In 1964, Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ to describe the changes that were occurring in many urban areas in London at the time, during which ordinary run-down mews and terraced housing were being transformed into housing for the rich.
Normally masked by the less accurate but slightly more palatable terms ‘urbanisation’ and ‘regeneration’, gentrification actually describes a brutal and often violent process – the displacement of local working-class people and the destruction of the communities that bind them together, irrevocably altering the social character of the place in question.
On the surface, and especially if you opt to refer to the whole process as regeneration, it would seem that investing, revamping and refurbishing neglected, rundown or poverty-stricken areas is an ideal way of improving the lives of those who live and work in them.
Unfortunately, gentrification – though it may look good on paper – can, in practice, wreak havoc on the lives of those it purports to serve.
First, gentrification is almost always a top-down rather than a bottom-up process, with the prospect of change being brought to residents by the landlords or developers as opposed to residents themselves asking for the improvements they require.
What’s more, in those cases where residents do ask for change, they are often ignored. This is precisely what happened in the Grenfell tragedy, where residents who were fully aware of the dilapidated state of the tower they called home had been effectively silenced by those whose duty it was to ensure that the building complied with requisite standards.
Second, regeneration often only occurs to encourage predominantly white and wealthy people to move into the neighbourhood. Rarely does it occur because the locals, the majority of whom are members of the BAME and migrant communities, want it and think they can benefit from it.
Again, this explains the inevitable neglect shown towards the residents of the now infamous tower before it was engulfed in flames. With the majority of Grenfell’s residents having migrated to the UK, is it any wonder that they were marginalised and set aside – keeping in mind the previous government’s hostile environment policy which aimed to make the UK as unwelcoming as possible for those without indefinite leave to remain?
The hostile environment implemented by the government inevitably makes the process of gentrification particularly detrimental to BAME and migrant communities, who are overrepresented in social housing and are far more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods.
Now, as homelessness rises across the UK, the pressure to build, redevelop, refurbish and privatise what were once council-owned estates similarly mounts. This, in turn, induces a correlative increase in the costs of rent and local amenities but without a similar effect on the wages of local residents or the profits of local traders.
Unable to afford the skyrocketing costs of rent within their newly gentrified neighbourhoods, local residents and traders are increasingly priced out and are forced to relocate to more affordable housing or business property elsewhere, taking with them their unique contribution to an otherwise homogeneously white social fabric.
Take, for example, the Seven Sisters Latin Village in Tottenham, London. It has provided a thriving market place for working-class ethnic minority immigrant communities and businesses since the early 2000s but, in 2005, it was earmarked by Haringey Council along with property developer Grainger for redevelopment. The popular market is set to be turned into luxury flats, displacing those who have poured their heart and soul into forming a community and life in Seven Sisters.
How can the government help deprived areas without risking gentrification? The answer, of course, is to engage with the local community to find out exactly what is needed. Communities benefit far more from an investment in facilities than they do complete housing regeneration.
Another alternative is the formation of Community Land Trusts (or CLTs), a radical form of community housing whereby the community acquires land in order to offer homes at genuinely affordable long-term leases. For example, in St Clement’s CLT, London’s first CLT established in 2016, one-bed flats were for sale at £130,000, compared to the £450,000 expected for similar flats in the area.
Rejecting gentrification does not mean rejecting progress or improvement. The alternative to gentrification is not inaction or neglect. Yet, if the price of assistance is the loss of home and community, then the price is too steep and people should not be disparaged for rebuffing it.