Tenants fear they'll be priced out of their homes as tensions boil in London real estate

LONDON – Hundreds of London tenants marched to the British prime minister’s office Monday to protest a New York-based investor’s threat to hike their rents — the latest example of tensions in the capital’s booming property market.

Residents of the New Era housing project in east London, originally built as affordable housing for local workers, want to prevent Westbrook Partners from raising rents to market levels. Comedian Russell Brand has championed the cause of the residents, and won them attention.

“It’s social cleansing,” said Lindsey Garrett, a health care co-ordinator with the National Health Service. “It’s forcing ordinary working-class people out of London. It’s wrong.”

Housing advocates say the case is being duplicated across Britain, though it usually takes place one home at a time. In the New Era housing project, the entire development — some 90 families — is affected at once.

“The New Era debacle is an illustration of what is going on around the country,” said Alex Hilton, director of Generation Rent. “Tenants have no choice.”

The protests are also a reflection of the tensions created by London’s position as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Since the financial crisis, property is increasingly being treated as a financial investment rather than a place to live.

Westbrook Partners bought the estate from a family that owned the development and ran it with a philanthropic bend since the 1930s. Hackney Council, the local government, has since been told Westbrook plans to evict the residents while renovations take place. They would be allowed to return if they pay market rates, which would be an estimated three times their present rents.

But the company said that no eviction notices have been sent, nor legal proceedings undertaken.

“Westbrook has told tenants that there will be no changes to their residential leases and no increases in rents during the first half of 2015,” the company said in a statement.

The company said it was also in the process of arranging a “dedicated tenant liaison officer,” to create a “dialogue with tenants about future rent scenarios at the property.”