Freedom News

Squatters and tenants unite to defy eviction of winter shelter

LONDON: An association representing 650 local residents have declared their support for the Grey’s Inn Road occupation of a former St. Mungo’s hostel as an autonomously organised winter shelter.

After the Camden New Journal reported on the occupation on their frontpage last Thursday the organisers have received the following message of support:

“Hi, I am the co-chair of Hillview Residents’ Association, which represents 650 One Housing Group tenants off Cromer Street, Kings Cross. We are now tenants, but many of us started out as squatters. We heard about the Autonomous Winter Shelter in Gray’s Inn Road from this week’s Camden New Journal, and the threat of eviction by the owner of the building, One Housing. We would like to offer our support to the occupiers of the building, at least by helping to publicise their situation and getting people along to oppose the eviction. We have been in conflict with One Housing since they took over our blocks in the early 90s and understand how anti-democratic, money grubbing and ruthless they are. All the best.”

The following is taken from the Hillview Resident’s Association’s post on the Social Housing Action campaign:

“HRA has a long and proud history. It was established in 1980, and ran our estate with Shortlife Community Housing for 18 years from the late 1970s. We fought proposed demolition by Camden Council in a 15-year long campaign. This was successful, but the subsequent deal involved the transfer of the estate to a housing association as the Thatcher government wouldn’t allow councils to access funds for the refurbishment of housing estates.

The tenants’ meeting where the transfer was accepted voted 2/3 in favour. Many people believed they had to accept as the alternative was eviction. OHG (then Community Housing Association) bought the estate freehold from Camden Council for less than £2 million. It is now worth perhaps £250 million. When we have asked Camden councillors why they gave a large amount of public housing to an unaccountable group with little housing experience they inevitably have no answer.

Since Community Housing and then One Housing took over we have been at war with our landlord. They have a poor record including mis-management, shoddy and amateurish repairs, lack of accountability and actual opposition to tenant involvement. A tenants’ forum which genuinely represented tenants’ interests was abolished by Community in 2004 and the chair threatened tenants with legal action if we went to the press. Now tenants’ reps are ‘appointed’ and paid for by the landlord. We have heard they exist but don’t know who they are.

Hillview used to collect a £1 weekly levy from residents which went to the tenant associations of Shortlife’s 3000 properties. When Community Housing took over, they carried on collecting the levy but refused to give it to the tenants associations. We took them to court but they employed a high powered city lawyer who threatened our five named parties with bankruptcy if we lost. They inevitably dropped out one by one and finally we had to pay Community Housing £60k in court costs as well as £30k to our own lawyers.

Our estate was used by Community Housing as collateral to buy Island Homes on the Isle of Dogs. The tenant-led board there was shut down. This was the start of their expansion into what is now a property development company run for the benefit of a clique of ambitious housing professionals. One bedroom flats in some of their purely private developments have sold for £600k upwards

One Housing Group refuses to recognise our tenants’ association, although this hasn’t stopped us. We did two petitions from our members. In one of them, 90% of the tenants said they wanted us to represent them in the second 70% did. One Housing Group now says we have to sign their model constitution before recognition. This document allows them to close us down and seize our funds if we disagree with them. Not surprisingly, Hillview voted 19 to nil in favour of remaining independent and staying with our existing constitution.

A few years ago One Housing Group made an attempt to recruit a parallel residents’ association to undermine us. This quickly collapsed.

The landlord has also (until recently) banned us from using our own tenants’ hall, which was built with public money under the Housing Corporation’s ‘Tenants’ Hall Initiative’. After a campaign, they have allowed us to use it, but such is the lack of trust of their tenants, they have to be present to open and lock the building.

Although we refused to sign up to their demands, One Housing Group has effectively recognised Hillview, and attend our meetings when invited. We currently divide our meetings into two, inviting the OHG local estate management worker, the tenant involvement worker and someone from the repairs team to attend the first part of the meeting, and then holding our own closed meeting without them afterwards.

We will continue to operate in this way, and are also now building links with other One Housing Group tenant and resident groups. We know of the great work done in defending tenants’ interests in Newham and elsewhere. And we are working closely with SHAC. Our belief is that the more organised and vocal we are the better we will be treated.”

The occupiers of the autonomous winter shelter (AWS), who organise horizontally with an ethos of “mutual aid, mutual respect” claim to have housed over 25 rough sleepers since opening the building 6 weeks ago. The owners, OneHousing, gained right to possession of the property on January 14th 2022. The occupiers have been tensely waiting eviction since then, and state that they have no other alternative. Previous examples of squatter/tenant alliances defying demolition threats from councils at the Aylsebury Estate in January 2015, following the March for Homes, when a block on the estate was occupied by a group of squatters and housing activists in a protest against the demolition, and which has since lain empty and become a haven for criminal activity. Squatters took action and support as part of the Focus E15 campaign, a struggle that began in 2013 and continues to this day.

OneHousing’s website claims that “helping homeless people to move on to secure homes and more stable futures is at the heart of what we do”. There are currently no planning permissions requests submitted to Camden Council for the Grey’s Inn Road site. A letter requesting a meanwhile use agreement to ensure the safety of residents until March was delivered to OneHousing’s Chief Executive Richard Hill on Friday but is yet to receive a response. They are still receiving donations of much needed food and warm weather gear, which they frequently distribute to other homeless people in the King’s Cross area.

The occupiers have asked that journalists and interested members of the public contact OneHousing’s media department via email or even phoning them on 020 8821 5438.

Photo credit: Guy Smallman