Elephant & Castle shopping centre is facing re-development. But what of its Latin American residents?

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre. Image: Getty.

South London’s Elephant & Castle shopping centre has long served as a punchbag for aesthetes, and has been variously described as a “blunder,” an “eyesore,” and a “manky hot-pink semi-empty mall.”

The vast, concrete cavern was attracting criticism soon after it opened in 1965, as a grand statement of postwar ambition. And Southwark council has been seeking a developer to transform it for the past 20 years.

That ambition could be realised this week. In 2014, the building was sold to property group Delancey for £80m, and the developer’s proposal for radical change will go before the council’s planning committee on Tuesday. If approval is forthcoming, the centre will be demolished next year.

In its place will rise a state-of-the-art complex intended to turn an unfashionable neighborhood into a destination, and revive the dream to remake the Elephant as a “Piccadilly of the South”. The project will include 979 homes and a multiplex cinema, alongside a new campus for the London College of Communication (LCC) and incubator hubs for local start-ups. This regeneration will also address the problem of overcrowding at Elephant and Castle tube station by introducing a new entrance.

Despite broad consensus that the building is no longer fit for purpose, however, its re-development has been fiercely opposed by tenants, local campaign groups and a growing list of councilors. 

And one man’s carbuncle is another’s safe haven. The jumble of beauty salons and cafes inside the centre, and the market stalls filling the “Moat” surrounding it, support one of Britain’s largest Latin American communities. There are more than 100 Latin American-owned businesses clustered around the site, a presence that has grown steadily along with London’s Latin population, and dozens are facing displacement or dissolution.

This prospect is a constant source of anxiety for traders such as Lucy Villamizar, who arrived from Colombia 25 years ago and founded a hairdressing salon in what she calls “our Chinatown”. “I always expect the letter with a notice to move next month,” she says. ”We made our lives here...My idea was to retire here. It will be hard at my age to start again from nothing in another place far away.” 

Lucy’s hairdressing salon. Image: Kieron Monks.

The traders’ strength is numbers. Together they form a collective attraction for London’s Latinos, who flock to the centre from across the capital for a taste of home and keep the local economy ticking over. Many traders fear that they would struggle in a new location, isolated from their community and established client base.

The centre also functions as a support network for Latin immigrants. “When I first arrived in London people told me about this area,” says Lenin Erazo, originally from Ecuador, who manages a restaurant in the centre. “People come here to learn English, to look for a house or a job, or to understand how the government works.” 

The traders are represented by campaigning charity Latin Elephant, including the many non-Latin businesses that share the space, among them a bingo hall and bowling alley that attract 500,000 visitors a year. The group’s main aim is to keep the cluster intact through the transformation. 

“There is a consensus that development is good for the area, but we don’t want displacement of existing communities,” says Patria Roman-Velazquez, a sociology lecturer at Loughborough University and chair of Latin Elephant. ”If this is going to happen we need a fair deal.” 

Roman-Velazquez points to the council’s obligations under the Equalities Act to consider the impact of development on minorities, as well as the elderly and low-income customers who depend on the centre for services and social life. “It’s important to protect these groups and there is a duty to make space available for them,” she says.

Latin Elephant has won concessions during the development process, securing 10 per cent affordable retail space on the new site, as well as a relocation fund of £634,000 for traders. Delancey is also offering a “support and guidance service” for local retailers that will have to move, including assistance with finding new premises and marketing advice.

Lenin Erazo in his restaurant. Image: Kieron Monks.

But Roman-Velazquez is concerned that the relocation fund is inadequate, that the cluster will be broken up during the five-year construction process, and that the developer has given only vague commitments that traders will be allowed to return to the new site.

The case has become an incendiary issue in the borough and beyond, drawing more than 600 objections from the public and fierce criticism from campaign groups across London. Concerns go beyond the fate of the Latin cluster to Delancey’s plans for housing. 

Developers are required to provide 35 per cent affordable housing in new builds, with half at social rent equivalent. Delancey’s scheme would meet the affordable housing target, but deliver just 33 homes – 3 per cent of the total – at social rents. The rest would be split between London Living Rent and affordable rent, defined as 80 per cent of market rates. With new two-bedroom apartments in the area on the market for £3,000 per month, “affordable” rent could cost 85 per cent of an average salary for the borough. 

Opposition is stiffer for this being the latest in a series of controversial developments in Elephant and Castle, which add up to a £3bn transformation of the area that critics have called social cleansing.

The demolition of Heygate Estate saw more than 1,000 residents evicted, and in many cases forced out of the borough, with minimal compensation. The replacement complex allocated just 82 of 2704 homes at social rent, with all properties sold going to overseas investors. Plans to demolish and remake the Aylesbury Estate with 778 fewer social rent homes are going through a public enquiry. The new Strata Tower and Elephant One buildings have delivered more than 1,000 homes and zero at social rent.

“We don’t want any more homes for rich people, we need council houses at genuine council rents,” says Tanya Murat, spokesperson of campaign group Southwark Defend Council Housing. (Delancey’s proposal will “destroy a vital part of our multicultural community... and replace it with shops people can’t afford to shop in and houses people can’t afford to live in”. 

Local politicians are also joining the opposition. Fourteen councilors have signed an open letter against the scheme, citing “unacceptable” social housing provision and inadequate protection for traders. 

Delancey is resisting further concessions at this point, claiming its proposal is already at the margins of viability, although the group projects a £154 million profit. And Southwark council leader Peter John has defended the plans on the basis that, as local government funding has been slashed, councils are being forced to embrace private sector developers and imperfect projects in order to deliver much-needed housing.

The same reasoning has been used by Labour-run councils across the capital to justify regenerations, from Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth to South Grove in Waltham Forest. Haringey council has presented its £2bn HDV scheme as a necessity, sparking a ferocious backlash, while pursuing another pariah project that threatens London’s other major Latin American cluster.

The Elephant development is “representative of the most acute changes currently taking place in London,” according to Michael Edwards, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. These trends are ”wholesale displacement and dispersal of settled residential communities through ’regeneration’ mechanisms” and “land market and rental pressures displacing small businesses and ethnic specialist economies across the city”. 

But the tide may be turning. Labour councils now face growing pressure from below as their constituents organise against regeneration projects, and from above as their party leadership pushes for new constraints and accountability.

Protests are expected outside Southwark’s planning committee meeting on Tuesday as the fateful decision is taken. Campaigners are still hopeful of last minute concessions. After 20 years of thwarted development plans, a derided building and its marginalised community are not going quietly. 


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.