Hundreds of residents and supporters of the New Era estate in east London protest over fears that rents could triple after a takeover by US investment company Westbrook Partners.
The New Era estate was sold to the American private equity company earlier this year. It was run by the Lever family for more than 80 years, and boasted rents as low as £163 a week for a three-bed flat.
Under the old management, tenants were assured that rent would not be increased until 2016 under a local landlord agreement called the Hoxton Regeneration.
Tenants say that Westbrook now plans to refurbish the flats, build two more storeys and then raise the rents to market level, effectively triple their current rate.
Robert Lever, the grandson of Arthur Barsht, who built the 93-flat estate, told the Guardian: “”I don’t have any particular views on what Westbrook has decided to do with the property – good, bad or indifferent – and I don’t regard the residents as being in a difficult situation.”
Hundreds of residents and supporters, including the comedian Russell Brand, attended a demonstration outside the London office of Westbrook Partners. The protesters then marched to Downing Street, where they handed in a petition of 294,000 signatures calling on the prime minister and London Mayor Boris Johnson to intervene.
Campaigners fear that any rent increase would make the flats unaffordable, effectively evicting them from the estate.
Alex Hilton, director of Generation Rent, told Channel 4 News that the Lever family would have been under constant pressure to sell the estate.
“Not screwing your tenants becomes less and less rational as the market rate goes up. Estate agents are on landlords’ backs all the time telling them they could get better rents. It becomes less and less rational to be a decent human being to your tenants,” he said.
Mr Hilton said the issues around the New Era estate were nothing new.
“This happens all the time,” he said. “Landlords put up rent by 20 or 30 per cent just to avoid evicting people through a legal process.
“The New Era estate issue is the ugliest characterisation of what happens all over the country, every day.”
The mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, wrote a letter to Westbrook Partners earlier this month encouraging the American property company to sell the New Era estate to a local housing association.
“The New Era estate is a long-established community that includes elderly and disabled tenants along with those on low incomes. It is not acceptable that you should move to evict them from their homes in this manner, and we hope you will agree that the tenants of the estate should be treated with respect and consideration,” said the letter.
“We are calling on you to honour the rent commitments made by Hoxton Regeneration, that there will be no further rent increases until 2016. This is a bare minimum we would ask, to give tenants ample time to plan for the future, and again it is not acceptable that having given these commitments, albeit informally, Westbrook should withdraw them.”
On Sunday night, Westbrook wrote to all tenants stating that “there will be no changes to the tenancy agreements and no increase in rents during the first half of 2015.”
In a statement Westbrook Partners said: “Westbrook has sent two letters in the last 10 days, reassuring tenants that Westbrook had no plans to cancel residential leases and that Westbrook was working on appointing a new permanent property manager. Westbrook also confirmed to tenants that that there will be no changes to their residential leases and no increases in rents during the first half of 2015 and that a dedicated tenant liaison officer is in the final stages of being appointed.
“Westbrook and its property manager have not sent any eviction notices or served legal proceedings against any residential tenant.
“Westbrook Partners and its employees are committed to the highest ethics and values in the conduct of its business and are fully compliant with all applicable laws in each jurisdiction that it operates in.”