The Nestify ads on the tube are disgusting, and TfL should stop taking the company’s money

Oh, FFS. Image: author provided.

Note: This article was updated at 2000hrs on 30 July to add a comment from Transport for London. 

I was not, in all honesty, sure whether to publish the image at the top of this page. Partly because I’m a terrible photographer, as you can almost certainly tell at a glance; partly because I am, in effect, giving free publicity to what can only be described as a truly appalling ad campaign. But there’s unfortunately no way of talking about this without showing you what I’m talking about, so there the image stands.

Some background on this. Nestify is not a lettings agency, in the traditional sense of those parasitic companies that sit between landlords and tenants, sucking as much money as they can from both while providing the absolute bare minimum in terms of actual service. It’s something new: a company that sits between landlords and lettings platforms like AirBnB, who in turn provide tenants. That, you will notice, is a whole new layer of middleman. Why this is meant to be a good thing, rather than just another thing that bumps up the costs for tenants and diverts the money from landlords (poor lambs), I’m not exactly sure.

Anyway. Nestify promises a bunch of services – “professional photography”, “guest relations, “24/7 key exchange”, and so on – to take the pain out of putting your home on AirBnB and bumping up your rental income by a whopping 34 per cent*. That “*” represents the fact it’s what happened with some specific two bed flat in central London. That makes me wonder why the company isn’t using an average, except not really because the answer’s incredibly obvious, and I would bet my right kidney the average isn’t nearly so flattering.

In that last paragraph, I’ve instinctively been using “your”, because it makes it easier to write. Except, the odds are, it isn’t “yours”, is it? As of 2016, the last year for which figures seem to be available, 29 per cent of households in inner London were in the private rented sector (PRS), and another 33 per cent in social rent; just 38 per cent were owner-occupied. That means that a clear majority of inner Londoners don’t have property to rent. Nestify isn’t talking to them – even if it is getting uncomfortably close to talking about their homes.

What’s more, you’ll be stunned to hear, those figures have been moving steadily in one direction. Back in 2006, just 24 per cent of inner London households were in the PRS, while 39 per cent were owner-occupied. The share of Londoners who might look at a Nestify ad, read the “you” as addressed to them, and think, “Oooh, higher rents! Great!” has fallen, slightly. The share who will read the “you” as refering to their bastard landlord, who might even now be thinking, “Oooh, I can jack up the rent”, has grown, significantly.

If all this sounds very familiar, it’s because it is. At the end of May, Nestify’s rival Hostmaker ran an extremely similar campaign, promising landlords an extra 30 per cent on their short term rents. The result was an outcry from tenants and a petition organised by campaign group Generation Rent.

Hostmaker rushed out a statement apologising for the “misguided” tone and promised to remove its ads. Barely two months later, Nestify is doing exactly the same thing. Whether the result will be a similar outcry remains to be seen. We can but hope.

The company would no doubt respond – it’s difficult to be sure, because it’s thus far ignored my repeated requests for comments, but I’m guessing – that this is not an attack on tenants. These campaigns are not aimed at homes in the PRS, but at owner-occupiers hoping to make a few quid from the places they actually live.

But the housing market doesn’t work like that. There are a finite number of properties, and if landlords think they can get more money from short-term lets than long-term tenancies, more of them will pull out of the PRS altogether in favour of going full AirBnB. That will leave tenants fighting over even fewer, even more expensive rented homes.

This is not a theoretical problem: in some big tourist destinations, short-term letting sites have hurt locals so badly that city governments have moved to crack down. In 2016, Berlin introduced a blanket ban on renting entire apartments, rather than individual rooms, through AirBnb. Last year Barcelona introduced a licencing scheme to make it possible to regulate the sector, while Amsterdam has limited the number of nights homes can be rented out for. All such policies are intended to nudge homes out of the short-term lettings sector to leave them available to locals.

Earlier this month, even Manchester announced pilot plans to make it impossible for purchasers of homes on a new estate to cash in through short-term lettings. Yet despite pressure, TfL continues to take money from companies like Nestify, whose entire business model is built on making it harder for Londoners to find homes.

It shouldn’t. Ads like this are an insult to the huge number of Londoners whose rents are too high, who live in poor quality housing, who live in fear of being turfed out at short notice by landlords who think they can get a few more quid from somebody else. Transport for London is a service for all Londoners. It should act like it.

Update, 2000hrs. Transport for London has provided the following comment. “This campaign was booked several months ago. It has now ended and the adverts are being removed. Any proposed future advertisements of this nature will be properly reviewed to ensure any concerns are fully considered as part of the approval process for advertising on our network.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.