MEMBERS ONLY: Who Stole My City?

I grew up in Clapham, south London in the 1980’s, and have clear memories of what the city felt like. It was an intimidating, yet often warm and exciting city jammed with people of different color, religion and social class. When I was little, I went to an inner city state school in my neighborhood where I was the minority – a middle class Jewish boy (or Jew’ish’ given my mother was raised Christian) in a predominantly working class, Afro Caribbean and Indian school. I remember coming home once aged 5 and asking my mum whether we were Hindu, confused as to why I didn’t have to have a Bindi (red dot) on my forehead during Diwali.

Several of the dads of kids in my school would banter back and forth in the playground when picking up their kids. “Alright mate, I ain’t seen ya since Folkstone!” you would hear.

“What’s Folkestone?” I asked my mum.

“Folkestone is a prison sweetheart”.

I had friends from all walks of life and honestly don’t remember them by way of ethnicity or social class. At that age, it was all about who could do Michael Jackson dancing the best, and who was the fastest runner. I’d go to my mates houses or flats after school for tea (biscuits and Ribena usually) and didn’t really get any sense that I was different to anyone else. South London was a slightly dangerous, yet fun place to grow up where you genuinely felt like you were part of a community.

Fast forward 25 years and my hometown of Clapham is a very, very different place. There were a few posh neighborhoods in London when I was growing up – Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead to name a few, but for the most part anywhere out of central London was pretty dingy with the exception of a few nice streets. Now, places like Clapham look, feel and cost almost the same as Kensington does. My parents house has gone up almost 10 times in value since 1994, effectively pricing out anyone who isn’t a millionaire. Less well people in the area still live in social housing, but as the flats are quietly sold off to young city workers able to fork over several hundred thousand pounds, generations are leaving their homes to find more affordable places to live. Clapham is still reasonably diverse, but it gets whiter and whiter by the year and the families I knew growing up who were librarians, school inspectors journalists have slowly been replaced by bankers, bankers, and more bankers.

A project called, created by a communication design and urbanism teacher at University of the Arts in London Rebecca Ross, is aiming to hold politicians to account for this mass gentrification in London and the rapidly changing face of the city. The website states:

This project is intended to facilitate discussion about the impact of economic and policy changes on the culture and diversity of London. Via a web form, we are asking a series of questions intended to capture a variety of personal stories and circumstances that will enhance understanding of broader demographic trends concerning migration into, out of, and around London.

Ross has put up digital billboards around the capital with selective quotes taken from the survey:

The average rental price in London is £1,160 ($1767.89) – double that of the rest of the UK, making it one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. This has caused a severe housing crisis in the capital, making not only the dream of owning a house completely impossible, but actually having a roof over your head an uncertainty. The billboards are striking a chord in London because the city no longer feels like home. It is now a place where the super rich own everything and the rest of the population try to survive on the scraps trickled down to them from above.

I don’t know anyone my age who is able to live in the neighborhood they grew up in. All of my friends have moved further and further away from the center of London, some to the countryside in order to have enough living space to have a small family and enough space to move around in. For the most part, my friends in London (who are teachers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc) have little to no savings and spend all their money on rent and food. They worry about the future and have for the most part given up on the idea that they can make it on their own. Those with wealthy parents have an easier time, but even then, substantial amounts are needed to even think about getting on the property ladder or renting in a nice part of town.

The problem isn’t just practical – it causes enormous anxiety and shame that Londoners cannot live in their own city. Western capitalism tells us that if you aren’t successful, it is because you don’t work hard enough. As rent spirals out of control, free market ideology dictates that it is just the nature of life. Rent goes up because of the market. It’s your fault you can’t afford it, so deal with it.

If you thought about this for longer than 30 seconds, you’d realize it was an utterly ridiculous way to organize human life. The market can be controlled and regulated to make it behave differently. In Germany, arguably the most successful economy in the world right now, house prices are falling – and that is by design. An article in Forbesoutlines how this works:

German municipal authorities consistently increase housing supply by releasing land for development on a regular basis. The ultimate driver is a central government policy of providing financial support to municipalities based on an up-to-date and accurate count of the number of residents in each area.

The German system moreover is deliberately structured to encourage renting rather than owning. Tenants enjoy strong rights and, provided they pay their rent, are virtually immune from eviction and even from significant rent increases.

Why is this something that cannot happen in London – or New York, San Francisco, DC or LA for that matter? It is amazing that we now live in a time when living comfortably in the city you grew up in is completely impossible unless you are a millionaire. Sadly, we’ve been so brainwashed by the dictatorship of the free market that we can barely see how ridiculous it really is.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.