Monday, 14 May 2012

Some thoughts on gentrification from an ex-Hackneyite


I moved out of my flat in Stoke Newington last autumn. For just over four years, my boyfriend and I lived in a flat on the High Street above a hairdressers which our landlady owned and ran.  We were very lucky with our setup -  had a good relationship with our landlady, were just far enough away from the often insufferable ponciness of Church Street and the rent was relatively cheap (initially we paid 750 quid a month for the flat and after a few years it was put up by a whopping 30 quid.) I loved it there and was very sad to leave.
           
I work up the road in Tottenham now, so still get back to Stoke Newington fairly regularly, and each time I do am struck by how insanely gentrification seems to have accelerated there in the last few months. Of course Stoke Newington has long been the poncier bit of Hackney- those Guardian-reading, yoghurt-knitting, organic baby clichés have been chucked around about N16 for many years now. But the whole pace of it seems to have ratcheted up quite seriously recently, undoubtedly due to the ever-present regeneration pathology of the Olympics.

Vintage clothing and ‘upcycled’ furniture shops proliferate. Pointless shops selling miscellaneous designer goods  – cushions, nameless bits of patterned fabric and other such mysterious items – are everywhere.  The Clissold Park café, which for many a year had been a place to stop for a cheap cuppa or bowl of chips, caused a local storm when it reopened recently with a poshed-up menu and stupidly high prices to match. It’s happening everywhere in Hackney now. Every time I go back there, another previously useful business has been turned into a wine shop-slash-cafe or pop-up gallery. (Amidst this madness, thankfully the hardware shop on Stoke Newington High Street continues its trade in screws, mousetraps, ladders and other such things people actually need) 

Overpriced, frivolous north London shops are easy targets these days, but when they are springing up alongside massive, unaffordable rent hikes and sky-rocketing house prices the social cleansing becomes all too apparent. For a few years, my brother lived round the corner from me in Stoke Newington, in a nice, reasonably-priced houseshare. But a few years ago the rent was put up, he couldn’t afford it and he had to move out.  Of course, this is a familiar story now, in Hackney and Stratford and other parts of east London, as private landlords in an unregulated rental market use the Olympics as an excuse to chuck out their tenants and get in higher paying ones. During the last year or so that I lived in Stoke Newington I would walk around and look at the lovely terraced houses, many of which sell for close to a million quid these days, and wonder ‘Who on earth can afford to live here now?’

Places like Stoke Newington are moving beyond being middle class ghettos and are fast becoming millionaires’ ghettos – it’s already happened in neighbouring Islington. Taking into account this high-speed gentrification, coupled with the new housing benefit caps, what low-income or middle income person could move in there now? It’s a horrible thought and an incredibly bleak vision for the future.

When I’m back in N16 I sometimes pop in to see our old landlady, to have a cup of tea and a catch up on the local gossip. Last time I was there we talked about the guy who was now renting our old flat. She told me, open mouthed, that he’d been paying 1200 pounds a month for a one bedroom flat in Dalston before he moved in upstairs. She also told me how when she’d come to rent out the flat she’d put a listing for the flat in Loot. As a result she was inundated with calls from parasitic estate agents offering to take on the property for her, for a much inflated rent. She refused.
‘But what about the Olympics?’ they asked her. ‘You could get a much higher price’
‘I don’t care about the Olympics,’ she replied. ‘It’s not all about the money is it?’
When I heard this story I realised how lucky we’d been there. If only there were more like her. 

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