YUPPIES OUT! Living on the front line of gentrification in Brixton

On Monday hard-hatted bailiffs evicted 70 squatters from six Victorian mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road: my road. Is this really the price that must be paid for low crime rates and organic bread?

It was a Monday morning. It started not with a knock but with a battering ram: the crash of the bailiffs claiming their prizes.

There were crowds of them, hard-hatted, here to evict more than 70 squatters from six Victorian mansion blocks along Rushcroft Road: my road. Some had been living in the buildings for decades - quietly, their windows shrouded with sheets. We barely knew they were there.

The local authority, Lambeth Council, has plans to sell the buildings to developers for an estimated £5.5m - half of them earmarked for affordable housing - and for that, it needs them empty.

But the forced evictions became a flashpoint in a community that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last five years. Locals gathered in the street, catcalling as the first of the residents were bundled through the doors. Bins were set alight, windows broken, walls spraypainted. "YUPPIES OUT," they spelled out, one letter at a time. Then "BURN THE BAILIFFS".

It was a startling scene in an area now more commonly noted for its independent shops, the covered market, an art deco lido. There are pop-up restaurants and a Zaha Hadid-designed academy school, and it is regularly described in the property press as 'up and coming' or 'on the way up' or with other terms of bouyancy.

It is a poster-child for urban regeneration, much transformed - on the surface at least - since the troubled times of the eighties, when an alienated populace rioted in the streets and the nineties, when the name "Brixton" became synonymous with drug and gun crime. Certainly it is almost unrecognisable from the Brixton of even five years ago.

When I first moved here I was permanently penniless, a part-time photocopier with ink-stained hands. I found a room in the loft of a grand old house on Brixton Hill, sharing the kitchen with a friend and three invisible bachelors who kept to themselves. It was fun, lively, but best of all cheap.

Nightclubs were accessed through chicken shops, evangelists thronged the streets with their loudspeakers, the church yard functioned as an all-night social club for the down and out or simply insomniac. Once a man in a HMP Brixton jumpsuit politely requested that he accompany me to the nearest cashpoint ("What?" I asked, confused. Then when I realised I was being mugged, very gently: "Oh, no, thank you." He did not press the issue).

Since then Brixton's rise has been gathering momentum, overtaking me even as I clamber up my own career ladder. Take out shops closed, to be replaced by organic bread shops and wine merchants. Around the corner, a vegan cupcake shop.

It has not been a comfortable transition. Many feel alienated in an area they have lived for decades as the community identity is drowned out by this new concept of what Brixton is and means.

Inevitably, prices have risen. The average Brixton property now sells for £430,000 - up 25 per cent in a year, according to estate agents. Locals are displaced by the professionals, the monied, the university educated - pushed further from the centre or forced to work longer hours to keep their homes.

Meanwhile, pawnbrokers are springing up almost as quickly as the cafes: Sell your gold! Instant cash! Loans in minutes! Lambeth Council's housing list is now so overstretched it has suggested it could rehome homeless families 75 miles away in Margate, quite literally bussing the poorest out of the borough.

Bubbling resentments such as these can build up. Pressure releases in unexpected ways. Earlier this month, a bailiff was shot and seriously injured while attempting to evict a former nightclub bouncer from his home.

When Foxtons, the estate agents, opened on the high street in March, it was targetted by vandals. "YUCK," they wrote across the plate glass facade. And "YUPPIES OUT" again, the most common refrain. It became a symbol of gentrification - the 'Hoxton-isation' of Brixton, as the local blogs call it - and was forced to hire in bouncers. Last night a police van was parked outside the office, just in case the anger spread from Rushcroft Road across the square and through the windows.

This community which was so proudly inclusive and multicultural now feels uncomfortably stitched together. And never more so than today, as heavy set men affix metal shutters across the windows of my neighbours on both sides.

Like it or not, I was one of the yuppies that moved in. Our own block was squatted until 2003 when it was sold to a private developer, my landlord. My flatmates and I are conflicted: we miss old Brixton. But didn't we help form new Brixton, spending our money in the new shops, drinking in the pop up bars. And isn't crime lower, isn't the coffee better?

In any case, I'm moving out. I spend the night of the evictions packing my belongings into a borrowed car, uncomfortably aware of the contrast of my shuttling up and down the stairs with my bags and books as on all sides the contents of the squats are dumped unceremoniously from the windows onto the street below.

It's late night by the time I finish. Outside it is still hot, humid - sultry as a Tennessee Williams novel - and the sky is streaked red and pink. Some would call it sunset; others, sunrise.

Delicious but deadly? The upmarket end of Brixton market - Brixton Village. Photograph: Getty Images.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at www.calflyn.com and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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