Gentrification has a positive ring to it. At least, on paper. But the reality is a little different for those who can’t afford to upmarket their lives.
When unsightly houses and tattered shops are upgraded to trendy apartments and coffee shops, it’s hard to imagine a downside, yet a price is exacted from disadvantaged households and vulnerable people.
This will be a retrospective study on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the major boroughs of east London, to see if gentrification is taking place and its effect. By using the borough’s statistics from 2011 and 2018, and my observations growing up in the community, I will explore its changing face with time.
Is Tower Hamlets being Gentrified?
Gentrification can be broadly described as the conversion of a working-class neighbourhood into a middle-class one. The influx of a higher socioeconomic status population increases property values, raises tax revenues, improves local services, and in total, drives the costs of living upwards.
Tower Hamlets boasts the third highest economic output in the UK, the fastest growing economy in the country and is expected to double in the number of jobs. Yet the same borough also has obscene levels of poverty: bearing the highest child poverty in Britain and the highest pensioner poverty in England. After housing costs, two in five houses live below the poverty line here — tragic and ironic that this borough leads in both economic growth and poverty. Canary Wharf, one of the major business districts in the country, towers over its neighbouring borough, Poplar; an area with leading unemployment, a low proportion of qualified and educated residents and the majority of houses being socially rented, i.e., council housing. This sets the conditions for gentrification to take place. The stark dichotomy between affluent and deprived areas in Tower Hamlets makes it a unique case study for gentrification in London.
The 2018 Tower Hamlets borough report contains the statistics demonstrating the conditions for gentrification. I will relay a few poignant examples.
- Professionals employed in Canary Wharf are being accommodated to move closer to their workplace, this is reflected in the Tower Hamlets planning to build 14,000+ housing units there, despite being the most affluent community in the borough. On the other hand, development is sparse in deprived areas like Shadwell (700), Stepney Green (300) and Limehouse (300). Canary Wharf contains 44 per cent of the jobs in the borough, yet only 14 per cent of workers are Tower Hamlets residents. This will actively drive gentrification as affluent populations move in.
- Whilst out of work benefits and joblessness are falling, in-work claimants of welfare are increasing. On average, workers in Tower Hamlets earn £180 pounds more than residents, proving that indeed residents will easily be outcompeted for housing.
- The Housing in London 2015 report shows that social housing is more prevalent in inner-city London and that, with time, the number of social houses is decreasing whilst privately rented houses are increasing. Anecdotally, a high number of Bengali families are moving further east of London. The report finds that average house prices are lowest there.
- Average private rents in London have risen more quickly than average earnings in London in the last three years, implying worsening affordability for local tenants.
There is no doubt that Tower Hamlets is being gentrified. Furthermore, nothing is in place to prepare local residents for creeping increases in living costs.
Gentrification Harms the Vulnerable
A crucial distinction we have to make is that displacement is not the only harmful symptom of gentrification. Disadvantaged households are forced to relocate or accept the increasing costs by trading this for decreased living standards. Vulnerable people do not have the means to adapt to gentrification; namely, financially struggling families, their children and the elderly. The vulnerable pay the price for gentrification. Dense cities are plagued with such disgraceful levels of poverty precisely because severe inequality goes unchecked and gentrification is one such example. Households are left at the mercy of the housing market and profit-maximisation has no morality.
Gentrification does not always mean a shocking eviction. Often it looks like a gradual mounting of unpaid bills, tightening of expenditures and an insidious degeneration of the community. Ultimately, we need to be willing to sacrifice market efficiency for equity. Safeguards need to be put into place to protect vulnerable communities. Growth is apparent in the cities and failing to integrate local residents into growth is a missed opportunity. A few examples include longer rent contracts to protect tenants from erratic rent changes, targeted training opportunities to include residents in employment growth, and preserving the ratio of social-to-private housing to prevent displacement.
A fairer society will pay dividends in the future. In the long term, government spending on lower-income and vulnerable communities will produce an optimally productive workforce which will be beneficial for everyone. It is time we deal with the causes of gentrification and not the symptoms. Through discussion and reference to the evidence, we can build a society in which everyone can prosper.