It has become a fixed belief, integral to a key strand of Bad City London sentiment, that the gentrification of the capital is resulting in the city’s poorest people being “pushed out” of neighbourhoods where they and their communities have long been settled in order to make way for “the rich”. This narrative is now endlessly reproduced by liberal news organisations and in academia, where “radical geographers” produce a steady stream of studies arguing that “the neoliberal city” brings about the “social cleansing” of what is sometimes termed “working-class space”.
Has this vast consensus become too readily accepted? Are those who hail against gentrification and its impacts on poor London households barking up the wrong tree?
There seem grounds for asking such questions. After all, it remains the case that most social housing tenants in London are very securely housed and unlikely to move home unless they wish to. By contrast, private renters and would-be first time buyers, often more affluent, have seemed more susceptible to “displacement” in recent times, obliged to seek housing in different areas from those they are familiar with as rents and house prices have risen or their families have grown bigger – areas usually closer to or even beyond the boundary of Greater London, where housing costs in general tend to be lower. Meanwhile, London boroughs most synonymous with gentrification – Islington, Hackney and Camden are prime examples – still have very high percentages of housing for social rent. And are all the effects of gentrification bad for those with least money?
Further grounds for interrogating the orthodoxy that gentrification directly causes the forced relocation of poorer residents of London have been provided by new research about another big city where there are conflicts and tensions around gentrification (whatever, precisely, that word means). At City Lab, Kriston Capps has reported on a new study about New York City which concludes that, contrary to established, popular convention, the gentrification of the US city’s historically poor areas has not had the effect of displacing some of its most powerless residents – vulnerable children.
The study, conducted by researchers at New York University, used data about people of limited means who called on the state to help them meet medical costs. Capps writes that it tells a remarkably detailed story which “runs counter to the dogma that displacement is the non-negotiable cost of gentrification” and contradicts the troubling thesis that “the original residents of a neighbourhood, especially the most vulnerable ones, are forced out when more affluent residents arrive.”
The study does not dispute that many low income families in New York lead transient lives. What it does show is that over the period from 2009 to 2015, such families in gentrified areas were no more likely to move more than once than similar families in areas that remained predominantly low-income. Moreover, the majority of vulnerable children living in gentrified areas didn’t move home at all. Capps quotes NYU’s Ingrid Gould Ellen: “The takeaway here is not that there’s no displacement. It’s just that there’s displacement in all kinds of neighbourhoods.” A colleague adds, very simply: “Poor kids are not very residentially stable.”
The researchers do not over-claim for their findings, acknowledging that specific, particular harms might lie within the broad messages sent by the figures and that outcomes for those who do move can be mixed in terms of the different areas they move to and the housing conditions they experience there. Neither does the study discredit or delegitimise the sense of loss that can be felt both by people who have to move and by those who stay but are unhappy about the changes happening around them.
But what the NYU study does show – as have some others before it – is that gentrification is not necessarily bad for poorer people and that it and displacement are not straightforwardly causally related – and, therefore, that efforts to reduce the damage done by lack of housing security for the poorest people should be directed accordingly. If that holds for New York City, might it hold for London too?
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