London Mayor to intervene in Westbrook New Era dispute following criticism

London Mayor Boris Johnson is to intervene in a dispute which threatens to force up to 90 low-income residents from their homes on Hoxton’s New Era estate in the run-up to Christmas, the Hackney Citizen can reveal.

The news comes after local councillors wrote to residents on Saturday informing them that new owners, US property speculator Westbrook Partners, was backtracking on a verbal agreement to freeze rents until 2016.

Instead it would refurbish the estate “in its entirety” before letting properties at market rates – thereby trebling rents.

Residents from the New Era Estate had until now criticised Boris Johnson for not speaking out.

However, breaking the silence tonight a spokesman told the Hackney Citizen that the London Mayor “supports the tenants desire to stay if at all possible” and has instructed a member of his team to investigate.

The Deputy Mayor for Housing, Richard Blakeway, will be writing to Westbrook tonight (Monday).

Two week’s notice

Twelve-month tenancy contracts signed in July allow for ‘two-week break clauses’ to refurbish properties on the estate meaning residents can be evicted with two-week’s notice according to Lindsey Garrett, a tenant of 22-years who has led the campaign to remain in their homes.

When Westbrook bought the estate in April it originally informed Hackney Council of plans to build additional homes on top of the existing blocks with an element of affordable housing.

It also said it would refurbish homes while tenants continued to live there, according to the letter from the three councillors for Hoxton East and Shoreditch.

The change of heart follows a resident-led campaign aimed at The Benyon Estate, owned by Conservative MP Richard Benyon and his brother Edward.

Last Friday The Benyon Estate announced it would sell its ten per cent stake and withdraw from the property management contract.

A new property manager, Frank Knight, has since been installed.

Lindsey Garrett earlier criticised Westbrook for backtracking on the agreement to freeze rents until 2016 and leaving tenants vulnerable.

“I think it’s a vindictive reaction to say ‘you can’t mess with us’ after we got rid of the Benyons, but we’re not going anywhere,” she said.

Both residents and councillors have been trying to arrange a meeting with Westbrook. However, there has been little contact since the sale in April with statements instead being issued through a public relations firm.

Cllr Philip Glanville said: “We believe Westbrook have a duty to talk to New Era residents about their intentions, and we call on them to honour commitments already made to not rapidly increase rents.

“Treating tenants in this way is completely unacceptable but under current legislation they – and the council – are powerless to stop this.”

‘Appalling’ reputation

Ms Garrett said despite the lack of tenant protection they will continue to fight to remain in their homes, possibly calling on thousands of supporters to flood the estate if necessary.

Referring to a successful campaign against Westbrook by low-income tenants in New York, she said: “Their reputation as landlords in America is bloody appalling yet they’re allowed to come over here and buy up residential properties. It’s just unbelievable.”

In April as Westbrook completed the deal for the New Era Estate it was agreeing a settlement with the New York Attorney General for allowing the homes of thousands of low-income tenants to fall into a state of disrepair.

Westbrook bought into a 44-building 1,600 property portfolio in 2007 shortly before the crash for $133m. Housing advocacy groups said the mortgage was underwritten on the ‘predatory idea’ that rents could be increased and maintenance costs cut.

However, the majority of the properties were rent-regulated meaning, unlike in England, tenants must be offered lease renewals by law and rent increases are set by the city’s mayor with the most recent being one per cent for a one-year lease, so maintenance costs were seemingly cut.

Two of Westbrook’s properties were listed as being amongst the 200 ‘most distressed’ buildings in New York.

Along with an investment partner, Westbrook agreed to carry out thousands of repairs, sack the property management company and pay tenants a $1m settlement between them for overcharging and illegal fees.

Boris breaks silence

Before Boris Johnson’s announcement, Ms Garrett said: “The Mayor of New York chose to step in and do something about Westbrook in New York, so why can’t Boris do something here?

“He might pretend that he can’t or may choose to ignore it, but the bottom line is it’s his responsibility, it’s his city, and we’re in a housing crisis and people are leaving their homes. Is he really going to stand by and let 93 families become homeless while he’s in power?”

But tonight the London Mayor’s office expressed support for the New Era residents.

A spokesman said: “As this is privately owned housing on private land the Mayor has no jurisdiction over the site, but he has asked the Deputy Mayor for Housing Richard Blakeway to talk to the landowners in an effort to try to find a favourable solution that would allow the tenants to stay in their own homes.

The London Mayor also urged the Council and the local Labour MP Meg Hillier to “do all they can to broker an agreement between the tenants of the New Era housing estate and Westbrook.”

In a statement yesterday, Hoxton Regeneration Ltd (HRL), the Westbrook company that owns the New Era Estate, would only confirm that Frank Knight would now manage the property and listed the changes HRL had made.

It said: “Since the change of ownership Hoxton Regeneration Ltd has: signed 83 new residential leases, increased residential rents by no more than ten per cent, taking average weekly rents across the estate to less than £179 per flat per week [and] served no eviction notices or instigated any legal proceedings against any of the residential tenants.”

*This story first appeared in the Hackney Citizen on 17th Nov 2014

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