But can we take inspiration from cities that are rebelling against gentrification with creative solutions?
Words: Ajit Niranjan
Illustration: Francesca Hooper
House prices in Ashley have risen by in last five years
For all the subversive street art in Bristol’s Ashley ward, the two most common words on view must surely be “for sale”. Squats that recently housed the city’s riotous subcultures now have estate agents knocking on their doors.
Property website Zoopla recently listed three of five Ashley neighbourhoods among its top ten “hipster hotspots” across the UK. St Pauls, Stokes Croft, and Montpelier are now in the same league as infamously “trendy” parts of London such as Shoreditch and Dalston. In what is becoming a familiar sequence, these neglected areas have absorbed waves of artists and bohemians who settled in the cheap properties, then hipsters and yuppies arrived with their bakeries and coffee shops, and the areas are now moving quickly into the overpriced era of luxury eating and accommodation.
But it isn’t fixed-wheel bicycles and flat-white coffees that define these ‘hipster hotspots’; instead, it’s the struggle to afford a home. Zoopla’s report ranks areas of the UK by their rises in property prices since 2011. London claims the top six spots. But Bristol fills the following three. House prices in parts of Ashley have risen by more than 35% in the last five years.
Similarities with the capital should set alarm bells ringing across Bristol. London’s housing bubble means even the middle-classes struggle to live near where they work. The unemployed, and those earning poverty wages, are at the whim of unscrupulous landlords offering regular rent hikes and unfair evictions. Owning a home is a fantasy for all but the richest.
Such a trend is well under way in Bristol. Since 2001, home ownership among 25 to 39-year-olds has sunk by a quarter in the West of England. The market share of private tenancies, meanwhile, has doubled. A typical two-bedroom flat in Bristol will set you back by a staggering £1,000 a month.
Though housing costs have ballooned, pay packets have shrunk – a lot. The median (middle) wage in the West of England is still £1 an hour lower today than in 2010. This has pushed house prices to about ten times local salaries. Austerity policies such as benefit caps mean fewer people have a place on the property ladder. And those who have fallen off have little chance of climbing back on.
In areas such as Ashley the pace of change is rapid. Stokes Croft and St Pauls, long demonised as crime-ridden drug dens are now marketed as “edgy” and “Bohemian”. Estate agents from outside the city brazenly play on Ashley’s alternative culture to target middle-class renters and buyers. In March St Pauls was named as one of the coolest places to live in the UK…by The Times.
This is perverse for two reasons. Firstly, the established communities and artists who created the area’s alternative charm (and value for property developers) can now scarcely afford to live there. In short, those who made the area attractive and created value in the first place are being squeezed out. Secondly, the history: the grand terraces that make up St Pauls were built by slave-trade era ‘merchants’, abandoned after the Blitz, then repopulated by immigrants from Britain’s colonies. They settled in the dilapidated townhouses that richer white people had fled. The “urban blight” that scoured this part of Bristol was inflicted by lax landlords who left properties to rot – not the immigrants who tried to patch it up as best they could.
Today, their descendents are struggling to cope with an influx of affluent white newcomers, many of them Londoners fleeing their own housing crisis, bringing with them higher incomes and expensive tastes. To some locals they are responsible for driving rents up and residents out. Those who can stay must pay a hefty price.
Felix Flicker, a physicist who lived in St Pauls until 2015, was served a “Section 21” notice by his landlord each of the four years he lived there. These notices allow landlords to begin eviction procedures, but can be a ploy to increase rents: Flicker received each notice alongside tenancy-renewal offers setting rent at a higher price than the previous year. The message was simple: pay more, or clear out. Flicker claims this obliged him to pay any “exorbitant” rent increases the landlord wanted to apply. “The first year they pulled the trick we all had to move out for two weeks,” he said. “One of us lived in the shed for that time.”
His story is not uncommon. Housing insecurity, the looming prospect of eviction, not knowing if you’ll have a roof over your head in a matter of months – this is what gentrification means to those who cannot keep up with rising rents. When an area changes from working class to middle class, either the poor are getting richer or they are getting pushed out. Some are driven to far-flung suburbs, away from their jobs and families. Others end up on the street.
Recording of homelessness is notoriously patchy, but Bristolians broadly agree that street homelessness is on a scale never seen before. More than 100 people are reckoned by the council to be sleeping rough in the city on any given night. A local Big Issue seller points out this is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more hidden homeless spending nights on friends’ sofas, or in their cars.
There can be benefits in a gentrifying area: for a homeowner whose property value rises, or a resident who has less fear of street muggings. More generally there is more economic activity and the increased investment gentrification brings can be a blessing.
But that is little comfort to those who are under pressure, or told to leave. Nor does it solve the city’s underlying problems. Crime pushed to the suburbs is still crime. Expensive property in one area means greater strain on cheap housing elsewhere.
Residents of Ashley are watching this unfold around them. Cafes are springing up where squats are being shut down, and developers are snapping up properties with little regard for those they displace. By accepting gentrification, Bristol is heading down a dark path of social inequality. Something must stop it blindly following in London’s footsteps.
Gentrification: what can be done?
The world’s urban population is growing, and as demand for inner-city housing rises, the poorest are being displaced – a problem across the globe. Stopping this trend is tricky, though. What works for one city may not be appropriate for Bristol. Here are a few possible approaches.
Rent caps in Berlin, Germany
In Berlin, where renters outnumber home-owners, the solution is regulation. Rent caps were introduced in 2015 in order to slow rocketing property prices, by forbidding landlords from charging new tenants more than 10% of the local market value. This has helped provide housing stability, but not by much. The law is only enforced if tenants sue their landlords. That costs thousands of euros – the sort of money that the victims of gentrification rarely have. In March this year Bristol mayor Marvin Rees suggested a rent cap could be suitable for the city, but currently central government holds the key to this power.
A gentrification land tax
As an area becomes more attractive and expensive, mostly due to the work of its inhabitants, the land itself becomes more valuable. Usually the windfall of this increase falls to the landowner, often totally unearned. A tax on this land would ensure that some of the increase in land value would return back to the community that created the value in the first place.
No more cafes in Montreal, Canada
Canadians are trying a different tack. In Montreal, where run-down districts are peppered with high-end restaurants, the local government has introduced a by-law to slow the rise of hipster cafes. No more than one in six businesses can be a restaurant; new eateries are forbidden from opening within 25m of an existing one.
Montreal fears the fate of its bigger neighbour, Vancouver, where foreign investors have forced huge property price spikes. The result is a housing bubble even worse than London’s. In 2016 Vancouver introduced a 15% tax on all property purchases by non-Canadians to try and catch the bubble before it bursts. This goes beyond similar stamp-duty measures in Sydney (4%) and Melbourne (7%).
Genuinely affordable housing, around the world
The most obvious way to prevent regeneration from dispossessing communities is to have genuinely affordable housing. The first step towards this is to force developers to do their bit. Second is to create genuine alternatives, such as Bristol Community Land Trust, or even the council itself, who plans to launch its own building company for both market rate and affordable homes.
Do you have any more ideas on how to tackle Bristol’s housing crisis? Let us know on Twitter @thebristolcable or email firstname.lastname@example.org