What is wrong with gentrification?

Last weekend a protest come street party descended on Brick Lane to protest against the gentrification of the area. Called the Fuck Parade and organised by anarchist group Class War, the crowd-funded protest turned its attention to the most obvious incarnation of the hipsterization of East London, the Cereal Killer. For those reading from outside London this is a cafe which only sells cereal.

Most people will instantly roll their eyes at the words "street party", "crowd-funding" and "anarchist group", then they will go back to eating their scrambled eggs with chorizo with all the superiority of a middle-class centrist. The more thoughtful individual will say that they may find the idea of a cafe that sells cereal for £4.40 a bowl slightly decadent but wider socio-economic problems cannot be blamed one group of people trying to earn a living. Protesting outside a small business a few streets away from the headquarters of RBS is choosing the wrong enemy if your goal really is "class war".

All this misses the point, which is that gentrification has done enormous damage to the communities of East London and the process shows no signs of stopping. You may disagree with the form the protest has taken but you cannot disagree with people wanting to express their anger at the way their communities have been hollowed out to make way for places which sell pulled pork and ever increasing numbers of luxury flats.

The process of gentrification drives people out of their homes by raising the rents in formerly affordable postcodes to astronomical levels. Through the same process, gentrification closes down small businesses. Just look at what has happened with the Brixton railway arches

Gentrification affects the poorest people in society. People who rent and cannot afford to get on the property ladder. These people are most affected by the rise in rents, especially at times when income has remained stagnant. Some of these people live in social housing, which mitigates some of the effect, but the depletion of the social housing stock has forced many of them into the private renting sector. Forced to move from affordable location to affordable location, the rising rents with gentrification means these people are running out of affordable places to live. These poor people have almost no one to speak for them and no means to signal their opposition to being priced out of their own homes.

Most of us see gentrification as positive thing. We say that this area used to be filled with betting shops and takeaways and now it has coffee shops and bars that sell craft lager from local breweries. There is an element of class snobbishness in this, it’s more middle class therefore it must be better. However is it what the people who live in the area there want? No one ever stops to ask them when the character of an area changes.

I live in Walthamstow where this process is thoroughly underway. In the three years I have lived here the places has changed almost beyond recognition. I admit that I am part of the problem, I was not born here and I like pulled pork and craft lager as much as the next iPhone owning middle-class lefty, but I can see another way of looking at gentrification. This area used to be filled with business local people could afford to use; now it is not. Pretty soon these people will leave because they cannot afford their rent and the middle-class colonisation of East London will march on.

What will happen when all the cleaners, carers and shop staff cannot afford to live anywhere in London? Do we want to send them all to Luton and then bus them in when needed? Is this the future for the poor people who need the jobs in London but cannot afford to live there? The problem of London's rising property prices is already spreading to the commuter belt. The future looks bleak for the urban poor in the South East.

So if gentrification is such a problem, why is nothing being done about it? For those who hold the majority of political power (the middle and upper classes), gentrification is seen as desirable. The more middle class an area becomes, the better it is. Capitalism will liberate the poor from their vulgar, misguided desires and deliver them to a more sophisticated world. It is just an unfortunate byproduct that this process also drives poor people of their homes.

Gentrification is also seen as desirable by the people who own property in an area. Again, generally these are the people who have more of a say in the political process. To challenge gentrification we need to challenge the idea that homes are financial assets and remind everyone that a home is a place to live. Economic security for the many is preferable than generating more wealth for the few.

We need to challenge the prevailing opinion that creating more wealth at the expense of communities and people's lives is a good thing. This cuts to the heart of how we see economics. Our society is becoming materially richer but emotionally poorer as all that has emotional value is swept away in favour what makes money. This is seen as a natural process, something we cannot control. Standing up to capitalism is like willing the Earth to stop turning.

Economic process are not inevitable and neither are they natural forces. They are the behaviour of people, and peoples’ behaviour has changed in the past and it will change in the future. This view, that forms and flows of capitalism is inevitable and beyond control is an ideological argument in favour of the status quo. It is an argument that benefits the people who already have wealth, who own property and who benefit from the constantly expanding reach of capitalism. Markets can be controlled, the process is not inevitable. To say otherwise is to support those who prosper from the process of gentrification at the expense of others.

Tackling the problems of gentrification cuts to the heart of how we see capitalism and society. What is seen as good in our society, or inevitable, is often what benefits the middle classes who hold all the political power. These assumptions need to be challenged if we are to stop the damage done to communities by gentrification.

Over the last few years economic growth has returned on the back of growing consumer debt and rapidly rising house prices. At the same time, the majority of people have had falling real wages, less stability in employment and rising costs of living. We have failed to build enough houses for sale and enough social housing, this has forced too many people into an overheated private rented sector and led to a housing crisis, which has affected the poorest the most. We could unlock brownfield land, build more houses, build taller to create more housing units, passes laws against land banking, tax under-occupied properties, pass laws to prevent the depletion of the social housing stock, build more social housing or taken any other number of steps to tackle the problems of gentrification, but there is no political will to do this.

There has been many polite requests to tackle the social problems of gentrification, from the poor and the middle class, this has led to nothing. The process marches invetiably on, people are still being driven from their homes by rising rents and local business are forced out in favour of places like Cereal Killer. This trend is not the fault of Cereal Killer’s owners nor is it the fault of those who sell pulled pork or craft lager, however society is sending clear message to the poor. “These things are wanted, you are not wanted here. Leave now. Any attempts to resist the invasion of our community will be severely dealt with.” No wonder people are angry.

Only the most selfish person would think that anarchist led riots are a sign of society functioning properly. Clearly there are problems of gentrification that need to be addressed, however, all forms of polite protest have been met with a shrug of the shoulder. So people have taken to the streets.

The problems of gentrification still damage people's lives and the process continues. Violence will follow unless we face the problem of the housing crisis and people being driven out of their community. It is not enough to dismiss this as inevitable or argue that it is desirable. We cannot allow the problem of gentrification to continue unchecked or else the form of protest that comes in the future will be much more destructive.

Our House

In the late 1940s, my grandparents moved into a brand new council house in Birmingham. I remember visiting it as a kid in the ‘eighties and Sheldon felt like a pretty run down area by then, but just after the war it was a desirable area. Semi detached and modern, with a garden at the back (albeit still with an outdoor toilet) it was a far cry from what working class people had experienced before the war – not enough housing, exploitative private landlords, and buildings rotting and crumbling even before the efforts of the Luftwaffe. With a Labour government in power, promising a new era of ‘cradle to the grave’ collectivism amid the rubble of the war, housing was firmly on the agenda.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because housing is as much a political issue today as it was when Attlee was prime minister. A serious lack of affordable housing for first time buyers, combined with the post-banking crisis difficulty in obtaining mortgages, means a generation of young people will find it near impossible to get on the property ladder. Meanwhile, councils and housing associations have been building little in the way of social housing, and the age old problems of ‘sink’ estates and poor quality rented accommodation are still very much with us. Politicians know it’s getting worse – the waiting list for council housing is 12% longer now than in the previous quarter. But how did we get into this mess, and what should we do about it?

The Attlee government worked quickly to build new, good quality council houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ promised, but never delivered, after the previous world war. The incoming Tory government of 1951 built even more. But this was in a very different context than today – the 1950s and 60s were the post war boom years, supported by full employment, and the role of the state could not be more different to today. It didn’t seem unusual to anyone, except a handful of marginalised right-wingers, that the state had a role in providing most of the basic provisions of life for the majority of people.

Then, somewhere along the line, it all went wrong. In the ‘60s, government strategy moved towards creating new estates on the edge of cities, using new-fangled ‘system building’ to create vast, Modernist tower blocks and flats. This was in keeping with the optimistic, forward looking spirit of the era – remember, this was the age of Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’, when it was widely assumed that futuristic motorways would solve all our transport problems and new nuclear power plants would provide electricity too cheap to meter. Plus, system-building was cheap, and a booming population needed ever more homes. This disaster is well documented, but in brief, it condemned millions of people to being trapped in Eastern Block-like ‘slums in the sky’, riddled with damp, and with seemingly designed-in havens for crime in the estates’ dark corners and underpasses. With insufficient services on the estates, many residents felt isolated from the rest of society.

It didn’t help that it soon became evident that they were shoddily built, culminating in 1968 with the collapse of one tower block, Ronan Point in London, when it was nearly new. Neither did it help that corruption between developers and local councils (notably in Newcastle) gave the impression that local authorities had sold council house dwellers down the river.

All of these things conspired to turn public opinion against the State provision of housing, and the new political establishment were able to seize on this. When, in 1980, the Thatcher government broke with post-war consensus to allow council tenants to buy their council houses at a large discount, the pent-up desire for ownership was clearly in evidence. Plenty of working class people did indeed share Thatcher’s dream of a ‘property owning democracy’. Labour only objected to this initially – being against what was obviously the aspiration of many working people would have been wrong.

However, as we are now painfully aware, the problem with right-to-buy was that councils were left with the worst housing stock that no-one wanted to buy – generally the ‘60s era flats, creating sink estates where councils were forced to house addicts, the mentally ill and ‘problem families’ in the same areas. Once they got into power, rather than building new houses to replace the ones sold by the Tories, New Labour further reduced the ability of councils to do anything about the problem by transferring the responsibility for housing to unaccountable Housing Associations.

In Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book ‘Estates’ she accurately points out that the post war dream of the Attlee government was bound to run into trouble when it was commuted from ‘a council house for everyone that wants one’ to ‘a council flat in a high rise for anyone who can’t afford anything better’. The latter is the notion of council housing that I was aware of, growing up in the Thatcher era. There was no such stigma to being in a council house when my grandparents moved into that house in Sheldon, 60 years ago.

Moving back to the mass provision of housing by the State is unlikely in this day and age – society has moved on from that, irreversibly. Over 60% of homes are now owner-occupied. But that doesn’t justify Thatcherite ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitudes – the government should still have the same moral obligation to provide for people that it did in the Attlee era. Serious action needs to be taken to ensure that today’s young people have places to move into that are good quality and affordable, whether that’s through helping people get mortgages, or by providing more social housing. The free market won’t do it for us – just like in the 1940s, the government is going to have to take responsibility for the task at hand.

Of course, brown-field sites should be used first, but if we have to build on new land – so be it. It’s all very well for the baby-boomers to bleat about the aesthetics of new developments – they’re the ones who had no problem buying houses cheap and then watching as their values skyrocketed. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 70s, where people were left isolated from jobs, shops and transport. We must recognise that demographics have changed, and provide not just family homes but also homes for single people and childless couples. But more than anything, we just need to get building. Britain has built its way out of recession at least once before, and, maybe, we can do it again.