Gentrification can kill a community. But sometimes, they'll fight back in bizarre ways

San Francisco's Mission District is a prime example of gentrification. Photo: Getty.

In cities across the world, a familiar story is being told. There's a working class neighbourhood with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’; maybe it’s the good transport links, maybe its the sexy old town houses. Whatever it is, the artists are the first to flock towards it, eager to take advantage of the cheap rent and aforementioned perks. Trendy coffee bars follow closely behind them, and pretty soon the waft of the Venti Soy Quadruple Shot Lattes lures in the yuppies like hungry wolves. Before long, the locals are drinking craft ales from kiln jars while standing on their one remaining leg – the one they haven't sold to pay their newly tripled rent.

It is the omnipresent saga of gentrification. Ways in which the existing communities actually deal with it is a more complex story. Two very differing responses from the residents of a particularly beleaguered community on the US's west coast show the difficulty and, at times, futility of trying to resist the tide of gentrification. 

By the late 1990s, computer-fever was sweeping across California (like, erm, a virus) and all the dotcom boomers, weighed down by all their disposable income, needed somewhere to live. Their spectacled eyes fell upon San Francisco’s Mission District.

Getting its name from a still standing Catholic mission, the pre-yuppie neighbourhood was home to immigrants and refugees, mainly from Central America. One thing that immigrants and refugees are rarely famed for is their wealth, and as such Mission was generally a low income community. Unfortunately for the immigrants and refugees, their hardship provided the urban edginess that Silicon Valley’s hipsters were after, and so the great forces of gentrification got to work.

When money moves in, everything gets dearer; and these hikes in the cost of living are always felt most by those with the lowest incomes. In 1998, rents in Mission went up an average of 30 per cent, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers of evictions also peaked in same year. Between 1990 and 1999, a whopping 925 households, many of them families and Latinos, were turfed out of their homes in the district, all making way for a new type of resident – white, educated and wealthy.

Faced with the collapse of their community, Mission’s embattled long-term residents took the fight against the gentrification into their own hands. Some went down the peaceful route; campaigning through legal means. The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) was a major grassroots campaign during this time, fighting for existing tenants’ rights. Others went rogue; calling for something a little more violent, and a lot less legal.

The Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (MYEP) is what it says on the tin. During the summer of 1998, as displacement rose, posters began popping up across the area as those who’d lost their homes tried to invoke direct action against the new demographics. They particularly called for vandals to wreck the cars of these “cigar-bar clowns”, singling out Lexuses, Porsches and Jaguars as those which should get a trashing. The logic went that if their cars aren’t safe then they’ll “go away and they won’t come back”.

A later poster, also from MYEP, took a slightly darker tone. It called for the destruction of certain businesses. Starbucks, a sushi restaurant and a few bars made the hit list, all of which the author described as “trendoid” – a hippie era word I sincerely hope sees resurgence. The posters called for such establishments to be reduced to “picturesque ruins” during the “next major urban riots”. Darker still, is that the posters went on to reveal the home address of a particular developer, presumably with the aim of inciting vengeance against them.

The perpetrator was caught glue-handed as he tried to put up more of his sinister posters. He was unveiled as Kevin Keating, a 38-year-old office temp and struggling writer-turned-activist who had adopted the name Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist who terrorised and murdered landlords before the Russian Revolution. Luckily, San Francisco’s Makhano was far less radical than his Ukrainian namesake, and his campaign of terror only amassed to a few keyed cars (most of which were probably his own doing).

There is little evidence to suggest the car vandalising campaign caught on, and although the invasive businesses did report sporadic graffiti attacks, it wasn’t enough to put the brakes on the seemingly unstoppable gentrification of the Mission.

MAC’s above board campaigning had more success. Their lobbying led the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to call a moratorium on live/work conversions, which were seen as the vanguard of change, for two years. They also created a ‘Peoples’ Plan’, consisting of the community’s hopes for the area, which was used in further development.

Despite MAC’s best efforts and Keating’s slightly bizarre anti-yuppie plot, the gentrification of the Mission District continues to this day. Ironically, it is now left to the 1990’s intake of gentrifiers to fight it. This time around, they’re hoping to stop the spread of corporations into the neighbourhood, but are presumably steering well clear of the tried and tested car-vandalising tactics. Partly because the odd keyed paint job won’t achieve the same results as an organised community, but also because nobody wants to be accused of terrorism whilst covered in glue.


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.