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Gentrification in Hackney: Renewal must include social mix

Writing for the Guardian last week, Amelia Gentleman reported on the Hackney housing micro-boom that saw the average cost of a home in the east London borough exceed £500,000 for the first time in December. Growing up in Hackney, I’ve...


Writing for the Guardian last week, Amelia Gentleman reported on the Hackney housing micro-boom that saw the average cost of a home in the east London borough exceed £500,000 for the first time in December. Growing up in Hackney, I’ve witnessed – and have arguably been part of – the gentrification of the area that brings with it the twin forces of renewal and displacement.

Residents can’t keep up with the dizzying pace of change (my neighbour tried to post a letter at our local post office and was embarrassed to find it had become an art installation called ‘Posted’) and they certainly can’t keep up with the rent.

As prices rise, many of the people I used to know have been forced to move to cheaper boroughs further out of the city. But there’s no point in blaming newcomers for the borough’s housing shortages, as I’ve noticed some longer-standing residents do. Hackney has always welcomed all sorts of people and that’s what makes it such an exciting place to live. Instead, this article is intended to reflect on the root causes of the housing problem, and how we might be able to reimagine inner city areas like Hackney beyond polarities of recession and gentrification, beyond past and future tense.

Renewal and displacement

‘The odd thing about the housing boom in Hackney’, Gentleman writes in her article, is that ‘remarkable prices are being asked for houses that are in areas of the city that still feel quite poor’. Indeed, Hackney remains the second most deprived local authority in England, with 40 per cent of properties still social housing, but the unbalanced housing market means it is becoming increasingly polarised. As the cost of private sector housing soars, those on middle incomes are being squeezed out and families are seeing their housing benefit slashed by the coalition government’s benefit cap and the bedroom tax.

It’s not yet possible to say what affect this is having on the social and ethnic mix of the borough. For one thing, how we measure ethnicity changes by the time each census rolls around. However, there are indications that Hackney is becoming less diverse at a faster rate than comparable boroughs such as Brent.

According to the Simpson Diversity Index, in 1991 15 of the wards in the most diverse decile (that is the top 63 of London’s 625 wards) were in Brent, and six in Hackney. By 2011, ten of the most diverse wards were in Brent, but only one in Hackney.  In a similar trend, results from the 2011 census show that Hackney is now the 6th most diverse borough in London, down from 3rd in 2005. For the first time in decades, the number of Black Caribbeans in Hackney has fallen slightly since 2001 – now 7.8 per cent of the population, as opposed to 10.3 per cent in 2001.

Local sentiment is souring towards those who are perceived as ‘newcomers’ and negative opinions can easily be found in the comment threads of local news sites. But misplaced anger towards fellow residents isn’t the answer. If you want to know why there aren’t enough affordable homes, just look at national house building levels. They’re at their lowest under any peacetime government since the 1920s, and at this rate we will build seven million homes fewer than we need every seven years.

This journey began with the poor quality stock erected during the ‘rush to volume’ in the 1960s; was accelerated by the duty placed on councils to house the homeless in the late-70s, narrowly targeting available council housing on the most needy; and ended with the social housing death knell that was ‘right to buy’ in the 1980s. Inner-London boroughs like Hackney didn’t stand a chance and housing supply has never kept up with demand since. Only a substantial reform agenda can boost housing supply to the necessary levels.

In addition, without longer term, regulated rents, we’ll see more low-income tenants forced out, so Hackney council launching its own letting agency in December was good news. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the Lyons Commission, which the Fabian Society is hosting, opens the gate for higher levels of council borrowing, so that a Labour victory in 2015 would cement the ability of local authorities to build new social housing, as well as ending the bedroom tax.

Social mix

Renewal needn’t be viewed suspiciously as long as local authorities work in genuine partnership with planners and builders to bring local communities on board with redevelopment schemes. For example, Woodberry Down estate in Hackney was built by the London County Council during the 1940s and 1950s, then perceived to be a prime example of planned housing before decades of poor maintenance and gradual residualisation turned it into notorious crime hotspot when I was growing up.

But the Berkley Group, who are charged with regenerating the 5,000-home estate, are working with the residents there to make sure social sustainability is properly considered – defined as a focus on how the people who live in a place relate to each other and function as a community. Social sustainability can be enhanced by developments that provide the right infrastructure to support a strong social life and give opportunities for people to get involved with the places they call home.

This type of development signals an encouraging swing back to the Fabian ideal of mixed communities that doesn’t separate people by social background or income. Sixty years ago, Nye Bevan wrote that the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the labourer should all live side-by-side in a ‘living tapestry’ of social mix. Current plans for Woodberry Down allow for a mixed tenure community with 41 per cent of the new homes allocated for social rent and shared ownership. That’s a lot better than some of the other planned developments in the borough.

Though it’s a drop in the ocean, it still heartens me. We stand at a turning point in terms of building homes for the country we wish to see in ten, twenty, fifty years’ time, so I hope that we’ll focus on building a mix of new homes for all types of people, from all types of backgrounds, and do it deliberately because it matters, and because the alternative is misplaced anger and displaced people.

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