Saturday 26th May sees an event being held by York Welfare Campaign entitled entitled Here to Live, Here to Stay. Timed as part of UK Uncut’s Great British Street Party, the event is both a celebration of the city and a demand that everyone is entitled to affordable and appropriate housing. People will be meeting in St Helen’s Square from 11am to 3pm, with a mixture of food, music, political stalls, kids games, talks and more. The event forms part of York Welfare Campaign’s wider series of actions around housing, which has included a recent public meeting, campaigns around housing benefit, services for homeless people and other issues.
The situation in York
While one of the most affluent cities in the north of England, and often seen as entirely “middle class”, York has its housing problems like anywhere else – however, they are by and large kept comfortably outside of the city centre, so as to not spoil things for the tourist trade. Which may help to explain why some people’s preferred approach to people begging is to have them “cleared out”, so as not to cause “a blight on our beautiful city”.
Some might say a better approach to the problem would involve giving people support and/or homes – the White Swan Hotel has been empty for the past three decades, for one thing – rather than opting for a sort of medieval banishing of the poor. But that’s just hippie talk.
In late 2011, housing charity Shelter published two reports on housing in England and Wales. One of them, available here, concluded that York is “the few exceptions…where average rents are on a par with those seen in the South East and East of England.” Similarly, it was revealed earlier this year that York is “one of the least affordable cities in the country to buy a home”.
However, when assessing applicants for housing benefit, rates for York are calculated to include surrounding areas with lower rents, artificially lowering the amount of benefit available to the point that it is inadequate for many people to help pay the bills, forcing some to leave the city. Which may also go some way towards explaining why homelessness in the city rose by 40% in the period 2010/2011.
Also in 2011, another report by Shelter revealed that 450 properties in York had been reposssessed that year alone.
All of this takes place in an environment in which benefits and services are being cut seemingly on a weekly basis. The cuts have brought to light just how divided York is as a city, and how its surface image as simply a well-off tourist trap masks a great deal. The York Press, reporting in April, noted:
The Press reported yesterday how just over 6,000 existing benefit recipients across the city will be out of pocket following a raft of cuts aimed at reducing the nation’s benefits bill by more than £2 billion, with more than 500 residents set to lose in excess of £1,000 a year.
Now a geographical analysis has shown that the ward with the most people losing out is Westfield, where 982 people, or 16.2 per cent of the total number of claimants losing benefits in York, are affected.
Another 627 will be out of pocket in Clifton, 507 in Holgate and 643 people in Heworth.
In contrast, neighbouring Heworth Without has only 33 people affected, and only 21 people will lose out in Heslington and 39 in Fulford.
Meanwhile, local homeless shelter Arclight saw its funding cut by £28,000, while other cuts – to jobs, benefits, services and the like – are all likely to have an affect of their own.
York is also home to a traveller community, with sites in Clifton, Osbaldwick and James Street. While there has been a traveller community in York going back some time, they remain marginalised and often invisible. As described by York Travellers Trust:
The location and extremely poor conditions of the three York sites are proving problematic for residents. Families have to live in an environment that is constantly infested with vermin because all of the sites have been built on industrial estates.
Overcrowding on all three sites is also a major issue due to the lack of other provision and official reluctance to build another site. The lack of adequate facilities on each site creates poor living conditions and is detrimental to the health and well-being of Gypsies and Travellers.
The situation nationally
The situation in York is only one example of the housing problems rising across the UK:
- Figures for Autumn 2010-Autumn 2011 showed a rise in rough sleeping across the England of 23%.
- Research carried out by Shelter in March 2012 showed one in every 111 houses at risk of eviction.
- This year the government, as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, made it a criminal offence to squat in a residential building, punishable with a fine and/or a prison sentence. The same act, as noted by Inside Housing:…makes squatting in a residential building a criminal offence, meaning squatters could face a year in jail or a £5,000 fine. It also restricts access to legal aid to instances where households could be, or have been, made homeless.
- In London, cuts to housing benefit – coupled with the potential for huge profits to be made during the Olympics – have seen borough councils attempting to quite literally get rid of those on housing benefit, proposing to relocate them hundreds of miles away in what has been described as “social cleansing”.
Across the UK – and across the world – austerity measures are cutting in harder and harder, and with them, struggles over housing become ever more a priority. There are many approaches to this, from letter-writing and public awareness campaigns to legal challenges, protest marches, direct action and more. We believe we are at our strongest when we work together, and that by taking direct action we can win the things we deserve.
A solidarity network is, as described in an interview with the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol), “a small workers’ and tenants’ mutual aid group that focuses on winning small fights against bosses and landlords, over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits, through the use of collective action in the form of pickets and demonstrations.” Similar groups in the UK include the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, the London Coalition Against Poverty, and the Glasgow Solidarity Network, among others. Solidarity networks have taken action on issues including access to benefits, problems with employment agencies, precarious work, abusive landlords and more, often working in tandem with campaign groups and unions such as the IWW.
Typically campaigns launched by solidarity networks will begin with a letter informing the target – the landlord, letting agency, employer, job agency, benefits office or whatever – of the problem being faced and what the group intends to do about it (indeed, sometimes this in itself can get results). This then leads to an escalation of tactics, including pickets, publicity stunts, occupations, networking with other affected people; from the same interview:
Every fight starts with a ‘demand delivery’ like the one linked here. We turn up as a large group at the boss or landlord’s office or business. The person with the issue hands a demand letter stating what needs to be done to the boss by a certain deadline of one or two weeks. This is basically a show of strength – the worker or tenant is supported by a large group of people – and a warning. The boss or landlord can give in now, or there will be trouble later.
If we’re lucky, the boss or landlord will give in before the deadline. If not, we start an escalating campaign. We start fairly small, then increase the pressure by adding more types of actions, more often, of increasing size. Our mainstay is a picket of a dozen or so people outside the enemy’s place of business. If it’s a restaurant or shop, this often proves economically devastating, reducing sales by half or more during the times we are there. Other techniques we use are poster campaigns to turn away prospective tenants, public embarrassment by leafleting the boss’s church or neighbourhood, interfering with suppliers or business partners, phone and internet actions, and anything else we can think of. We try to be pretty imaginative.
As austerity continues to bite with little sign of letting up, even those who would otherwise be comfortable find themselves at risk of losing their homes, in the UK and internationally. As the evictions continue, however, groups have organised to stop them, whether through legal challenges, public pressure – or by taking direct action to literally stop them in their tracks.
After a 7 month campaign led by Occupy Homes MN, Monique White has been offered a new loan by US Bank. In October of 2011 Monique was perhaps the first homeowner in the nation to approach the Occupy movement and ask for help in defending her home from an unlawful foreclosure . The 6 month campaign to save her home set an historic precedent in the Bank and foreclosure reform movement. The new loan was offered some 15 months after the end of the Redemption period and with a payment in keeping with the homes current value.
Supporters have camped out in and around her home, led over a dozen marches on US Bank, collected over 6,500 petition signatures, packed the courtroom, shut down Bank branches, and even marched to the homeof US Bank CEO Richard Davis. Occupy Homes MN has worked with White and her family since October 2011, making national and international news in the process.
“I’m so thankful for all of the support during this process.” Said White, “Through it all I kept my faith in God and fought for what’s right. Right now I’m just thankful that my family and I will get to keep my home.”
Similar developments have taken place as part of Spain’s indignados movement and as part of occupy movements elsewhere.
“At the end of the Second World War this kind of squatting started with what was known as the `Vigilante campaign’ which spread from Brighton to other seaside towns like Hastings and Southend. Committees of, largely, ex-servicemen, under cover of night, installed homeless families and their furniture in unoccupied houses – usually successfully, since no action could be taken to evict them once they were in, until the usually absentee property-owners could initiate legal proceedings against them.
“In the following years the campaign grew because of the anomaly of the emptying-out of hundreds of army and air-force camps during the worst housing shortage the country had known. Spontaneous individual actions began in Scunthorpe, spread quickly to two other camps in Lincolnshire, and were followed by the occupation of several camps around Sheffield, where settlers formed a Squatters’ Protection Society and linked up with the pioneer squatters at Scunthorpe. These events were rapidly followed by the seizure of hundreds of camps everywhere in Britain.”
(Colin Ward, The Hidden History of Housing)
Squatting – the occupation of empty buildings for housing or other purposes – has a long and eventful history in the UK, much of it tied in with the radical politics of the time. After the end of the Second World War, returning soldiers and their families found themselves with homes either destroyed or left to delapidation. Whole groups of families went out and squatted abandoned buildings, barracks and POW camps around the UK. The squatters movement would continue through the decades, from the communes of the 60s to the fight against the Criminal Justice Act – that attempted to clamp down on squatters, raves, travellers and activists – in the 90s.
The 2000s saw the growth of the occupied social centres movement in the UK, with buildings up and down the country being squatted by activist groups both for housing and political use. The social centres serve a range of functions, including providing offices for campaign groups, spaces for meetings, musical, artistic and political events, and as a hub for community groups and activities.
In York, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw the White Swan Hotel on Piccadilly squatted by a group of anti-war activists. Empty since the early 1980s, the building was opened up and used as a space for anti-war material as well as art work, music and fundraising events. Ongoing social centres – some squatted, some not – include the Black Rose social centre in Sheffield and the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford; a more comprehensive list can be found via the UK Social Centres Network.