The center of the Focus E15 occupation Flickr/danstowell

Focus E15 Mothers is fighting displacement of the poor in East London.  

LONDON—"It's ridiculous to think that these perfect flats are being boarded up and left to rot when there are people out in the streets with nowhere to go," says 20-year-old East Londoner Sam Middleton.

She's sitting with her friend Jasmin Stone in an apartment in the Carpenters Estate housing project, an easy javelin's throw from London's Olympic Park. A few weekends back, the flat lay empty and barred, waiting to be demolished and redeveloped, partly as luxury housing. Now the apartment and its neighbors have become an unofficial social center, with its own food bank, free shop, and program of workshops on housing rights.

The apartments weren't even broken into—they have been occupied by a group of local activists who simply opened the windows.

These activists don't fit the usual stereotype. They're neither seasoned campaigners nor attached to a major group like Occupy. Instead, they're a 29-strong group of mothers from the neighborhood, first-time activists who got together because they found themselves threatened with homelessness.

Calling themselves Focus E15 Mothers, the group has sparked a media frenzy in London (including these videos from Fox News-baiter Russell Brand), a city where all but the very wealthy are panicking about the spiraling cost of housing.  Inspiring widespread support with their do-it-yourself attitude, the group has also highlighted an uncomfortable truth. While the 2012 Games were an international showcase for Britain, many living near East London's Olympic Park see them as a disaster.

"The Olympic legacy around here has been to screw everybody up," says Middleton. "Ordinary people still living here have lost their support networks, even their family, because people have been decanted out [of] the area. All for them to build luxury apartments."

The process she speaks of—called "decanting" in Britain—is the displacement of tenants from social housing to make way for mainly private development. While it’s a policy no local government likes to publicize, news of it happening occasionally crosses into the public sphere, such as in 2012, when a leaked letter revealed Newham Council trying to rehouse 500 local families in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, 165 miles to the north.

With the Olympics as catalyst, a perfect storm of displacement has been whipped up in East London, thanks to a mix of land-grabbing for luxury development, government austerity cuts, and lack of social housing investment. It's a storm that's blowing many locals not just out of the area, but away from London entirely, to cities as far away as Manchester, a full 200 miles from the capital.

Canary Wharf seen from East London (Ki Price/Reuters)

The local borough, Newham, has played a role in this. Struggling to meet its responsibilities following a round of cuts and caps, Newham has been selling off land formerly earmarked for subsidized housing, which is then replaced with private flats and a portion of reduced-rate rentals. Pegged at 80 percent of market rates, these "affordable" apartments are anything but for many locals in this working-class area.

This lures in higher taxpayers but only tightens the thumbscrews on lower-income locals. What makes it sting all the more is that the area is governed by the Labour Party, which has historically painted itself as a working-class protector.

The Focus E15 Mothers found themselves at the sharp end of this process. Last year the (as yet unformed) group of mothers and mothers-to-be were told they were being evicted from their home, a state-run hostel named Focus E15 (after the area's zip code). The reason: The hostel was being closed in order to build a mix of luxury and "affordable" homes. As Middleton remembers:

I was heavily pregnant when I heard I was being evicted. My due date was the 19th, but the eviction date was the 20th. All that stress was terrible, so me, Jasmin and some of the other mums decided to go knocking on doors, because not everyone [in the hostel] was aware it was happening to all of us. Some of the mothers thought they were the only ones.

We decided to occupy an [affordable housing developers] East Thames show flat nearby for a kids' party. There wasn't enough space in our hostel for just one kid to have a party, so we thought—we'll have a party in the show flat. For all the kids. After that we marched to Newham Council's headquarters and occupied that as well.

After more protests got Focus E15 public attention and support, the borough agreed to rehouse the group. They tried, however, to move them to cheaper cities far from London such as Birmingham (125 miles away) and Hastings (65 miles away), unemployment black spots far from their families and support networks.  After more pressure, Focus E15 were finally rehoused in the borough. What they were offered, however, was short-term, often decrepit private accommodation.

A better option than being forced to leave friends and families, these apartments were still far worse than typical conditions in social housing. (Middleton said she had a three-inch gap under the wall in her kitchen and was afraid to let her son near it.

Sam Middleton (L) and Jasmin Stone (Focus E15 Mothers)

It was the sense that things for others were even worse that pushed Focus E15 to occupy the boarded-up apartments where they've set up their center. Running a daily program of workshops and events, the center also shows visitors that much social housing slated for demolition is actually in good condition. The council has dismissed the Carpenters Estate as unsalvageable, but the daily stream of visitors to the center see a different story—the occupied flats are bright, spacious, and even have new kitchens. They're located in a green, low-rise grid of streets still in good condition despite the ongoing eviction of tenants. As Jasmin Stone points out, this isn't just unfair; it's bad management.

This preference for public housing might seem odd from an American perspective, but living in a project has never had quite the same stigma in Britain as in the U.S. By 1970, 50 percent of Britons lived in social housing, some of it of poor quality but much of it well built.

The amount of available social housing plummeted in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's Right to Buy scheme allowed tenants to buy their apartments at far below their market price. While welcome for many, this decimated the social housing stock and it never really recovered. The Focus E15 campaign is thus both a fight against poor-quality housing and a struggle to prevent what remains of this public resource being sold off for short-term gains.

While the occupation might seem too radical for some, Focus E15's actions have proved less controversial than you might expect. Even the broadly right-leaning Evening Standard, London's main newspaper, has covered the occupation positively. The group has managed to win people over by proceeding carefully; the occupied flats are all tidy, the surrounding area spotless. Their demands are pragmatic: an end to all evictions from the Carpenters Estate and filling the empty flats with social tenants on long-term contracts.

Newham's reaction has been, as you might expect, scathing. Operating a press blackout, they've damned the protest via their website as a "petty, expensive stunt" carried out by "agitators and hangers-on." They've also cut off water to the occupied flats, which has damaged the pipes, possibly beyond repair.

The protesters have gained some concessions, however. Although the council previously deemed the estate barely habitable, Newham has agreed to put tenants on unprotected short-term contracts in the occupied apartments once the protesters go.

In reality, Newham doesn't have much room for maneuver. Hit by cuts imposed by the central government, the council is knee-deep in debt, partly as a result of taking on private loans with terrible conditions. As it prioritizes servicing these loans, it has felt compelled to slash services across the board—though its closure of the Focus E15 Mothers hostel allegedly netted it a meager £41,000 (about $66,000) in savings.

If the council crumbles on this issue, it faces a potential domino effect, with challenges to all of its housing policies and spending choices. Even admitting its assessment of its own housing stock was wrong would put Newham in a deeply embarrassing position. What the protest is making clear is that, in letting cuts fall heavily on housing and homelessness services, Newham seriously underestimated the level of resistance it would meet.

If anything, support for the protest is growing, with local residents encouraging the group to stay on. As Middleton puts it:

"We did this not just for our community, we did this for everybody … People need to start realizing and start getting together saying, 'You know what? They work for us. We don't work for them.'"

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