Are artists the shock troops of gentrification – or just another of its victims?

Carradale House, with Balfron Tower behind it. Image: vasilissdimos/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the housing writer Dawn Foster, particularly this article in the Guardian. We are happy to make this clear.

Balfron Tower looms over Poplar like only a 1960s brutalist tower block can. To some, it is a work of art in itself, bold and uncompromising.

The block of modernist flats was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the London County Council in 1963. Today it is owned by Social Landlord Poplar HARCA, who took over ownership of Balfron Tower following a ballot of residents in 2006.

Poplar HARCA originally undertook to bring all of the dwellings in the estate up to the last Labour government’s “decent homes” standard. In 2015, however, it was announced that the properties in the Grade II listed building were to be sold as luxury flats.

Residents of the block were decanted during the refurbishments, and artists occupied the tower in their place. It was an example of what Mark Aeling, owner of MGA Sculpture Studio and president of the St Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), describes as “art washing”: a phenomenon in which artists are used to increase the attractiveness of an area and the value of properties.

A Balfron Tower Redevelopment Video posted on YouTube in July 2014 by the Balfron Social Club, which campaigns on behalf of social residents, shows the plans for redevelopment. They include a cocktail bar and cinema. The video makes no mention of where the former social tenants will live.

Hannah Nicklin was one of these artists – a “storyteller in residence… as part of the Social Housing Arts Network working alongside Poplar HARCA”, according to her website. On Twitter, the Balfron Social Club accused her of art washing.

In a blog post response, Nicklin said that artists “sometimes work with partners within communities and the world in general… who are playing a damaging role in the lives of many of those same communities”. She also went onto say that “Art and artists often plays a role in gentrification”.

In other words, artists are being co-opted to facilitate gentrification. The presence of artists in Balfron Tower during its transformation from social housing to luxury flats appears to be a natural part of the process. Londoners are familiar with abandoned factories becoming galleries or studios, and then luxury homes. Grayson Perry has described artists as the “shock troops of gentrification”.

But are they benefiting from the changes to the social fabric of London? Or they also the victims of rising property prices, as much as the social housing tenants?

Aside from a few household names, the majority of artists do not have a large income. It is therefore necessary for them to locate where accommodation and studio space is cheap. This movement of artists is a reflection of pressures that rising rents in London are putting on creative industry workers.


Artists have also been inspired by social housing, even if they are not themselves social housing residents. In 2007, Catherine Yass filmed tightrope-walker Didier Pasquette’s attempt to cross the 45-metre gap between the two blocks of Red Road Estate in Glasgow. In 2010, the residents of Balfron Tower featured in Simon Terrill's Balfron Project. From the use of Thamesmead in A Clockwork Orange to Jonathan Meade’s documentary on brutalism, social housing has inspired many works of art. The relationship between artists and social housing goes beyond the need to find affordable space.

Do artists benefit from the process of gentrification? When organisations like Poplar HARCA offer space to artists, it is understandable that they accept it, even if these spaces had formerly belonged to social housing residents.

So the relationship between artists and property owners is a complex one, because artists depend upon support from companies and on cheap housing. Their presence changes the perception of an area, adds value to the assets of property owners – and eventually makes the space unaffordable for artists themselves.

“It’s a vehicle,” WADA’s Mark Aeling said. “[Artists] don’t generally have economic resources, they have creativity. Their energies often get utilised and they, to be honest, get taken advantage of.”

Artists are very much a part of gentrification, and it is understandable why residents who are concerned about rising rents are wary of artists moving into an area. But artists are often as much the victims of gentrification as the benefactors, as rising property prices threaten their livelihoods.

The artists will leave Balfron Tower when the work is finished. Like so many of the capital’s residents, they will continue their migration further east in search of affordable properties. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to find anywhere to re-establish their community.

And why not buy Dawn Foster's book, Lean Out?

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.


1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.