Betiel Mehari is a single mother who became a housing activist to try to save her own home.
Betiel works in retail on a zero-hours contract. She lived on the Loughborough Park Estate in Brixton for 11 years, until her family lost their home when the estate was completely demolished by housing association Guinness Partnership in a £75m "regeneration" scheme. She was forced to leave Brixton, losing her much valued local community, with huge disruption to her family. ("That's what regeneration does," she says.) Rehoused in a smaller flat in Newington with no balcony, her two children (aged 11 and 10) are now commuting the lengthy distance from Newington to Brixton in order to maintain their educational stability and friends.
Furthermore, Guinness whacked up the rent in the family's new flat, from a "social rent" of £109 per week to a so-called "affordable rent" of £265 per week. Although Betiel had been a Guinness tenant for 11 years, Guinness claimed that demolishing her flat and rehousing her had created "a new tenancy".
Betiel says: "'Affordable' rent is a con. You'd assume it's based on wages, but it's not. It's set at 80% of market rents, not according to any measure of actual affordability. With two kids it requires an income of £35,000, which is higher than the national average. This measure puts us at the mercy of the housing market - it's absolute madness."
Betiel is now fighting to stave off being evicted for a second time. Although in theory her new rent is covered by Housing Benefit, Housing Benefit payments are automatically stopped by DWP when financial circumstances change. For someone on a zero-hours contract like Betiel, this can be often. Betiel says: "It's happened to me twice. I was working in a cafe which closed down. The owner refused to provide me with a P45 or other paperwork, and DWP refused to rectify the situation until they received all the paperwork. I couldn't get it within DWP's 4-week window, after which they don't allow any appeals. Even if you do manage to get some payments backdated, DWP often refuse to fill the gap fully."
With Betiel's ongoing weekly rent right at the limit of the Tory Government's cap on Housing Benefit payments, she is unable to obtain any additional income to settle the arrears from when DWP stopped payments, which Guinness are pursuing her for. If Betiel is evicted, she may have to accept rehousing outside London; if she refused to do so she could be classed as "intentionally homeless", losing her rehousing rights altogether.
Betiel's own health has been affected and she describes her life as "totally ruined". Betiel says: "When I visited the office of Neil Coyle MP seeking help, he said he would be in touch and then I heard nothing."
Betiel is passionate about social housing, and how important it is to maintain it. Betiel is now standing for Southwark Green Party in the local elections (in Newington ward) because of its commitment to social housing and providing everyone with a safe and affordable home.
Speaking in support of Betiel, Green Party national co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: "We've seen growing inequality, we've seen people rooted out of their communities, like Beti, and forced out. We can do so much better than this. I think Guinness needs to have a long hard think, and needs to think again and think quickly about what it's doing to people like Beti and thousands of others like her."
Housing affordability is similarly dire for those looking to get a toehold on the property ladder in our area. For supposedly affordable “part-buy-part-rent” one-bedroom flats in Elephant Park, the required minimum household income starts at £57,500. Labour-run Southwark Council allowed profit-making developers Lend Lease to ignore quotas of genuinely affordable new social homes.
Local school governor David Powell said: "The lack of affordable housing in this area is having an adverse effect even on recruitment of teaching staff. If a newly qualified teacher is offered a job in this area, they are very unlikely to be able to afford to live locally, and face the prospect of a long journey to and from work."