What we talk about when we talk about housing

I went along to the March For Homes this past Saturday, the 31st of January.

march for homes shoreditch church

march for homes spitalfields
march for homes rent control

march for homes homes not hotels

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 PartyPricedOut, 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.

Kings Reach Tower

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.

cluttons islington

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.

pembury circus building

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.

tower view apartments

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.

march for homes monopoly

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.

Estate, a Reverie (Trailer) from Andrea Luka Zimmerman on Vimeo.

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.

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3 Comments

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  1. Hi Doreen, thank you for your article. As someone who’s just bought a two bed apartment at Pembury Circus with my girlfriend I feel compelled to tell perhaps a different side to the story.

    Firstly I’d like to begin by letting you know that I honestly agree with your view and of those who protest for change – that yes, we are in a sad state of affairs regarding affordable housing and that something needs to change. Up to now I have lived in many flatshares, as do the vast majority of my friends, some of which are in their late 30s and early 40s and desperate to live alone but unable to afford to buy.

    Where I disagree with your stance and what often frustrates me with this argument is the demonisation of those who do buy these properties, often labelled as rich and privileged, non-community type outsiders. Yes there are disgusting stories of international investors buying property only to leave it empty, yes there are inevitably buy to let investors, but my honest belief is that the average buyer is just the same as the next person – trying to get on in life in exactly the same way others would if they could.

    My story is this: I am 31 my girlfriend is 25, we have both lived in Hackney for 6 years, we both come from regular backgrounds, we both have self funded university degrees and my girlfriend is still in/paying for higher education while working full time, we are both working hard at our careers and as a result are in what society would deem to be well paid professions, we saved REALLY hard sacrificing a lot for a long time to gather our deposit while my girlfriend’s parents helped us with a modest contribution, and finally the help to buy scheme helped us secure the property with a 5% deposit.

    What I wish to demonstrate by this is not to make an example of ourselves but to illustrate that we are not the outsiders so often portrayed and none of this landed in our lap, we’ve worked really hard and sacrificed a lot to buy in Pembury Circus. I honestly believe the majority of buyers are more like us than the stereotype that is so easy and so tempting to jump to. To illsutrate this here is a photo of the 1st day of sales at Pembury Circus http://pemburycircus.co.uk/images/opening/opening-4.png , I’d ask the question, is this the group of people you discribe in your article? To me I see a mixture of old and young, families and couples who I’m almost certain if asked would have similar stories to myself, far from the millionaire boogiemen investors.

    • Hi, Jonny. Thank you for sharing your story about your experience with your girlfriend as a couple moving into Pembury Circus, as well as sharing the photo from the initial day of sales at Pembury Circus. As someone who works near and used to live near the area, it’s great to hear from someone moving into the place who will actually physically occupy it and who will be part of the local community, if you and your girlfriend aren’t already (it sounds like you are, if you’ve lived in Hackney for the past 6 years). It’s a great area to be in.

      If you’ve gotten the impression that I think that anyone who has managed to afford to buy in Hackney is a tycoon, I’m sorry if that was how my article was represented (although rereading it I can see how that interpretation came around). I have a good handful of friends and colleagues who own flats and homes in the borough, many of whom are on a shared ownership scheme as you describe you are on. None of them are rolling in wads of cash. One of my friends on the scheme pays less on her one bedroom flat than she did on a room when she and I were housemates in a shared house. Like yourself, she gets help in payments as well from her partner and she works hard at her job.

      However, that isn’t to say that people who are unable to afford buying a flat or home in London aren’t hardworking. The average housing price is 16 times the average Londoner’s salary according to March For Homes. It doesn’t help that the high cost of homes make the private rental market far more lucrative, which then makes it difficult for people to save to own a home of their own. Even these friends who own their flats or their homes, a few of whom are even private landlords, acknowledge that the current house prices in London are unsustainable.

      There’s a lot of views on Pembury Circus, some positive, some negative, some in-between. I like the view of Dave Hill’s post, which I cited in my original post:

      The establishment of this new housing development is a small case study in how redevelopment can redefine a neighbourhood. The Circus replaces a part of the Pembury estate. Who will live in it?

      Its 268 one, two and three-bedroom dwellings will include some designated for people aged over-55 and the council is pleased that 119 of them are desingated “affordable” – a very high percentage for London these days. However, the Circus – whose name appears loosely inspired by the adjacent roundabout – is not isolated from the wider phenomenon of soaring Hackney property prices or the increasing slipperiness of the term “affordable”.

      Developer Bellway says on its website that prices are to be confirmed, but one of its one-bedroom apartments is already being advertised elsewhere for £330,000 – hefty, but pretty much the going rate around here lately. The affordable element, supplied by Peabody, comprises 40 units for shared ownership, 58 “affordable rent” homes, which will be available at between 55% and 75% of local market rents, and just 21 for the cheaper social rent.

      Pembury estate tenants who have more rooms than they need will be able to bid to move into the new homes. The aim is to free up larger properties on the estate for overcrowded households. The development will also include commercial premises and community space.

      There are various ways of looking at Pembury Circus. A negative view might that this part of the “regeneration” of the Pembury Estate is the latest example of developers and the council surrendering precious territory to private interests and (primarily) affluent incomers to no great benefit for the exisitng community. A more positive one would be that a socially-virtuous “mixed community” is to be established, bringing with it young, motivated people who will bring new spending power and energy to the area.

      And a realistic one? Perhaps it’s a mixture of both of the above – and about as good an “affordable” deal as you’re likely to get in this city just now.

  2. Hackney Lover 05/04/2015 — 11:50

    Hi there – another Pembury Circus resident here. Have also been living in the area for years and am not a rich Singaporean. Know others living there too – hard working, normal people who love the area. Always easy to make sweeping statements from a distance but reality is that the development is a mix of social housing, shared ownership and private ownership flats – completely car-free and will have a community centre and nursery to benefit the local community. Not as evil as it may look on the surface.

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