs (ringing the council, writing a petition, managing the Twitter feed). People will then see things are happening and how they can help.

What are the things to think about when resisting gatekeeping, dealing with difficult case work, investigating the state, blogging, staying well, protesting, finding time to be positive and imaging a better future?

I think this is a really good list of some of the challenges we face and some of our activities. I’d add the feeling of the sheer scale of what we face to this list.

In the last year, our meetings have grown from 10 people to about 25-30, which felt like a great achievement. But in less time, an entire estate of private rented flats was built in our neighbourhood. More housing for rich residents. They moved in before we could protest the development by starting an occupation.

And figuring out how to facilitate bigger meetings of 30 people with immediate housing issues has also been a bit of a challenge.

I think doing things together helps make everything feel less overwhelming and often makes whatever it is more enjoyable and just better generally. Our meetings are places where we can check in with each other about our cases and they are a focus for us, because that’s where we can best deal with our issues.

We try to meet up in other ways in between meetings. We’ve run lunch clubs, we meet at our London Coalition Against Poverty meetings. And more recently we set up the homework club which was really busy and popular, with both kids and adults! It is useful to have more time to hang out together and work on practical tasks. People learn from each other, the work is more evenly distributed. It builds solidarity, rather than create a service dynamic, which can be a problem in housing action groups.

What difference does HASL make to you?

After one of our busiest meetings, where we were all crammed into our meeting room, a young boy who I hadn’t met before turned to me and said very seriously: “That was a good meeting.” I was a little taken aback. He was definitely right. I was exhausted from the meeting but there was a lot of energy from everyone there. Then he said it again, “That was a good meeting.” It could have been because we’d just eaten a chocolate caterpillar cake to celebrate one of our members getting council housing. I realised afterwards that I should have asked him what he thought was good about it. Other HASL kids have also asked me when the next meeting will be. It’s really lovely that for them too, the group has become a feature in their lives.

At our last meeting, we celebrated with three families who had lived in overcrowded housing and had finally managed to get council homes. They have been key members for over a year. “We couldn't have done it without you,” one them, Gloria, told us all.

Another member and her family lived in their council home for a year. Every time I have met her since they moved in, she has told me how it has changed their life. “Before I went to the housing office and they said ‘no, no, no’. And then you wrote a letter. Every evening, I sit in my living room and look out of the window and I am thankful.”

For me personally, I’m so inspired and proud seeing my HASL friends, often dealing with terrible housing situations, fight their cases and support others. It’s really inspiring seeing collective organising, support and solidarity work and win. To help facilitate that and be involved is really special.