Richard Bridge: A Right to the City?: The new legislation driving York’s gentrification

Introduction: In November the York and Housing: Histories Behind the Headline project invited different people to outline their views on the issues facing housing in York. In March the project began again – through a stall in Parliament Street on Good Friday – with a focus on crucial issues for the Local Plan, not only housing but also public space, flooding, traffic and green space. Many ideas and issues were raised through discussions on the stall but housing came up again and again. Richard Bridge discuss how York’s housing situation will be affected by recent and proposed legislative changes – how can York resists the drivers which look likely to price out many of the people who have built their lives here?

York should celebrate Bishopthorpe Road’s recent victory as Great British High Street of the Year but, Richard Bridge argues, there are inherent risks to that success which also apply to other areas of York.
York should celebrate Bishopthorpe Road’s recent victory as Great British High Street of the Year but, Richard Bridge argues, there are inherent risks to that success which also apply to other areas of York.

Richard Bridge

York’s Histories Behind the Headlines throws a fascinating spotlight on York’s rich and textured housing past and asks how that may or should influence and shape its imagined future. Whilst I’m no historian, it is clear that York in recent times has provided a mix of owner-occupied, private and social housing for its residents. Joseph Rowntree Foundation provide robust research that suggests a healthy mix of tenure types – providing for different age groups, ethnicities, household types and differing income levels – makes for a more cohesive society.

However, the implementation of recent and future housing and welfare reforms places that under serious jeopardy with York’s current and future housing crisis being potentially a microcosm of London whereby the housing landscape is dominated by more affluent households with poorer families displaced out of the city or at best, concentrated into small pockets of social housing reserved only for its poorest residents.

Back in the 80s, I lived on Northcote Road in Battersea, London which rapidly metamorphosised from a working-class street with a daily street market to what is now known as ‘Nappy Valley’ with a mix of boutiques, chains and cafes catering for its young, affluent and productive demographic. Gentrification – wherever it takes place – tends to render local inequalities near-invisible. It would be disingenuous of me though not to admit to enjoying some of the fruits of what we often call ‘regeneration’. Indeed, there is an argument that it creates more jobs, less crime, improved services and so forth. Nevertheless, whilst for instance Bishy Road has been the host of some great street parties providing a vibrant community ethos and recently won GB High Street of the Year (and in Stanley and Ramona serves perhaps the best coffee in York!), its success hides an inherent weakness. Its popularity leads to rising residential and commercial rents, and rising house prices, meaning the area provides for a more affluent clientele, and potentially pushes out less profitable businesses. Bishopthorpe Road is certainly not unique to those dangers in York or elsewhere and currently still provides a good mix of affordable shops. But there are risks.

One of the effects of gentrification is to make growing inequality less visible to those unaffected. Credit: James White

So what are the imminent dangers to York? Focussing on the rental sector, costs have become increasingly less affordable in recent years and due to the Housing and Planning Bill and the Welfare and Work Bill, the position is likely to worsen significantly, particularly for York’s poorest residents.

Affordability of private rents now

In-work poverty has steadily become more prevalent due to low wages with over two-thirds of Housing Benefit claimants now having someone in work.

Table 1: Housing benefit entitlement in York

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Private renters in York are already significantly disadvantaged as the level of Housing Benefit is based on a Broad Rental Market Area which means the eligible benefit is set at the level of outlying towns such as Selby, Tadcaster, Easingwold and Malton which creates significant monthly shortfalls for lower wage households (see Table 1).

In essence, this means rents for people not in paid work – carers, disabled people, unemployed – or low paid work are unaffordable and only made worse by York’s regressive council tax support scheme. So how do people make up the shortfalls in rent? Perhaps by borrowing from friends, or cutting back on food and heating. Some may get into debt whether accruing rent arrears, risking eviction or borrowing from high cost lenders. Others perhaps move out and sofa-surf. Ultimately, the shortfalls are unsustainable.

For social tenants, the ‘bedroom tax’ has caused similar hardship. Back in 2013, I recall speaking to a disabled woman in Foxwood who explained she could not manage the shortfall and would have to move away from York. Reduced to tears, she explained that she had lived in Foxwood all her life and this was where her life was and had always been – her family, her grandchildren, her friends, her community.

Credit: Shelter*

But worse is on the horizon. Many will have heard of the benefit cap. Hugely popular and premised on ‘fairness’ to the taxpayer, few families in York have thus far been affected. This year however, the cap reduces to £20,000 meaning that for the families already affected, there will be a further immediate drop in their income of £115 per week. Moreover, the cap will now capture a much larger swathe of families in York (see Table 2 for an illustration of how families may be affected.

Table 2 Projected shortfalls for households in York upon implementation of benefit cap

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Interestingly, if the family in the council property illustrated above have to move out as they can no longer afford the rent, it is unlikely that the property will be offered to one of the many other families waiting on the council housing list. Instead, under new Government rules, City of York council will have to sell its higher value social housing in order to finance the Government’s Right to Buy proposals for Housing Association tenants. When sold, these larger council properties are likely to be sold to private investors and let to students.

So, of course, the answer is to find enough work which will exempt you from the Benefit Cap. Apart from the simplistic notion that people are always able to work, or that work is always available, we now encounter a further problem. Under the bizarre ‘Pay to Stay’ rules being introduced in April 2017, many households renting from the council earning in excess of £30,000 will be expected to pay a market rent for their council rent. So for the family in a 4 bedroom Housing Association property, their rent would be likely to increase by more than £1000 per month!! For a couple, a joint income of £30,000 is hardly a high income – in reality, it equates to two full time wages at the new national living wage. We always hear about ‘doing the right thing’ – surely two people working full-time could not fit the government rhetoric better and yet, the Government proposes to hit those families in York with a £250 per week work penalty.

The Metropolitan Council on Housing, New York ask 'What is gentrification?'. The challenge for York is how to
The Metropolitan Council on Housing, New York ask ‘What is gentrification?’. The challenge for York is how to sustain the right to life here for all the city’s residents. Credit: The Metropolitan Council on Housing

More to the point, many families who have been brought up in York will be and are being faced with difficult decisions. Some of the poorest – and even more well-off – are simply priced out by the cost of private rented housing – simultaneously, the Tories have sounded the death knell of social housing in York under the pretence that families can aspire to buy in the city. And for larger families in particular, the Benefit Cap signals their displacement out of the city despite the severe social injuries that may cause young and old alike. And for those in social housing that ‘do the right thing’, difficult choices remain as to whether to pay massive rent hikes in properties that they have invested their lives in, to reduce their income (so they fall below the threshold) or again be displaced to different locales.

I admit this paints a particularly gloomy picture of ‘affordable housing’ in York which provokes the question David Harvey – a well known urban geographer – recently asked, ‘who has the right to the city?’ Is it implicitly reserved for the moneyed capitalist classes or more positively, can all of York’s residents claim some kind of democratic power to remake the city through radical, innovative and different forms of housing?

*The Author would like to thank Shelter for the use of this infographic. This blog is not endorsed by Shelter.


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