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The Cost of Gentrification

Across Britain, gentrification tears working-class and BAME communities apart. But this kind of urban renewal is not inevitable – it is the result of a choice to place profits ahead of people in our cities.

In recent decades, the ever-growing threat of gentrification has permeated public discourse throughout the UK and across the globe. A process of urban ‘renewal’ which forcibly displaces working-class communities, gentrification has become a prevalent issue for the most marginalised in society. It only takes a visit to some of London’s most renowned areas to note the ways in which it has manifested.

Located next to Seven Sisters underground station in the heart of North London is Pueblito Paisa, or ‘Latin Village’; a community of Latin American migrants who know only too well what the rise of gentrification means for low-income, minority ethnic neighbourhoods.

For years, the Latin community has fought tirelessly against the proposed ‘regeneration’ of its bustling market place – with regeneration a term favoured by urban developers and investors who avoid using the term gentrification. Yet, euphemisms such as ‘regeneration’, ‘renewal’ and ‘redevelopment’ are not enough to disguise the realities of displacement in areas such as Latin Village.  

Latin Village is home to the second largest Latino community in the UK. Many first arrived after fleeing persecution in their home countries, and it soon evolved into a safe haven for Latin American migrants who were drawn to the warm, welcoming sense of community in the midst of an otherwise alienating capital.

Since then, predominantly minority ethnic, working-class residents and traders have settled in the area and have built a thriving cultural centre of family-owned businesses, specialising in everything from traditional South American dishes to vibrant clothing. Yet these invaluable community bonds and cultural ties are constantly under threat as property developers seek to attract an affluent, middle class crowd to the area. 

Undergoing constant battles with Haringey council over the proposed demolition of Latin Village to make way for a block of 196 luxury flats, long-term Latino residents and traders have first-hand experience of the emotional and mental turmoil such redevelopment plans inflict. Gentrification-induced displacement goes far beyond the loss of material possessions such as market stalls and houses – it threatens to dismantle community bonds, collective identities and long-held social networks. 

Despite promises that traders and residents of Latin Village would be granted a new plot a short distance away, campaigners made clear that the issue of gentrification runs much deeper than physical space. The proposed construction of luxury flats would, in fact, increase rent in the area by 300%, while the market itself would be reduced to less than half of its current capacity. It is through such underlying, violent changes that gentrification truly takes shape. 

Increasingly described as a form of social cleansing, human geographers have noted the ways in which gentrification mirrors colonialism. In a 2019 study, Loretta Lees, Adam Elliott-Cooper and Phil Hubbard suggest that there are ‘important parallels between urban displacement under racialised capitalism and the seizure of land by settlers who seek to replace an entire system of ownership with another.’

Disproportionately hurting BAME and migrant communities across the globe, gentrification perpetuates extreme social inequalities. High-income households are typically located in neighbourhoods with the greatest access to education, employment and amenities, and the lowest levels of pollution and crime.

Given that, in general, BAME individuals are more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods with the oldest and poorest quality housing, they are inevitably hit the hardest. Council estate renewals, particularly across London, are rife. The London Assembly estimated that 50 former council estates across London were granted planning permission for partial or complete demolition and renewal between 2005 and 2015. 

Unsurprisingly, those who benefit from such renewals are not existing tenants – even those who are able to continue living within their redeveloped estates. While tenants may not always suffer physical displacement as a consequence of gentrification, estate renewals often result in the loss of social, cultural, economic and psychological benefits.

One study on gentrification-induced displacement observes that local planning and land use regulation can lead to the construction of exclusive middle-class neighbourhoods. What this suggests is that displacement can occur over time as communities become altered beyond recognition, leading to feelings of alienation which see existing residents being pushed out as the area is moulded to cater to middle-class newcomers. 

A Runnymede Trust and CLASS report best summarises this process of existing residents becoming strangers – and second-class citizens – within their own communities. Discussing the response to one gentrified council estate, the report observes: ‘Residents did not resent privileged newcomers because they were new or foreign to the area. Indeed, interviewees appeared to be very proud of the diversity of their neighbourhoods. What they resented was the power relations at play in the ability of privileged newcomers to benefit from the area’s resources with greater ease than local working-class communities.’

This has resulted in the decentralisation of poverty, as predominantly BAME and working-class communities are pushed out of their inner-city neighbourhoods to the suburbs. Jessica Perera of the IRR (Institution of Race Relations) compares this gradual displacement of BAME British citizens to the hostile environment policies implemented by Theresa May in 2012.

While the hostile environment sought to make the UK as unwelcoming as possible with the aim of encouraging migrants to voluntarily leave the country, this hostility to BAME and migrant communities can likewise be observed on a domestic level – such as through the repercussions of gentrified housing.  

Perera comments that, as a result of estate renewals, ‘Longstanding social networks in BAME and multicultural working-class areas of London have been slowly eroded, dispossessing entire neighbourhoods of community and culture.’ Along with economic conditions such as austerity-driven cuts and institutionally racist policing policies, this has created what Perera describes as ‘localised hostile environments’ in the UK. 

Yet, the improvement of neglected neighbourhoods does not have to engender social cleansing. It is important to note that this is a choice, not an unfortunate inevitability.

The use of land to create profitable housing and luxury apartments need not be a consequence of refurbishing rundown housing and investing in local amenities. An alternative can be found in Community Land Trusts, where a community acquires land in order to offer housing at a genuinely affordable rate based on median local salaries as opposed to market value. 

This puts people before profit and is far more attractive to existing residents; in just two years, the number of Community Land Trusts in the UK has doubled. It gives communities ownership over their own neighbourhoods, allowing them to cultivate long-term community benefits. And this is the case across the UK, not solely in London, with 290 CLTs now existing throughout the country.   

As one interviewee claimed in the Runnymede Trust’s report: ‘We’re not against urbanising, we’re against gentrification. Don’t drive us out to put new housing and new people in. Drive things alongside with us.’

Places change and develop over time – this is a given. However, it should never be at the expense of existing working-class and minority ethnic communities.