"The story of the Haggerston Estate is the story of social housing in Britain"

The estate in 2007. Image: Edward Betts/Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel House, London E8, used to stand on the north bank of Regent’s canal to the east of Kingsland Road. On Google Street View it still does, and an anonymised woman in sandals is perpetually wheeling her anonymised child in a pram past the façade.

It’s July 2014, according to the photo’s tag, and it looks like a warm day: mum’s in a sunhat and they’re both in sandals. By this point most of the windows have been smashed out, and if you follow the canal and turn right up Clarissa Street, the fort of demolition-site hoarding continues into a grilled gate. Through it, you can see a crane looming behind the building: here it’s still May 2014 and cloudy. Click through the gate, though, and it’s suddenly September 2011 in the courtyard, with sunlight falling on cars, hanging baskets, brightly-painted bollards and a lone removals van.

The story of the Haggerston Estate is the story of social housing in Britain – a story told by James Meek in the London Review of Books – in microcosm. London County Council built it between 1935 and 1948 as a slum-clearance project, trying to plumb in the edifying qualities of English Literature by theming the building’s names round the novelist Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). In 1965, the Greater London Council took over, and by the Seventies they’d reclassified it as a “problem” estate, sacking the resident caretaker, withdrawing maintenance, withholding repairs, and prompting rounds and rounds of rent strikes.

When it passed to Hackney Council in 1980, some of the buildings were emptied for refurbishment and tenants not offered the opportunity to return. This was the era of Right to Buy; an awakening to the logic of the market, and a dismissal of the project of social housing as an idle, unproductive daydream. The key workers who’d been moved in didn’t hang around when the policy of permanent neglect became clearer, and by the 1990s Haggerston had been branded the heroin capital of Europe.

The artist and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman moved to Samuel House in 1997, among people who had, in many cases, been told they were there temporarily. By 2004, the building had – officially at least – stopped accepting tenants.

Hackney Homes made its intentions vividly obvious in April 2007, when it covered the windows of the empty flats in the intimidating orange colour more commonly used for hazardous chemicals. The residents were balloted on a stock transfer to the housing association L & Q, pending the demolition of the estate and their rehousing elsewhere. Having fruitlessly campaigned for the estate’s basic maintenance for 30 years, they voted 71 per cent in favour. Demolition began on the estate 2010, and reached Samuel House by 2014. By February, the building was deserted; by October, it was gone.

If those decades sound like a kind of limbo, Zimmerman’s recent film Estate: A Reverie (2015) shows it as a space of sudden possibility – a period in which, basically left to their own devices, the tenants turned it into a mini-utopia. In 2009, she, another resident called Lasse Johanssen, and a photographer called Tristan Fennell made portraits of the people who still lived there to paste over the orange boards.

The film shows them going up, and goes on to extend them over longer, more intimate spans. We start with a name, and a number of years’ residence. Matilda (52 years) is the longest; we meet her dusting her immaculate living-room and telling us she feels it’s part of her, this place; part of her husband, and of her daughter. Even one of her grandsons was born there. “I’m funny like that,” she tells us. The brilliantly dapper Eric (30 years), by contrast, doesn’t want to die here; he wants to go back to Grenada, where his girlfriend’s ashes are.

Elsewhere, Anna (19 years) paints polka-dots in the stairway and goes inside with her family to pray to a plaster Virgin Mary; Elam and Lorna (19 years) go through a photo album. We watch John H (33 years) lost partly in the spasms of Parkinson’s and partly in enjoyment as he watches himself play accordion on Zimmerman’s laptop. Jeff (31 years), is also visibly ill, and tells us a life story full of homelessness, of being forced in winter to do something which would get him a cell for the night. He comes up in the film’s dedication, with the handful of others who didn’t live to see it finished.

Estate doesn’t idealise what was often a difficult place to live: early in the film, Julia, who’s being living there 24 years, walks round the building and remembers how her grandfather had come there in 1937 from up in Hackney, where he’d had a donkey, a pony, ducks, geese and chickens. When he moved in, he gassed himself – and his dog, Dinah – because he couldn’t keep even her. Animals become a motif, taking us away from the solely urban but also towards Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), Alain Tanner and John Berger’s film about a group of characters connected by names, a farm, and the possibility of a different, more utopian future.

Berger, in fact, read sections of his novel King (1999) over Taskafa: Stories of the Street, Zimmerman’s 2013 film about Istanbul’s attempt to sever its links with its past by culling its street dogs. He wrote this about Estate:

I believe this project will achieve something very significant for the times we are living in. It will remind us – and how appropriate this is for the medium of film ­– that, both politically and humanly, the past is not behind us, not obsolescent, but beside us and urgent.

Who knows how long it’ll take Google to update their photos. Maybe the photo car will come back around when the tenants of Haggerston Estate have been rehoused nearby, and the new building, The City Mills, is finished; prices for the still-available 2– and 3–bed flats in the “Skyline Collection” run from £839,950 to £999,950.

But for six weeks some of the film’s spirit of community and solidarity travels down the road to the PEER Gallery, Hoxton, for Real Estates, a six-week series of events on housing and spatial justice in East London which takes Estate as its starting-point. The Focus E15 Campaigners will have the fifth week. The DIG Collective – about whom Iain Sinclair recently wrote – have the fourth. Other weeks look at homelessness, demolition and redevelopment.

The exhibition will run from 18 February to 28 March.

 

 
 
 
 

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.