Will Clark, Managing Director of the online estate agents SellMyHome.co.uk, ventures into the political minefield of gentrification and it’s impact on London.
Our lawyers are on standby given the controversial nature of my column this week. I am taking on the thorny issue of gentrification at a time when London School of Economics fellows are daubing paint on a Cereal Café. You don’t expect to write a sentence like that very often.
Gentrification is a big sweeping word used to describe, well, lots of things really. But what really is gentrification? We all think we have a fairly good idea; it’s the process of renewal or rebuilding that comes when affluent people move into an area of relative poverty that displaces local people and businesses.
It is seen these days by our social media class-warriors as a new thing - a 21st century problem caused by a cereal café culture and hipsterdom. Nothing could be further from the truth - gentrification has been going on in every city since the beginning of time. The first areas of London where regeneration was first called gentrification were Notting Hill and Islington – areas that visitors to London would never know needed any kind of regeneration.
Gentrification is really a by-product of population growth. As more people exist in a city so they have to live somewhere and somewhere that they can afford. This causes the spread of relatively affluent people away from historically affluent areas into relatively less affluent areas. It is supply and demand and in a city where supply is relatively static and demand is growing year on year we see a lot of movement of people.
When a city is hemmed in by a green belt like London the young middle class look to areas just outside their areas of comfort, resulting in a middle-class sprawl. This displaces the previous incumbents as house prices and importantly rents rise. For homeowners in these areas it is a potential financial windfall. In exchange for their loss of community they can see their most valuable asset rise in value in the space of months. For those renting though, it means moving somewhere, leaving your community and feeling the harsh side-effects of gentrification.
A recent Brick Lane protestor wrote in The Guardian that their protest was in response to “the brutality of the gentrification that is destroying the lives and demolishing the homes of some of London’s most vulnerable people.”
What they are really protesting about is the lack of support for those being displaced, the inequality suffered by these people and the loss of community in an area. The cultural change in an area is a gloss on the real problem for many: rising rents for residents and businesses. The cultural change that comes with gentrification is just a gloss on the surface compares to the underlying structural change in house prices, rents and business rates.
Gentrification or regeneration by aspiration has many defenders as sustainable neighbourhoods are created, derelict buildings rebuilt or re-used and the new residents push for increased resources to be spent on schools, parks and more. The real question and one that was asked by Spike Lee in Brooklyn last year:
"Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?”
For those of us servicing the buying and selling of homes in these areas of gentrification there are always tightropes to be walked. There is rarely an easy answer to any of the myriad of questions that gentrification and regeneration throw up. For us, unfortunately, it is a case of looking where the sprawl is headed next.