A London housing development dividing children’s play areas based on their tenure has been the source of widespread outrage in recent months. The 149-home Baylis Old School complex in south London was accused of denying children from social housing units access to a playground used by those from market-rate flats.
Politicians from across the spectrum, including Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and James Brokenshire, all expressed moral indignation – putting pressure on the developer, Henley Homes, to remedy the situation. Amid heart wrenching stories of children from the same primary school being unable to play together, the local council agreed to take down the dividing wall.
As alarming as this individual case was – separating innocent children along class lines – it’s far from an exception. Residential segregation has been an outcome of attempts to produce so-called “affordable” housing from market-rate housing in expensive cities across the world.
A recently approved tower in Vancouver’s West End has been slated for having separate entrances for market and social housing residents, and attempts to separate children’s play areas. Until mayor De Blasio’s clampdown, New York was in the spotlight over the likes of the Lincoln Square tower, where private tenants enjoyed uninterrupted river views and facilities including a pool, a movie theatre and a bowling alley – while low-income residents only had access to a bike storage closet, unfinished laundry room and tiny common space.
Such disparities are only amplified when – rather than aiming at local residents most in need – developers look to an international market of property speculators. Appealing to vast amounts of investment pouring in from around the world, developers are increasingly throwing in amenities like swimming pools, concierges and cinemas. Whilst the private units attracting many millions are positioned to enjoy the best city views and are adorned with a myriad of additional luxuries, any “affordable” units that the developers haven’t managed to avoid constructing are going to look very different.
The situation in the UK is, however, particularly acute. Forty years ago, local authorities were responsible for over 40 per cent of house building – which has now dropped to below 2 per cent, and the construction of social housing has reduced by 80 per cent over the past decade alone. As the role of government in directly producing low income housing has drastically diminished, private developers now have a near monopoly in generating it – technically obliged by planning gain to include a certain proportion of social or affordable units in their schemes.
In other words, the provision of a fundamental social good is now squarely in the hands of organisations with no incentive to foster an equal community, and whose mission is to cut costs and maximise profit wherever possible. To these firms, affordable housing provision – and everything that goes along with it – is simply an inconvenience: at best, a box ticking exercise.
Blindly following the “build, build, build” mantra, toothless local authorities constantly allow developers to skimp on affordable housing quotas and flout planning policies. The dull and compartmentalised open spaces linked to these developments – playgrounds included – resemble what they really are: the outcome of a haggling process in which local authorities are subservient.
It should come as no surprise, then, that playgrounds in new housing developments are divided. Residential segregation is a physical manifestation of the unequal urban citizenship perpetuated by our market-led housing system. Rather than appealing to the good nature of developers, we need to stop seeing affordable housing as a side-product of private gain, and see it as a human right.
Time White is a researcher at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics.