29 Jul 2017 - 20:44
Five years after London Olympics, Games’ legacy is off-track for locals
By Matthew Ponsford / Thomson Reuters Foundation
LONDON: Five years ago, Sharon O’Callaghan-Evans watched with pride as her son took the stage in the opening ceremony of London’s Olympics, waving a flag to welcome the athletes to the East End neighbourhood where four generations of her family had lived.
A month later she followed suit, dancing with a group of women who, like her, suffer from impaired vision, in the opening show of the Paralympic Games.
Little did mother and son know then, they would soon be living in apartments built for the games’ sporting stars - or that an Olympic legacy of massive inflation in local rents would later force them out of their home city altogether.
The medical researcher, working on treatments for diabetes and heart disease, was among a set of locals including nurses and teachers, chosen after the games for reduced-cost housing schemes to help “key workers” afford London’s lofty rents.
O’Callaghan-Evans said the two-bed apartment in the athletes’ village, amid the landscaped hills of the Olympic Park, was a dream - but one that would be short-lived, as the mushrooming costs of the so-called affordable homes became apparent.
After a year, she was forced to give up her flat after her rents were hiked by nearly a quarter - from 15,000 pounds ($19,500) a year to more than 18,500 pounds ($24,000).
“It wasn’t what they told us it would be - it was a lie,” said O’Callaghan-Evans, 53, who now lives more than a 100 miles from London, near the town of Yeovil in rural Somerset.
She said the stress of hiked rents contributed to the worsening of her heart condition for which she was repeatedly hospitalised in early 2015 as she attempted to fight eviction, and which has now left her legally blind.
O’Callaghan-Evans is one of many who joined post-Olympics “affordable” housing schemes who have faced rising rents and insecure housing contracts, with little support from the publicly funded developers who were their landlords, she said.
Speaking in a cafe across the road from her old home in the athletes’ village, now renamed East Village, O’Callaghan-Evans told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “I have been absolutely impoverished by a process that was supposed to help me.”
London’s Olympic organisers justified the games’ 9 billion pound ($11.7 billion) price tag with promises to deliver not only a sporting extravaganza but an ‘Olympic legacy’ of prosperity for the poor East London boroughs where the games were held.
But five years on from the opening ceremony, promises to deliver “homes for all” and narrow the gulf in living standards between the host area and the rest of London have not been met, said residents, academics and some local leaders.
The six host boroughs have seen a spike in homelessness and numbers in emergency temporary accommodation, with both measures up more than 60 percent since the year before the games, according to the UK Department for Communities.
While local leaders have blamed national government policies to limit housing benefit payments, the host boroughs have also fallen further behind the rest of London in key measures, according to their own research.
Their most recent report for 2015-16 showed widening gaps in average wages and overcrowding, as families and renters attempt to fit more people into scarce homes.
Stephen Timms, opposition member of parliament for East Ham said genuinely affordable housebuilding had fallen off-track, with “nothing like enough” built so far.
“We require very significant investment in affordable housing to manage the increase in population without these problems - homelessness, the worst of them, but also inadequate homes that are much too small, cramped, overcrowded,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Stratford, the host neighbourhood, has transformed from a post-industrial landscape to hive of sports venues, mega-malls, and luxury tower blocks, but locals are left asking if they will be able to afford to remain and enjoy the new opportunities.
GENUINELY ‘AFFORDABLE’ HOMES?
When the athletes’ village was sold off in 2011 around half, or nearly 1,500 apartments, was sold to QDD, a joint venture between Qatari Diar, a property arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, and British property developer Delancey, to be sold or rented on the private market.
The remaining apartments were sold to Triathlon Homes, a joint venture between a developer and two non-profit housing providers, to become the “affordable” housing quota, funded by nearly 50 million pounds from the government’s Homes and Communities Agency.
In a book evaluating the games’ legacy set to be published next month, Paul Watt, lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, argues the games highlighted failures by former city mayor Boris Johnson to provide for low income Londoners.
From 2010, Johnson embraced a new definition of “affordable” which included anything up to 80 percent of market rates, allowing limitless increases as the market rate soared, Watt told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As luxury apartment blocks have risen up and the area has achieved its aim of becoming a in-demand neighbourhood, homes intended for low-earners have become out of reach, said Watt.
Today, “affordable” homes, including two-bed flats in O’Callaghan-Evans’ old building advertised for about 1,500 pounds ($1,900) per month, exclude Londoners on average salaries, never mind low wages, he said.
Watt writes that many Londoners now see the term affordable housing as “increasingly Orwellian” - making a promise that blatantly contradicts reality - and that this is especially true in the East Village.
The solution, they say, is social housing - low-cost homes where rents are linked to local incomes rather than market rate, which have traditionally provided a safety net for Londoners.
But on this measure, the games’ legacy is stagnant.
The government-owned London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the organisation launched to manage the regeneration of the Olympic Park and surrounding area, acknowledged that it has not yet built enough homes on the park to replace the almost 800 social housing units demolished to clear the site for the games.
However other flats are being built in the surrounding areas, said LLDC director of strategy Ben Fletcher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are five years into a long journey,” said Fletcher. “It’s not always what everyone wants to hear but some of this will take 10, 15, 20 years to come to full fruition. But we’re very, very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
NEW MAYOR, NEW PRIORITIES
Watt said the failure to build genuinely affordable homes reflects a conflict at the heart of the LLDC’s mandate.
The corporation is charged with recouping as much of the games’ cost as possible through land sales on the Olympic Park - but also briefed to pursue public good through legacy commitments such as low-cost housing.
Its previous chairman, David Edmonds, resigned in November 2016, four months after telling reporters that the corporation had not found a way to achieve both these goals.
London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, elected last year to succeed Johnson, is due to appoint a new chairman who he says will pursue new priorities including redefining affordable rent targets by linking them to wages.
In May, Khan launched his London Living Rent scheme, set in each borough at a third of average household incomes, which would see the rent for a two-bed flat drop below 1,000 pounds a month in the Olympic host boroughs.
O’Callaghan-Evans said the games organisers’ failure to anticipate the ruinous effects of leaps in rents have cost her dearly and have exiled her from the city where her grandfather laid railway tracks.
“I lost my community, my family, my extended family. My whole history is in that geography,” she said.
Suffering from failing sight and unwilling to commit to a year-long lease she knew she couldn’t afford, O’Callaghan-Evans was issued with an eviction notice in early 2015.
Joining her sister in a far-flung Somerset village, she left behind her mental map of London, that allowed her - despite weakening eyesight - to catch familiar buses and trains and navigate the city with no need for help.
“When you lose your sight ... you use your sense of place - all your memories, all your history - it’s mapped in your head, it’s ingrained in your being,” she said.
“And one day you’re secure and you get one letter, and it’s taken from you - it’s all gone.”
(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Ros Russell)