24 Apr 2015

Gentrification: what is it? Why are people fighting it?

Protests against rising rents making traditionally poorer areas too expensive for working-class residents are gathering steam – niche left-wing politics or something bigger?

The activist group E15 Mother occupies an empty council house (Getty)

In the past week hundreds of anti-gentrification protesters stormed a Mayfair awards show for property tycoons. Thousands more are expected to shut down or #reclaimbrixton in south London this weekend.

These protests follow waves of action in Bristol and long-running occupations of housing estates where private property developments are taking place on land that once held significant social housing.

Gentrification is used to describe residents on lower incomes being priced out of their neighbourhood by the arrival of middle class or wealthier people, as rents are pushed up and the original residents are forced to move out.

Interest in gentrification as a phenomenon appears to be steadily rising, according to Google Trends. Take a look at the graph below.

Understandably the majority of searches were made in the US, where gentrification has long concerned African-American and Hispanic communities, who on average earn significantly less than white Americans.

According to figures from the American Association of University Women, for every $1 earned by a white non-Hispanic man, an African American woman earned just 64 cents. This falls to 54 cents for Latino women.

Film director Spike Lee has been vocal in discussing the gentrification of New York district Brooklyn. Lee’s comments caused a spike in interest last year but it is his counterpart John Singleton who is best known for his comments about it through his film Boys in da Hood as far back in 1991.

Despite the prominence of the term in the US, interest is growing here, according to this Google Trends map below.

With concentrations of wealth in UK cities, especially London, the areas searching the term most were Leeds and London. Both cities were identified by economist Douglas McWilliams of experiencing significant expansion in their digital industries, along with increased domestic and international migration that push up rents.

In this BuzzFeed video a San Francisco resident explains how the rise of tech industries has contributed to gentrification in what was previously a working-class area.

In the UK the steady rise in the use of gentrification correlates with waves of protests against the shortage of affordable rents for working-class incomes, social homes in big UK cities and the privatisation of public space. Radical housing activists call the impact of this “social cleansing”, which policy makers reject.

Leftist groups such as the Radical Housing Network and the London Black Revolutionaries, responsible for putting concrete over anti-homeless spikes, have been involved in the most visible protests mentioned above. However the impact of increasing rents extends to commercial properties such as pubs, clubs and music venues.

The decline in the number of music venues in London has been attributed partly to rising rents. Some of the biggest clubs and centres in the heart of Soho’s LGBT communities have closed, which has led their supporters to blame market forces and big business.

The FT cites the Music Venue Trust in reporting the fall of London music venues from 401 in 2010 to 243 in 2012. In response to this the Mayor of London has launched a task force to halt the long-term decline.

In Brixton, #reclaimbrixton has strongly focused on the impression that low income and British African and African Caribbean communities are being forced out, even though, according to the census, the number of black or black British residents in the area has increased by 159 per cent since 2001. In UK cities the fight over space is likely to become more furious as prices increase.

What is clear from the Google Trends maps is that gentrification as a phenomenon appears to be garnering more attention.