Mums battle for housing as London squeezes out poor
Balancing buggies with protest banners, a group of young London mothers is at the frontline of a struggle for homes in a city gripped by the problem of rising rents for lower-income households.
The "Focus E15 Mothers", all aged under 25, have waged a campaign of occupations and anti-eviction protests that has shaken up the debate as housing becomes a major issue ahead of Britain's May 2015 general election.
The group formed when they were given notice to leave the Focus E15 hostel for homeless people, close to the Olympic stadium in Newham, east London, one of London's poorest boroughs which has been transformed by recent development.
"I was actually pregnant and my due date was a day before the eviction," said 21-year-old Sam Middleton.
Living in the hostel since leaving a violent partner, she said she was offered alternative housing in other cities but nothing in London, where she grew up.
"They're going to move poor people out into the slums. It's social cleansing," Middleton told AFP at a protest demanding secure, affordable homes, which was dominated by mothers and toddlers.
She and her one-year-old son were eventually moved into private rented accommodation that costs GBP 249 a week (USD 393, EUR 316), paid by state welfare payments.
But their contract ends in March, meaning they face an uncertain future.
In September the group temporarily occupied empty flats in a council-owned housing estate, draping banners out the windows reading "Social Housing Not Cleansing" and "These People Need Homes".
Britain won the right to host the 2012 Olympics partly on a promise to re-develop swathes of east London. but campaigners and local residents say that is being done without taking into account the needs of the less well-off in the local community.
Shortage of social housing
Newham Council says it is doing its best despite deep spending cuts imposed by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government.
"We have to make difficult decisions. The Focus E15 Mothers are not the only families in the borough to face these issues," said Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, from the main opposition Labour Party.
The council said the government's support for the "Right to Buy" policy that sells social housing to tenants at a discount has depleted stock, when 16,000 applications are on the waiting list for homes in the area.
Between 35 and 45 percent of homes sold to tenants under Right to Buy are sold on to private landlords, who give short-term contracts and continually raise rents, it said.
Average rents in Newham rose 5.6 times faster than the average salary last year, according to the council. Across London, average rents rose 2.8 times faster than wages.
Sky full of cranes
A popular investment for the world's wealthy, the average cost of a London house is now more than GBP 500,000 (USD 790,000, EUR 630,000), according to the Office for National Statistics.
Meanwhile, average wages in Britain have struggled to keep up with inflation and are still below what they were before the financial crisis, causing a squeeze on living standards.
Some analysts say runaway London house price rises may not continue as there are simply not enough people living in the city who can afford them, and banks may be reluctant to lend the sums required.
A study by the National Housing Federation found that the yearly rise in house prices in some parts of the city was now larger than Cameron's annual salary of GBP 142,000.
"The real solution is obvious: to build hundreds of thousands more homes," London Mayor Boris Johnson told a recent property trade show that was targeted by protesters.
Johnson, a Conservative, has promised 55,000 new "affordable" homes between 2011 and 2015.
But critics say the government's definition of affordable rented housing as 80 percent of the "local market rent" means it is often not really affordable at all.
"Ordinary Londoners are increasingly finding it difficult to find genuinely affordable housing at the same time that the sky is filled with cranes because new luxury towers are being built," said Paul Watt, senior lecturer in urban studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
The looming general election has given the issue even more political weight.
Both the Conservative and Labour parties kicked off their campaigns with competing promises on how many houses they will build.
Yet without more social housing or rent controls, the socially and ethnically diverse capital risks becoming a city in which lower-income people are pushed out to the suburbs.
"This is partly a value judgement. If you think that having an inner core of primarily middle-class and rich people is a good thing, you will say that's a good policy," Watt said.
"It depends what kind of city you want."
Naomi O'Leary / AFP / Expatica