Tenants of the World Unite: Wider housing struggles and how students can support them
London has a grim pattern of eviction-led development. If you’ve spent any time in the city in the last decade, you’ll have seen it happen. Estates are gradually emptied and subsequently barricaded by hoardings with photos of the white-teethed model families that will replace them, captioned by the developers’ new name for your neighbourhood.
Sometimes the developers win – like on the Heygate Estate, Southwark: https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/heygate-estate/.
Sometimes developers win in the end, but not without a hell of a fight – like at the Sweets Way Estate, Barnet: https://sweetswayresists.wordpress.com/.
In many neighbourhoods the struggle goes on, like at Cressingham Gardens, Lambeth: https://savecressingham.wordpress.com/.
And sometimes we win, like on the New Era Estate, Hackney: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2014/12/19/victory-new-era-estate-westbrook-sells-dolphin-square-foundation/.
A Story of Victory on the Carpenters Estate
In 2012 students at UCL learnt their university had decided that evicting social housing tenants was going to be its sort of thing. Newham Council and UCL had teamed up to make a £1 billion plan for a new campus. The catch? 700 council tenants would have to go.
The Carpenters Estate, which neighbours the Olympic Park, was repeatedly attacked by Newham Council in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. Many residents were pushed out before the games (some to make way for TV studios overlooking the Park), but residents’ group Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans’ struggle meant the majority managed to stay.
UCL’s plan fitted the mould. The Carpenters Estate had been deliberately run down, the council refusing to deal with asbestos and other problems, and now UCL wanted to swoop in, evicting the council tenants to create UCL East. Extortionately priced student halls and UCL-branded labs doing contracts for private companies would replace East Londoners needing social housing.
As students we were shocked by the plans, and we saw lots of ways that we could help residents get more direct access to the managers at UCL making these decisions.
While Carpenters residents were protesting and disrupting council meetings and building a movement on their estate, we started to build a movement on campus. First we started a petition and got students informed about the university’s horrid plan to get management’s ear. Then we convinced top university managers to debate the estate’s residents at a public meeting on campus. It was confrontational, fierce and the residents came out on top.
The campaign escalated. The residents organised tours of the estate for UCL staff and students. We helped residents organise pickets of the meetings of UCL Council, the university’s highest governing body. Then together we occupied one of UCL’s key conference spaces, organising talks, workshops and generally terrifying management. We followed up the occupation with a month-long exhibition in a union cafe of letters from residents of the estate to people at UCL, accompanied by portrait photos in their homes.
Organising on campus helped get the word out wider. Academics and the media started using their platforms to investigate and denounce what was going on. Things started to look rocky for Newham Council and UCL. But both parties pushed ahead, publishing a list of 25 companies shortlisted for five different contracts to carry out the gentrification plans.
The campaign was won on 7th May 2013. UCL stated that they couldn’t ‘reach a commercial agreement’. What’s behind this cold explanation?
A couple of weeks before we’d spent the day at the union, calling all 25 shortlisted contractors. We spoke to the most senior managers we could reach (‘we’re calling from UCL’ wasn’t a lie, after all) to explain the situation. We explained what harm it would do to the companies’ reputation to be involved, how they’d be opposed every step of the way, and how we’d be in front of the bulldozers if it came to that. Mysteriously things got a whole lot more expensive for UCL, and the plan was dropped.
Campuses are for lectures and exams and student life, but if we want them to be they can also be powerful place of solidarity. When our universities are doing wrong, as they often are, students should be on the frontlines of the fight to stop that. That means leaving campus, breaking out of the bubble to meet the people our universities harm. And then it means breaking back in, arm in arm with the people our universities oppress.
> Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans: https://savecarpenters.wordpress.com/
> UCL Save Carpenters: http://ucl4carpenters.tumblr.com/
> UCLU statement: http://studentsunionucl.org/articles/victory-for-carpenters-estate