I went along to the March For Homes this past Saturday, the 31st of January.
Although it was raining the entire duration of the march, apparently I was in good company en route to City Hall, with an estimated 5,000 people demanding solutions to the housing crisis in London. From the crowd I walked with from Shoreditch Church, it was a diverse mix of people (and their dogs!) who were braving the winter downpour in order to drive the point home that the property and housing situation in the city has gone out of control. There were plenty of pensioners, young couples, middle-aged parents with their children, folks of different backgrounds, immigrants (hello!) and British nationals alike. There were also members of many diverse organisations who have united over the issue of housing: Unite, Focus E15, Hackney Green Party, PricedOut, Generation Rent, Class War, residents of the New Era Estate, The People’s Assembly, Defend Council Housing and several others.
The housing crisis in London is something that has been in the news more and more, along with being something more and more of my friends talk about, with good reason–it affects everyone. It affects me, as someone living in a house share for the past 3 1/2 years who can’t afford to move out on her own as a renter without leaving the area she’s come to know, love and be a part of. (Forget about buying. Immigration and visa fees really do a wallop on your wallet.)
The housing crisis affects my friends who are in similar positions with their landlords and housemates, and who move from houseshare to houseshare through their 20s and 30s and their 40s. It affects my work colleague whose landlord recently raised the rent 25% on his neighbours, and he’s nervously anticipating a similar spike in rent costs for himself and his partner. It affects local history. It affects our geography and sense of place to see a building so jarringly out of place being built.
It affects areas in Essex, Surrey, Kent and other home counties as those who cannot afford to live in London opt to move into those areas and commute in, or relocate entirely to other cities such as Brighton (or, as someone described it to me recently, ‘Stoke Newington-on-Sea’). This article warns of a ‘reverse brain-drain’ as 70% of workers under 40 feel that their rent or mortgage makes it difficult to work in London. This article also backs that article up.
The housing crisis affects the people living and working around the proposed site of seven towers in Bishopsgate Goodsyard. It also affects the people living on Woodberry Down, new residents and old. It affects the people I walk or cycle past living in Pembury Estate, Marcon Court, Mayville Estate, Nightingale Estate, Wilton Estate, Aspland Estate, Hawksley Court Estate and others, plus the people I go past on the same journey whose homes are worth over a million pounds. Plus their neighbours, their friends, their colleagues, their community.
My community. Our community.
We talk about gentrification when we talk about housing, particularly in Hackney. We talk about the pub we like to go to that used to be terrible until it got done up a year or two back. We shop at Ridley Road Market after buying a £3.50 filter coffee. We pile into Turkish cafés the morning–or really, afternoon–after a late one fuelled by award-winning cocktails in the basement bar just a few doors down. We notice a sign at the brewpub on the bar that says tables are for dining customers only, but yet two older men sit at the biggest table with pints of Kronenbourg watching horseracing on the television.
We talk about the new location of a small chain of restaurants that’s opened up next to the charity shops along the Narrow Way. We complain about gentrification when it inconveniences us or threatens us, but not when we feel we benefit from it. We fear of being priced out of our neighbourhoods while cheering when a café selling records opens up, if not applying for a job there. Although gentrification is an issue for London, it is a symptom, rather than a cause.
What we talk about when we talk about the housing crisis, when we talk about our community, when we talk about gentrification, we talk about inequality.
If we didn’t have inequality, or if it were not so staggeringly severe, perhaps gentrification wouldn’t be as big of a spectre as it is. We wouldn’t feel the need to be viscerally angry about a cereal café, or complain about the cost of a pint in the nearest pub.
The media have been demonising hipsters as the gentrifying bogeymen of East London for years, but I don’t think many of the bearded dudes riding fixies can afford to live in the non-social housing parts of the Pembury Circus development in Hackney, whose front page says “Reside or invest in a sophisticated apartment at Pembury Circus…” (emphasis mine). Foxtons is selling a unit for half a million pounds. The damn thing isn’t even built yet.
Do these people investing in Pembury Circus know anything about the area or the local community? Very unlikely. If people are investing in properties rather than living in them, and many of the flats remain empty, how will that affect the local community? Will there be enough trade to support local businesses, both the older shops, like Auntie Fatty’s, and the newer ones, like Spandeli? If their employees if they can’t afford to live locally, how will that affect these small shops and eateries?
And how will it affect the people that do live in these half-empty tower blocks? Whether they managed to buy with the help of their partner, parents or relatives, or if they are renting from a landlord whom they’ve never seen because he or she lives in Singapore, it might be like some areas of Belgravia, where a third of property buyers in 2011-12 were super rich foreigners from places such as the Middle East, Russia, India and Hong Kong. It’s already starting in ‘regenerated’ areas within Hackney, according to this article on Woodberry Down Estate’s rebuilding and rebranding.
We need homes. We need homes not as property investments for people who may never even see the view of Pembury Junction, but for people who have lived in the area and want to stay in the area. For the people who run our shops, clean our streets, teach our children, treat our sick, fix and serve our food, brew our beer, brew our coffees, create our start-ups, sing our songs and write our stories, along with the people who are building these homes for others who may never live in them.
We needs homes real people can afford, who live and work in our communities here in London. In order for us to address the need for truly affordable homes–not this 80% of the market rate bullshit and spiralling rent costs–and address the conflicts that arise with gentrification, we need to address inequality on a local, national and global level. There are many ideas on how to do this, but here are some ideas from John Cassidy of The New Yorker that I like. I also think the demands put forth by the March for Homes are also sound, particularly the end to good-quality council homes being demolished as well as rent caps.
There are several more thoughts and ideas out there, some of which may be conflicting, but we must acknowledge as a society that inequality exists and it needs to be dealt with on many levels. If it isn’t, there will be more marches, more protests, more strife, more struggle until either the people that make London so wonderful are driven out and the city becomes a ghost town, or this whole fucked up system collapses and we have no choice but to start anew.
For more on the March for Homes and housing in London, have a read of the article on the march on East London Lines, this piece on Balfron Tower in Morning Star, this article in The Independent arguing the housing crisis will bring on recession. Dave Hill also wrote a bit about Pembury Circus. You can have a look at some photos I took from March For Homes on my Instagram account. You may also want to watch Estate: A Reverie, about Haggerston Estate that has been demolished and its community. I know I do.
PS I think the social housing blocks for Pembury Circus look better than the shinier glass stuff, but that might be just me. The old brick estate buildings look the loveliest.