- Problem one: they were in possession of a number of houses that were in a state of disrepair and not considered fit for human habitation. They had got these buildings through Compulsory Purchase Orders in order to demolish them and had then quietly forgotten about the demolitions and left the properties to rot.
- Problem two: they had no money to repair, develop or demolish these houses.
- Problem three (a familiar one): there was a shortage of social housing and a deep need across the borough for affordable homes.
- Problem four: in response to the previous three problems a number of people had moved into the derelict properties as squatters (the definition of 'not fit for human habitation' becomes decidedly flexible when the alternative is a shop doorway).
You may be aware of the (surprisingly apt) permaculture mantra: the problem is the solution. Demonstrating a level of joined up thinking that points to origins with the residents, rather than the council, a new type of housing contract was created. Independent 'Shortlife' housing co-ops took responsibility for these problem houses, repairing and maintaining them in exchange for being allowed to live in them. As the New Statesman explained last week:
"These co-ops were comprised of people with nowhere else to go and no prospect of buying anything else. Many were on the housing waiting list and continue to be so to this day."
So effective were these housing co-ops in managing these properties independently that the council were able to leave them to it - problem solved! These buildings became homes. Through the co-ops, the residents pooled their skills and resources and repaired their houses.
Roll forward thirty years and these properties are comfortable homes, fixed up by the people living in them. The residents are still co-op members, supporting one another and embodying a sense of community and solidarity that would probably baffle a lot of London's residents. The co-op members are still mainly living on low incomes and some of the original residents are now retired, living in homes that they fixed themselves without need for handouts.
Buildings rescued from dereliction, homes provided for those in need, communities empowered by collaboration, and all of this while actually saving taxpayer money!
Lambeth estimated that the sales of the 'shortlife portfolio' would raise about £50m (coincidentally the same amount of money that they just spent on their new town hall) however reports suggest that this estimate failed to take into account the effects of absurdity and farce that always like to make an appearance in local government schemes. An article on SQUASH's website explains:
"When a property is vacated the Council pays to make it uninhabitable to “stop squatting”. Later, it pays a multinational Camelot to go in and make it habitable again for its “Guardians”, people often in desperate housing need who live in the property. The council then pays a fee of anything up to £100 a week for Camelot “protecting” the property. The Guardians, who have no tenant rights, live in the property paying Camelot a deposit of £500-600 and paying a “rent” of up to £65 a week... The council then has to pay auction houses like Andrews and Robertson fees to sell properties at an average of 30-40% below market prices. A recent 10-bedroom house in The Chase in Clapham, cleared of short life tenants, was sold for £1.6 million. At the same time a much smaller house in the same street was being marketed for £2.6 million."
So far, so depressingly familiar. And while we're about it, let us remember that the evicted tenants will be joining Lambeth council's housing list - yet more people needing to be housed at the council's expense. The march of time and pressure from the council have taken their toll on the shortlife co-operative tenants. According to South London Press (12 April 2013) there were 12,000 of them at the peak of the policy, there are only 85 of them left and about half of those are currently fighting eviction, resisting the wholesale destruction of their unique communities.
During this process one family who agreed to move after living in their home for 30 years was forced to move during their daughter's A'levels. To soften the blow hey were provided with storage space in Chelmsford. Last December the Guardian gave some enlightening examples of the effects of this policy:
"Jimmy Rogers, 74, spent decades running a community basketball team in Brixton. A few years after honouring Rogers for his efforts, Lambeth started pursuing him for his tiny terraced home. He too faces imminent eviction. Another man saw his home of three decades seized by bailiffs just 20 minutes after he lost a court case. When he returned to fetch his possessions, he had to jostle through prospective auction purchasers inspecting the house."
Lambeth council argues that this is a case where the needs of the majority must be put ahead of the needs of these few tenants. Speaking to the Guardian, Pete Robbins (Lambeth's cabinet member for housing) stated "Ultimately it's about priorities, I can't prioritise this small number of people over the 1,200 people in temporary accommodation, the 15,000 people on the waiting list, who also want the opportunity for an affordable home."
Unfortunately the council has not ringfenced the money that it expects to raise with these one-off sales, and will not make a commitment that any of it will be used to build or otherwise obtain more social housing.
In the midst of all this I went to visit one of the remaining shortlife co-ops, occupying a little side street by Clapham Common. These buildings have been continuously occupied since 1974, starting off as squats before becoming formalised as a housing co-op later in the 1970s. Two of the houses on this street have already been seized and sold by the council. A co-op resident there showed me around his house.
Lambeth council sets up a system where void properties, and empty properties needing refurbishment, are separated out from the main body of housing stock.
Properties that need renovation are then allocated to one single co-op, Lambeth United Housing Co-operative, for a period of, for example, 2 to 5 years (dependent on surveyors reports), and the co-op oversees renovation and refurbishment.
After this period, the houses are returned to the general council stock, with occupants included. Each occupant cancels their co-op membership and becomes a full council tenant.
As properties are returned to the main housing stock, other houses for renovation are brought in to Co-op to replace the ones that have just been refurbished.
Alongside this alternative proposal there have been protests and promises to resist evictions if the council continues to pursue this policy (legal challenges have become much harder since the government cut funding to Legal Aid). The co-op members do not stand alone, local residents, bloggers and housing activists have pledged support for this campaign.
If you want to add your support you can sign the petition here: http://www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk/?page_id=562
Lambeth United Housing Co-op: http://www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk/?page_id=168
New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/01/why-lambeth-dismantling-its-housing-co-operatives
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/dec/01/woman-lambeth-council-home-faces-eviction
SQUASH Campaign: http://www.squashcampaign.org/2012/11/how-the-co-operative-council-is-destroying-housing-co-ops/
Lambeth Housing Activists: http://housingactivists.co.uk/
Bureau of Investigative Journalists report on UK social housing September 2013: http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2013/12/19/london-councils-sit-on-millions-meant-for-building-cheaper-homes-2/