Don’t blame hipsters for gentrification: blame neoliberalism

Gentrification in Streatham. Image: Getty.

Here are some things you should know about me: I am a 28 year old freelance writer who lives in Hackney. I am precariously yet creatively employed, work in a co-working space, and have spent the better part of my twenties living in flat-shares where the freezer hasn’t been defrosted since the mid-nineties.

For this dubious privilege, I pay far more than 50 percent of my income in rent each month which is, according to recent data, three times more on housing than my grandparents spent.

This is all to say: I am a gentrifying hipster. And while I know my demographic is a much-maligned harbinger of change, sometimes I start to feel like it’s the agent of change. Indeed, the canon of internet hot takes stating that “hipsters ruined such-and-such” is rich and varied – and usually written by property-owning individuals who have plenty of extra in their Sub-Zero freezers. When I report on the issue, the outraged internet commentariat writes comments like “Pretentious, expensive nonsense. RIP our inner city communities.”

Others beseech me to be a “responsible gentrifier,” taking care to spend just enough money to support the local economy, but not too much to attract unscrupulous developers. Even Vice, the simultaneous arbiter and enabler of hipster culture, informs me that daring to visit a chicken shop in a neighbourhood that I haven’t lived in my entire life is verging on cultural appropriation.

I’ve always known that a fixation on blaming the aesthetic indicators of gentrification – millennial pink coffee shops, vegan bakeries, art students in chicken shops – was a massive misdiagnosis of the problem. But when it came to countering that argument, I’ve always felt I was grasping. It was only after reading Anna Minton’s book, Big Captial: Who is London For? that I began to see that this misdiagnosis is not just intellectually amiss: it also helps further the aims of a government that has willfully created the conditions for our current crisis of displacement and housing shortage to arise.

The narrative that hipsters cause gentrification tends to come from two sources. One is the established communities who quite rightly assume that the “regeneration” projects that ruthlessly sprout up in their neighbourhoods are not intended for them. (Though I should say, in my own reporting I’ve found the viewpoints of established communities to be far more nuanced than the media generally gives them credit for.) The other is the pundits and editors who – whether it’s intellectual laziness or a thirst for clicks, I don’t know – know that headlines with “hipster” in them traffic well. But, no matter the source, these charges ignore both the structural underpinning and socioeconomic context of neighbourhood change.

So what does cause gentrification and, by extension, the housing crisis that affects nearly everyone in the capital? At least according to Minton, the process is multi-pronged. An intentional dismantling of the social housing through mechanisms like right-to-buy and buy-to-let since Thatcher has meant that the social housing sector is now dominated by private tenants receiving housing benefit – rather than people simply being housed in purpose-built social housing, which hasn’t been built meaningfully for years.


This drastically reduces the amount of affordable homes available for the middle class. This market-led social housing practice also contributes to inflationary pressures on everyone’s monthly rent payment.

At the same time, an influx of wealth from high net worth individuals at the very top of London’s property ladder – those “safety deposit boxes in the sky,” as Minton calls them – creates ripple effects throughout the market and links our country’s housing market to global capital flows. Meanwhile, the “we are building more housing!” cries from the Tories are essentially empty when market conditions push developers towards erecting gleaming luxury developments in place of dilapidated “sink estates”. Defining “affordable housing” as up to 80 per cent of market rent – or the Conservatives starter homes, worth up to £450,000 – means that these new builds might as well not exist for most normal people who actually need housing.

The process unleashed by this is not gentrification as it was originally defined, but a “state-led hyper gentrification” that is not just allowed, but abetted by government policies. In 1964, when sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe the phenomenon of middle class families moving into and renovating working class cottages in Islington, the rate of change, for better or worse, was organic and the pocket books of those individuals served as a kind of upper limit. But now, as Minton write, “the speed of capital flows into places between the 1960s and 200s bears no comparison to what is happening today. It is these rates of return on property” – boosted by the policy of the government and councils – “that are driving the reconfiguration of London.”

Let’s be clear: those Dubai-like towers sprouting up in Dalston Square and Woodberry Down are not populated by hipsters, most of which live in dastardly flat-shares like the one I’m all too familiar with. They are largely populated by the investors, bankers, and overseas buyers who can afford to throw down half a million on a studio. As Minton notes in the book, during Stage 1 of sales for Elephant Park, a new development that replaced Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle with roughly 2,700 luxury flats (a mere 82 are for social housing), 100 per cent were sold to foreign investors.

So if hipsters aren’t the ones actually selling or buying the luxury flats that are replacing long-time communities, but are rather opting to move to the only neighbourhoods where they can afford to rent a room and perhaps start a small business, why are we getting all the shade? Minton told me part of the reason is councils who, bereft of funds thanks to austerity, are keen to capitalise on the “up and coming” reputation that hipsters bring with their avocado toasts and street art. She told me:

“Hackney is in the throes of this kind of slower gentrification and state-led hyper gentrification. It hasn’t been done as brutally as what’s happened in Southwark and is planned for parts of Lambeth but the direction of travel is clear.

“Apparently a Hackney councilman was overheard saying ‘I think it’s great you can find artisan bakeries where you can find sourdough that’s £5 a loaf.’ There is no doubt the council is actively encouraging that kind of environment.”

Indeed it’s rare that you hear someone state the obvious: places that are in the throes of change with a diverse range of people living cheek by jowl are, in fact, quite exciting. “But that tends to drop off quickly,” Minton hastens to add, when the government does nothing to prevent complete and total displacement.

What doesn’t drop off quickly is the lack of “ontological security” that everyone from housing benefit claimants to millennial hipsters feel when their housing situation is insecure. Studies quoted in Minton’s book found that “prolonged periods in temporary housing” and “spending more than 30 per cent of income on housing” are associated with reduced mental health.

In short, blaming hipsters – or hipster culture or hipster food trends or hipster art – for the crisis of displacement and substandard, expensive housing ravaging our capital is a red herring. It amounts to the age-old “kids these days” critique of youth culture, without any recognition of the neoliberal market forces at play – and lets a government that has systematically neglected social housing for a couple decades conveniently off the hook. It also makes developers rich. 

“Whether you’re a hipster in a shared house in Hackney or a banker who’s just bought a luxury new build, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that established communities get displaced – it’s the structural underpinning that’s at fault,” Minton told me. “We’re all operating within this property economy and the putting it on the individual is just part of the individualistic neoliberal approach that’s got us to where we are with the housing market.”

Rosie Spinks is on Twitter as @rojospinks.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.