“They don’t want people like us, they just want us out of here,” said Adam, a former resident.
“Squatters always get bad press,” said David*, a squatter.
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you. Things get distorted. I’m not saying that you’d distort them, but things get distorted,” said Lee*, a security guard.
The atmosphere in the community house (the house occupied by former residents) isn’t as heavy as a couple of days ago, but it’s more downbeat than when I visited in May. Over the last three weeks, the estate has been “militarized”, says Liam, a housing campaigner who has offered support to the residents of Sweets Way since the evictions began. Annington, the developer, has hired a security company which has fenced off empty houses and sent in a squad of security guards. They patrol the estate with guard dogs on leads. Today, the campaign has organized a “community day”. There is a bouncy castle in the garden, but nobody is bouncing on it. It’s not very a family-friendly environment any more, explains Liam.
I speak to a couple of the former residents: Zlatka and Andrew.
“So what are you guys still fighting for at this stage in the campaign?” I ask.
“Well basically, for Sweets Way,” says Andrew. “We want it to stay. We want it to… stay.” He is hurt. I cringe. The “still” slipped out without me meaning to say it.
“And we’re still fighting because they haven’t started bulldozing the houses, so there’s still a chance to save the estate,” adds Zlatka.
She is right. I am glad that she has put me right.
They are fighting for their right to return. These are good houses. These are good homes. This was a good community. This is a good community. Why should they back down?
Andrew’s dog, Blinky, jumps up onto the sofa next to him. Zlatka has a big smile. I relax. We chat.
After a slice of cake, I leave the house and go for a walk through the estate. None of the security guards will speak to me. They have their orders.
I enter through the barricade
Into Sweetstopia – formerly a row of terraced houses on the Sweets Way estate, now a squatters’ commune
At the end of the alley, a young woman in jogging bottoms and a grey t-shirt is sitting on a chair in the sun.
She has big, rough hands. I glance at my hands. They are smaller than hers. Her hands have planted trees, patched bicycle tires along the roadsides of central and northern Europe, set up camp, made makeshift homes in abandoned buildings, rifled through skips behind supermarkets, prepared dinner in outdoor kitchens for refugees. She is taller than me and kind of has the features of a giant. She soaks in the sun. Her eyes are swollen, like she was up late last night. I tell her I am a documentarian. I am documenting the housing crisis, I want to document how it came about, to document how it is affecting people, to document what it is. Can I speak to her?
“So tell me then, what is the housing crisis?” She asks, testing me.
“I think it has… different facets… depending on who you ask. I think it means different things to different people.”
She’s not convinced: “What does it mean to you?”
So I tell her about social cleansing, councils selling out to commercial developers, people being ripped away from their friends and neighbours and families, extortionate rents for mould-infested flats, 1.8 million households (5 million people) on the council housing waiting list, right to buy, precarity, immiseration, the national obsession with the idea that a house is something to make money out of, the pollution of our vocabulary, of our imaginations…
A young man comes out of the house next door with a plate of potato wedges.
“Bist du hungrig?” he asks (they are from Austria).
She beckons for him to bring the plate over. We share the potato wedges.
She is interested in my stories and offers me a chair. She is curious about how middle class English people live. When the sun dips behind the row of houses, we relocate to a patch of grass at the other end of the alley to catch the last of the light. She will be heading south for the winter, to Italy.
Ella* is the last person I speak to: another activist. At first, our conversation is polite, light, lively, conversational. “I’m recording interviews with people who have been displaced by re-generation projects”. Gentrification is a race issue, she says. Gradually, her speech patterns shift and she gathers pace: her words tumble out and she does not leave space for me to respond. I feel like it’s a reaction conditioned by the times she’s been interrupted when she speaks about this (I’m guessing). If you bring up the issue of race, you’re telling people they’re a racist, she holds my gaze, and that’s like telling someone they’ve raped you. Black people, black families (in the inclusive sense of “non-white”) feel like they’re not included in left-wing campaigns. Racism is a big issue in the Left. I feel like she is re-living it the experience of not being allowed to speak, re-living the frustration – her voice catches slightly at the tightness in her throat. At the time, all I can do is nod and listen.
Six months after the estate was decanted, there are many different people on Sweets Way. Working out how to live together sometimes feels like a “work in progress”, as Liam (the diplomat) puts it. It has been a struggle, but former residents, with the help of campaigners, have forced the council to start paying attention to them: investing in finding suitable accommodation to re-house residents at the start of the process would surely have been less costly than a protracted battle. The occupation has a cost for former residents too, though. It is emotionally draining, time-consuming and many feel intimidated by the new security detail.
Ultimately, it feels like everyone is trapped inside the same machine: the council is drained of resources and is “just following orders”, the security guys are on shitty low-paid contracts and are “just following orders”, the developer has a responsibility to its shareholders and is “just following orders”. But the residents of Sweets Way have stopped taking orders. Maybe it’ll catch on.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity