Having faced the grim prospect of eviction just before the holidays, residents of a housing block in east London are instead toasting an unlikely victory over U.S. property investors.
Multi-billion dollar asset management firm Westbrook Partners said Friday that it would abandon its plan to raise rents to market values — a move that would have tripled the cost to some residents — and instead sell the New Era estate to an affordable housing charity.
In ditching the plan, Westbrook appeared to bow to public and government pressure following a well-orchestrated campaign. New Era residents organized a change.org petition with nearly 350,000 signatures and attracted major media attention to their cause, thanks in large part to the efforts of British actor Russell Brand. On several occasions, the outspoken comedian turned social activist marched in the streets alongside New Era residents and supporters, and demonstrated outside Westbrook’s office holding signs that read, “Social housing, not social cleansing.”
On Friday, he tweeted a photo of three of the housing block’s leaders, with the caption: “New Era women plot next move having defeated lazy government and greedy corporations.”
In March, Westbrook reportedly bought New Era, located in Hackney — a traditionally working class east London borough that has recently seen an influx of wealthier homeowners — for $36 million. The previous owner had done minimal upkeep to the facility, leaving maintenance and other necessary improvements up to residents themselves. But rents were kept low.
Westbrook initially negotiated new contracts with many residents at a slightly higher rent and promised a “constructive dialogue” going forward. But reports indicated the firm had told the local Hackney government it planned to renovate New Era and raise rents to market values — from roughly $1,200 per month for a two-bedroom flat to nearly $3,200 per month.
For residents who had lived in Hackney all their live, the move would have priced them out. “We made London what it is,” Danielle Molinari, one of the campaign leaders, told the New York Times. “Now that it’s nice, we’re told we can’t live here anymore?”
London mayor Boris Johnson reportedly also got involved, urging Westbrook to reconsider and, later, deploying a deputy to help negotiate the sale to an affordable housing group, the Dolphin Square Foundation.
Dolphin Square has said it will instead adjust rents to accommodate the incomes of the 93 low- and middle-income families currently living in New Era.
“We want the New Era tenants to feel secure while we have some meaningful consultation with them about not just rents but also repairs and renewals, to secure the long-term future of the estate,” Jonathan Gooding, the charity’s chief executive, told the Mirror.
Lindsey Garrett, a 35-year-old single mother and one of the campaign’s leaders, called Westbrook’s decision to pull out a “massive victory.” Many of New Era’s 93 families said they faced eviction as soon as next month and that they would've been forced to relocate
“Westbrook finally got the message that we weren’t going to stop fighting until they did the right thing and let us stay in our homes,” she told the Independent.