A group of 29 homeless, single mothers under 25 years old, evicted from their social housing by the Newham Council of East London banded together in against the widespread emptying of social housing estates.1 Their campaign demanded social housing and the repopulation of the existing unoccupied stock that had been cleared out for sale to private developers.1
Post WWII reconstruction in London saw the development and support of public housing estates. But the Right to Buy reforms of the 1980s kicked off a new profit-led development paradigm.3 Investment in maintaining the existing stock of social housing dried and social housing predictably became associated with crime and decay.3 Many of the original estates have been demolished or redeveloped by the market.3 London now has a severe affordable housing crisis. In September 2013, the Newham, East London Council, cut funding to a program called Focus E15 that supported a hostel for single mothers, evicting them from their homes.
The mothers occupied an abandoned block of apartments in a mostly-emptied social housing estate and turned it into a “social center for the community”. They offered free clothes, food, toys, and even financial advising.4 They hosted concerts, comedy shows, and workshops on topics from economics and housing to renters’ rights.4 They held daily open meetings.4 The group supported individual women in their eviction hearings, securing various victories. They staged marches to their Town Hall, waged social media campaigns, and drummed up considerable press to hold public officials accountable. After creating a massive PR scandal for their local government, the Focus E15 mothers eventually forced authorities into negotiation. They won a public apology from their mayor and forty homeless families were moved into unoccupied apartments.2 They continue activism as a group, and are currently fighting against childhood poverty.5
This story, an embarrassing disaster for the Newham government demonstrated why participatory decision-making and open dialogue are beneficial not only to residents, but to local governments as well. Focus E15 is a success story for the mothers who reminded the world of the power in solidarity even in small bottom-up movements. Also, the mothers were able to realize the value of empty spaces that the Newham Council itself could not. They demonstrated the value-creating, community-building potential of temporary, dynamic uses of unoccupied urban spaces.