We know – we were practically born knowing – that there isn’t enough housing in London. The Independent found in 2015 that tens of thousands of families seeking council accommodation have been moved out of London entirely, because there simply isn’t enough space.
And yet, in one single borough, over 1,000 council flats are currently standing empty. In Hackney, 18 estates are up for “regeneration” (which usually means demolition), and as they wait to be regenerated, the council is emptying them out. So Sisters Uncut, a group which campaigns against domestic violence cuts, have decided to put just one of them to good use. On Saturday 9 July they marched from Hackney Town hall and occupied a flat on the ground floor of the Marion Court estate in Hackney.
The flat is nice. Really nice. The walls are fully plastered, and the group have replaced the missing carpets and installed curtains adorned with the green and purple Sisters Uncut logo.The campaigners tell me that their next door neighbour’s flat is in worse condition; and yet, feet away, this flat was standing completely empty. I wondered if they had to break in to start the occupation, but no – the door was simply unlocked.
“All we did was clean, put some carpets down, and bring in furniture which was donated or we found on Freecycle,” one of the Sisters (the activists generally prefer to remain anonymous) tells me.
A list of requested donations in the occupied flat. Image: author's own.
The flat’s good condition is part of the key message of the occupation: there is unused, good-quality, well-sized housing scattered all over London. “Someone now living on this estate was moved out to Basildon while she was doing her GCSEs, and eventually moved back here,” one Sister tells me. “This is a beautiful, three bedroom flat lying empty. To say there are no properties for her to live in while she does her studies is an outrageous lie.”
Sisters Uncut are here for two reasons. First, they want to use the otherwise wasted space as a community centre for the local area, which they’ll keep open “as long as possible”. People can drop by whenever they like for a chat, to donate food or other supplies, or come for the children’s breakfast club between 7 and 9 every morning. “We’re also holding housing workshops this week where people can learn their housing rights,” one sister tells me.
But they’re also here to make a statement. The group have four key demands for Hackney council, which are inspired by their work for victims of domestic violence, but also gesture at the housing crisis as a whole: no more council flats to be lost as part of regeneration projects; women fleeing domestic violence to be housed in refuges or self-contained properties, not B&Bs; fill the borough’s 1047 empty council properties immediately; and refuse to implement the Housing Act (which would allow for rent rises and further evictions). Philip Glanville, Hackney’s deputy mayor, has agreed to speak to the group about their demands, though hasn’t confirmed yet when.
In the 1970s, over 40 per cent of Brits live in council housing; now that proportion is just 8 per cent. Put simply, Sisters Uncut want protection for council homes, not least because a better system could save the lives and livelihoods of those trying to flee abusive relationsips. “It may sound old fashioned," one tells me, "but we just want proper council housing. That's what works."
While the problems around maintaining council housing in an increasingly expensive city may seem intractable, the Sisters argue that they are not – and practical solutions are available. Empty properties should be used, and one Sister suggests that the council should have tried building more expensive “penthouse” apartments on top of existing council blocks, or built more housing on the gaps between blocks, to make money. “At the moment, we’re seeing zero creative solutions”, she says.
These problems are endemic across a city which has a questionable definition of “affordable housing” (80 per cent of market rates), and which often allows developers to dodge even measly affordable housing minumums by paying off councils. So why did the group choose Hackney?
“There are lots of empty homes here,” one Sister says. But another adds: “Hackney was home to the riots. Since then, the council just hasn’t been listening to the local people. We have an Olympic legacy of nothing.
“The only legacy is seeing our communities socially cleansed out.”
Follow Sisters Uncut for more information on the occupation here.