Frontier town: Quito, Ecuador, seen shortly after a small earthquake, August 2014. Photo: Getty
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Alone in the border town, I got a bit too nifty with the Spanish phrasebook

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

Border towns are often dodgy places. Anyone sensible would not arrive at one in the middle of night with nowhere to stay. But I was never anyone sensible.

What had possessed me to “do” South America in 1981 is hard to say. I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blokes I knew were going out to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas in their revolutionary struggle.

Somehow I thought this was mere fashion and that Central America was not the real deal.

I bought a one-way flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, on my Barclaycard and then persuaded a Dutch guy and his Israeli sidekick to get a driveaway car from New York where I was living.

It is hard to say how unprepared I was for an entire continent. For a start, I had assumed Latin America was hot so I had nothing more than what could only be called a summer wardrobe. Somehow the Andes had not figured in my scheme of things.

Ruth was tall and skinny and hyper and gave me tips. I met her in the first week in Quito. When men hissed and clicked at her she would hiss back, “Fuck off and die.”

At first I thought this excessive. By the end of my trip I would have happily macheted many of them myself.

The sexual harassment was so extreme that stuff like going to the loo meant two men blocking your way and groping you. Maybe it’s better now? In 1981 a woman travelling alone was asking for it.

But I was a quick learner. I learned where to sit and where to avoid. I learned sometimes it was just easier not to go out at night at all. I learned the art of bribery. And the code of giving presents to officials which meant that borders could be crossed, papers would always be in order.

But this town, a collection of run-down brothels and bars, was a very bad place. My main aim was not to be murdered.

There were no hostels and no transport out. Old men with bottles of hooch sent me down alleyways looking for a room, hawking up phlegm as they laughed at my predicament. Staying in a flophouse was better surely than staying out all night with these characters.

“How much? ” I asked a toothless man in what would be called “Reception” only in a godforsaken shack.

The price was extortionate.

I began bargaining: “El noventa? Eso es ridículo!

I got the price right down.

Cincuenta soles.”

He leered at me. My Spanish was coming on in leaps and bounds even though this was a shithole.

He took me up to the room. There were dirty clothes everywhere and a poster of Clint Eastwood on the wall. He locked the door and came towards me. “Gringita . . .”

This was his room.

The price that I had so successfully haggled down? That was my price. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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