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Questioning time - housing and social justice teach-in

What are the alternatives to the 'gentrification'/'regeneration' model?

Tracey Jensen
21 November 2014
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Flickr/alias Urban ARTefakte. Some rights reserved.

On the October 30 the School of Social Science were delighted to host the first event in our new series, ‘Questioning Time’, a series of public sociology events which will be organised around social justice. The theme of this first event was Housing and Social Justice; this theme was inspired by the recent surge in grassroots campaigning by London residents facing eviction, displacement and the threat of their neighbourhoods being ‘regenerated’, and we were really pleased to be able to include so many of these activists on our panel of speakers. Since the Questioning Time event, these campaigners have continued to challenge the terms and processes of regeneration, bringing these injustices into public debate and successfully organising street level support to individual families at risk of eviction.

Regeneration sounds like such a positive word—the replacement of old, decaying housing with shiny new developments—but as we heard from our panel, what regeneration means in practice is that many of the people who have lived in a neighbourhood can no longer afford to stay.  The regeneration model itself promises trickle-down prosperity—‘the rising tide that lifts all ships’—but in fact delivers islands of prosperity by pushing out poorer residents. The regeneration of East London is interwoven with the promises of the Olympic legacy: that the residents of the borough of Newham and the neighbouring Olympic boroughs, would benefit. That hasn't happened. Dr Penny Bernstock, author of Olympic Housing: a Critical Review, outlined the failed legacy promises of the Olympics around housing and affordability for local residents. Instead house prices and rental costs have rocketed in this borough and new housing developments contain a dwindling number of ‘affordable’ units. 

Several of the speakers reflected on who benefits from regeneration; activists from Our West Hendon, a campaign in Barnet organised to resist the displacement of 400 families, highlighted how a blurred group of landlord-politicians are increasing their personal revenue (as property-owners) even as they pass legislation which reduces housing stock. Recent revelations have shown how much social housing, initially purchased through ‘Right-To-Buy’, has now passed into the housing portfolios of private landlords, who are charging market rents, often supplemented by housing benefits. Activists from New Era 4 All, a campaign in Hackney started by residents of the New Era Estate, were familiar with this process of wealth extraction. Part of their estate was purchased by the Benyon Estate (owned by the richest MP in the country, Richard Benyon) and the ‘social rent’ restrictions are to be replaced by uncapped ‘market rents’.  This week the campaigners presented Benyon with an ‘eviction notice’.

In the language games of regeneration, ‘affordable’ means set at 80% of market rates, which in the unregulated housing market of London is still not affordable to most people, a point made by activists from the Focus E15 campaign, started by young mothers who were served eviction notices whilst living in a supported hostel. Dr Paul Watt described how the proportion of social housing used to mirror the political lines of borough councils (Labour councils traditionally having more social housing) but highlighted how this is no longer the case. 

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Image: Jules Annan

The disintegration of support for social housing by even Labour-held borough councils was well understood by the Focus E15 campaigners, who talked about their hostile encounters with Labour Mayor of Newham, as well as their year-long campaign which has involved a weekly street stall, collecting petition signatures and displacement stories, occupying housing association and council offices, holding a fun day and occupation at the Carpenters Estate and running a social centre there for nearly two weeks in September. More recently their direct actions have helped resist evictions of individual households. They showed a short film about their campaign which you can see here

Many of the social housing blocks and estates that have been labelled as needing ‘regeneration’ are being emptied of their residents ,and the right of these residents to return after regeneration is rarely realised. Professor Loretta Lees examined how the processes of ‘gentrification’ are often poorly understood (and how the very term is often misused to refer to ‘conspicuous thrift’ or ‘doing loft conversions on the cheap).  Sharing a displacement map of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle (available here), she showed how far people are displaced, and how far they must go to afford a new home. This point was echoed by Our West Hendon, whose homeowners have been offered compensation far below the market rate, a process described as “stealing the land through legalised fraud”. Such indirect displacement (through the failure of borough councils to provide truly affordable housing) and direct displacement (though the forced evictions of residents from estates earmarked for regeneration) work together in what many of the speakers called the ‘social cleansing’ of London.

The value of this panel was that the speakers were able to share experiences of what had worked, and how similar campaigns might build on these successes. Dr Lisa McKenzie talked about the importance of using local, social and alternative media to build solidarities and alliances in a time when the politics of housing encourages division, envy and resentment. Campaigners from the Save Cressingham campaign in Lambeth highlighted the importance of language; using the word ‘residents’ rather than the divisive categories of ‘tenants and leaseholders’ to help protect community bonds. New Era For All pointed out that the culture of fear around displacement can be remedied through knowledge and encouraged everyone to learn about their entitlement to information and to demand documentation which will help their campaigns, such as viability reports. The London Black Revolutionaries, an intersectional grassroots campaign focusing on the housing crisis and homelessness and using direct action to highlight injustice, described struggle as the best education and a chance to put critical thinking into practice. Many of the campaigners talked about how important it is to connect up campaigns, to build the confidence and reduce the isolation of residents who are new to resistance. Loretta Lees discussed the Anti-Gentrification Handbook which contains advice for residents resisting displacement. Both Loretta and Penny discussed alternative models of housing—co-operatives and community land trusts—which offer sustainable housing visions which are not about extracting maximum value from land.

We hope that public events like the Questioning Time series will help to generate local debate about issues of social justice in a time of widening inequality, and to bring researchers, academics and activists together into productive conversations like this one. We’d like to thank all the speakers for their time and energy, and to everyone who attended, for making this evening such a success.

If you’d like to join the Questioning Time mailing list or recommend a topic to discuss at a future event, please email Tracey Jensen at [email protected] 

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