The other Waitrose effect: how gentrification is linked to rising evictions

Good for staff, but bad for renters? Image: Getty.

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea has become the fishbowl of British inequality. On one side stands the skeleton of the Grenfell Tower; on the other sprawl hundreds of empty mansions. Since June, the council has faced harsh criticism for its failure to address the widening gap between them.

But Kensington & Chelsea is merely an extreme case of the rule – not an exception to it. As house prices continue to climb, the housing market is driving wide-ranging inequalities between property owners with security of tenure and property renters without it.

In a new report for Generation Rent, I showcase this inequality using what I call the ‘Other’ Waitrose Effect: the opening of a new Waitrose, I find, is associated with an increase in local evictions by between 25 and 50 per cent.

Waitrose is a national treasure. The supermarket has succeeded in balancing progressive labour-management relations with competitive pricing on a range of luxury, free-range and organic items. This broad appeal has driven the original Waitrose effect, increasing the value of local properties by an average of £40,000.

Homeowners rejoice. Their homes rise in value, but so do their lifestyles: they have access to Britain’s favourite supermarket.

But there are hidden costs for local renters. As house prices rise, private landlords see an opportunity to fetch a higher price from a sale or a higher rent from new tenants. To do so, they free up their properties with a Section 21 eviction – a “no-fault” eviction – by which landlords can remove their tenants without citing a grievance to the courts, on just two months’ notice. Section 21 evictions have been rising rapidly over the last few years as more landlords are emboldened by higher prices.

The findings of the new report suggest that Waitrose is having a significant impact on these Section 21 evictions. In the graph below, I plot the eviction trends from 2005 to 2015 across all English local authorities. As Waitrose stores open across the period, the gap between the two lines begins to widen. In the fixed effects estimations that I run in the study, I find that the opening of a single store is associated with a rise in evictions between 25 and 50 per cent.

Waitrose is, of course, not directly to blame. The firm is part of a broader process of gentrification – both product and producer of growing affluence in a given neighbourhood. I use Waitrose in this report as a gentrification proxy in order to evaluate the negative externalities of such affluence on the local renter population.

The housing market in Britain is, then, becoming increasingly zero-sum. For homeowners, rising house prices represent fresh cash – they can remortgage to reduce their monthly outgoings or release equity to save for retirement. For renters, rising house prices represent deepening crisis – in turn, the property ladder moves further out of reach, and rental costs rise. The other Waitrose effect simply illustrates these zero-sum dynamics.

MPs from across the political spectrum now recognise the scale of Britain’s housing crisis, and there is near unanimity on the need for more government involvement in housebuilding.

But the political conservation rarely addresses the zero-sum dilemma: millions of British families rely on their homes as a vehicle for their prosperity, while millions of others struggle to afford their monthly rent. The Waitrose effects must be understood together – the housing market always has its winners and its losers.

There are several common sense reforms that can protect tenants without disrupting the market at large. Generation Rent is advocating a policy that forces landlords to reimburse tenants for Section 21 evictions, which would both provide immediate relief to struggling renters and discourage the use of the evictions in general.

To solve the broader housing crisis, though, we must end Britain’s addiction to house price inflation. Families should have enough financial security – high enough wages, large enough pensions – that they do not have to rely on their homes as an ATM for today or piggy bank for tomorrow. Property should not be a ‘better bet’ for retirement than a pension.

Waitrose, for its part, should bring neither prosperity to homeowners nor insecurity to renters. It should, instead, deliver decent jobs and quality groceries – to be enjoyed by all tenures.

David Adler is a post-graduate student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He conducted this research on behalf of the campaign group Generation Rent.

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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.