Gentrification, housing crisis, social cleansing, cereal café. I’ve seen the words so much in the news recently, it’s almost made me miss the pig chat. Since anarchist group Class War held an ‘anti-gentrification protest’ in east London, targeting both an estate agent and Brick Lane’s Cereal Killer café, public opinion seems to be split into two camps.
The first: ‘those anarchists should have targeted the real villains of gentrification’, the second; ‘anywhere charging £5 for cereal deserves what it gets’. But there are also murmurs about local councils, big banks and immigrant communities.
Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning. According to the OED, gentrification is ‘the process by which an urban area is rendered middle-class’. Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in the 1960s, describing how ‘all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.’
One such working-class occupier who is luckily not yet displaced, is my mum. She’s lived in and around Peckham, south-east London, for over 25 years, and in that time, according to local estate agent Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward, the area has: ‘undergone significant gentrification.’
Its blurb sits directly next to a graph showing average local flat prices having more than doubled from £164,000 to £380,000 in the past 10 years. It adds: ‘Galleries, restaurants and trendy bars have popped up alongside multicultural grocery stores, market traders and high street offerings.’
To my mum, this gentrification can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the council has cleaned up her estate and she has stopped being worried about me getting mugged walking up its stairs. On the other, the shop she bought Ghanaian food from for decades now sells overpriced coffee, and the sense of community she had with her neighbours is dwindling as they’re being priced out of the area.
London’s pricing out happens this way: people who can’t afford to buy their homes from the council are re-housed further out of the city, and the ones who have used the Right To Buy scheme eventually sell their property to private landlords who give them high offers. These people might not want to leave, but if they’re not earning enough to pay for goods in local shops while sitting on a goldmine, their options are narrow.
The end result is that now I’m seeing people much like the rich white kids I went to uni with paying upwards of £700 a month to live in the block of flats I grew up in. A block of flats I was so embarrassed by that I lied to my school friends about where I lived.
No matter how many perks gentrification might provide, it eventually ends up hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. Areas might get cleaned up, but those who were there in the old days, who only moved into the area for its low rents, are left unsettled.
But who’s really responsible for people being priced out of their homes in places like Shoreditch, Hackney, Brixton and Peckham, and what’s the best way to stop it – if we can stop it at all?
Dan Wilson Craw, policy manager for affordable housing campaign Generation Rent, tells The Debrief: ‘The blame for the housing crisis lies with successive governments who have not built enough homes and who stood back as houses became somewhere for the wealthy to park their money.
‘As a result rents are rising. With council housing sell-offs planned by the government, London’s socially rich and diverse communities will be eroded as people on average incomes are forced out.’
Meanwhile, writer Tim Wells, whose work addresses issues of class and social cleansing, is more straightforward. He says: ‘Greed is behind gentrification. Working class people aren’t seen as people, we’re seen as an obstruction filling up space that could be sold’.
And that space can be sold for a lot of money. Protests in Brixton are ongoing after Lambeth Council and Network Rail revealed plans to triple the rent for traders in the railway arches. Working out how the Cereal Killer café fits into this is even more complex. I might find the owners – all tick-box hipster beards and sleeve tattoos – ridiculous, but I’ve got to admit that my first reaction to news of the protest was almost sympathetic.
The people jumping around Shoreditch in pig masks weren’t the working class and immigrant families who are suffering most from inner-city gentrification, and it got my hackles up. Why didn’t they smash in Tesco, or even walk half a mile and go for the banks in the Square Mile?
But three days of the cereal twins bleating about how they’d suffered a ‘hate crime’ (last I checked, a hate crime was a lot more serious), and retweets of condolences from both Mayor Boris Johnson (whose lax controls on greedy property developers has partly got London into this mess) and the very grim Jack the Ripper Museum (a one-time women’s museum that’s now a tribute to their brutal murders) has evaporated whatever sympathy I had.
Class War founder Ian Bone has pointed out that they’ve been doing a weekly picket at 1 Commercial Street (where ‘affordable housing’ was only provided if the poorer residents used a separate door, nicknamed a ‘poor-door’) for months, but it’s barely got a peep from the mainstream press.
Gentrification and its terrible side effects rumble on, but it took a few paint bombs on a headline-grabbing cafe in a ‘trendy’ area last week to enliven a proper conversation about how gentrification affects communities. That’s a good thing.
Cereal Killer might not be the biggest baddie of all but they’re definitely supporting characters. The part of me that grew up in a now-heavily gentrified portion of south-east London means I can’t help but just not care that much about a business with insurance selling something few locals have the money for.
But few of us are innocent. Just like my mum enjoys her estate being cleaner and safer, one reason gentrification can’t be properly tackled is that we tend to sound like hypocrites. It’s almost impossible not to be complicit in gentrification some way. We can smile at our neighbours and use established local shops, but at the end of the day we all live where we can afford.
And while pricing out might not bother some who could assimilate easily into the suburbs or the countryside, leaving London because it’s expensive just isn’t an option for everybody. It’s not that everywhere outside of London isn’t racist or homophobic, but for many people who aren’t white, or are LGBT, the bubble of the inner city makes us feel safe.
It’s also hard to work out exactly who can claim ownership over parts of the city. How long before you’re a Real Londoner and you can start complaining about the newbies? Two years, five years, 15, 30? People might be flocking to Peckham because it’s trendy now, but it’s also (still, just about) cheap. The real issue isn’t as simple as who’s there, but how to keep it that way.
So, what needs to be done? Tim Wells thinks ‘the most effective solution will be to have rent controls in place – however, we’re reliant on a government that doesn’t value working class people to do that. I’m not optimistic.’ And should he be? I’m unsure.
While grassroots social movements like Focus E15 and Sweets Way are fighting back, keeping people housed for longer, and demanding their rights are heard, they are small and ultimately can only do so much. While the government says it’s giving councils and housing associations support to replace and increase council housing, new developments – so frequently snapped up by foreign investors as a way to increase their lot – are getting away with making very little ‘affordable housing’.
On top of that, what’s ‘affordable’ is defined not by how much people earn, but how much local properties are worth. Until the government steps in to work against the rising cost of housing that’s pushing out the people who’ve made London what it is, gentrification is, sadly, here to stay.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.