SWM 2015: UK - Gentrification brings new challenges for Brixton’s minority communities
Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)
Case study by Electra Babouri
Brixton is an inner London neighbourhood renowned for its ethnic and cultural diversity. Beginning in the late 1940s, when migrants from the Caribbean began began settling in the area, it has cemented a reputation as a multiethnic hub with a vibrant music scene and an array of global cuisines. Yet Brixton has also seen serious political unrest, against a backdrop of unemployment, poor housing and social exclusion, highlighted by the 1981 riots. More recently, however, the local communities have been facing a new threat - gentrification. Ironically, this risks endangering the very qualities that have attracted interest and investment in the area as many residents, particularly those from minorities, find themselves priced out of Brixton.
Brixton’s landscape and demography have been slowly transforming for years, but this process has recently accelerated. While genuine regeneration has taken place and brought some benefits to communities, in many cases the neighbourhood’s image has improved while its communities have been left behind. Attracted by its multi-ethnic community, alternative feel and affordability, many high-earning white professionals – a relatively rare presence back in the 1980s - have begun moving in to the area. Simultaneously, new property developments are booming, pushing house prices up as well as the leases for commercial properties, creating considerable pressure for some traders. This is epitomized by the redeveloped Granville Arcade, now known as Brixton Village Market, where a multitude of new shops have opened to cater to a more affluent clientele – a situation that has reportedly left some minorities, such as Brixton’s Jamaican community, with a sense of displacement.
The situation highlights the difficulty of promoting economic development that is inclusive for all, particularly as London continues to struggle with an acute housing crisis. While social housing is becoming increasingly scarce, the cost of a home is rising at an alarming pace: for example, in the London Borough of Lambeth, where Brixton is situated, house prices were 37 per cent higher in the second quarter of 2014 compared to a year before. Housing shortages are particularly affecting Brixton’s black and minority ethnic (BME) population, who are more likely to experience poor housing conditions, unemployment and other indicators of social exclusion. At a national level, for example, they are reportedly seven times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than white households.
These issues have become even more acute with the rollout of austerity policies in the wake of the financial crisis, with reduced welfare and the introduction of the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ - a particularly controversial policy that reduces benefits to social housing tenants deemed to have a surplus of bedrooms –hitting poor residents hardest. The London Voluntary and Service Council (LVSC) has highlighted how these changes severely impact inner London minority and disabled claimants, such as those living in Brixton, with the result that certain parts of London ‘will increasingly become “no go zones” for low income people, a large proportion of them from BME backgrounds’.One local journalist has estimated that in Brixton over 700 households are being affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ and almost 6,000 households are now paying council tax for the first time, having previously been exempt because of low incomes.
All these factors are having an adverse impact on Brixton’s minoritiy communities, with those most vulnerable facing debt, eviction and relocation elsewhere. In Brixton’s Coldharbour ward, one of the most deprived in London, wellbeing has deteriorated among residents with a soup kitchen being set up to help feed those struggling. Research carried out by the local council highlights the concern among African-Caribbean residents about the availability of social and affordable housing, declining community infrastructure and exclusion due to gentrification.
However, there is growing awareness that something must be done to reverse this trend. For example, there have been calls to implement grants and loans to Black Caribbean businesses to encourage their return. While financial support and other assistance will be a necessary part of this, it is also important that Brixton’s communities are themselves empowered to continue to play a central role in the development of their neighbourhood. In the words of Julie Fawcett, a tenant of a local estate and director of its community trust, ‘the fact that Brixton is a great place to live is a testament to those people… and now they’re being moved out… This has always been a mixed community, and that’s what has made it a good place to live. [It] needs to be a place for everyone, and the balance is tipping’.
Photo: Brixton, 2007.