I recently found myself on a coach trip to the seaside with 150 residents from my local estates. The excitement was high as I heard children ask what the en-route service station would be like, as they’d never been to one before, and the delight at discovering that Burger King existed outside London!
As we passed slowly through the traffic towards the East End I was startled by the huge number of new buildings that seemed to be popping up around me. Last time I had been in this area these had been streets of small shops and houses, each distinct from each other, but our coach was now surrounded by blocks and blocks of luxury flats.
While on the surface these can appear to be signs of a growing economy, the excitement of a new neighbourhood or the end of some terrible brutalist architecture, to me they appear more complicated because of the story of my fellow coach passengers who are facing their homes becoming more of these luxury flats in the next few years.
London needs more houses; anyone who’s spent an hour talking to a Londoner cannot be unaware that this is a top priority. Those who followed even five minutes of last year’s London mayoral election will have heard promises of new buildings, affordable flats and lower rent prices. But what happens when it is decided that these houses should be packed onto the site of current estates? What happens to a community when its few hundred houses are destined to be replaced by several thousand?
I currently work for a church in West London where a third of our parish is facing this situation. Two estates that have been homes to a few thousand people for the past 60 years are due to be demolished and replaced with 11,000 new flats. This decision was made behind closed doors without the residents’ knowledge and only became public when it was well under way. Years later and the plans are still rolling on, accompanied now by cranes and concrete mixers, while the residents have a campaign to stop them.
I have at times felt on both ‘sides’ of this situation. On the one hand I have sympathy with the residents; disempowered and ignored while rich developers make obscene amounts of money at their expense. Joining their campaign can feel like following Robin Hood into a fight with the far better resourced Sheriff of Nottingham who comes accompanied by many well-heeled lawyers.
On other days, when I see the effects of our housing crisis, I can see that the local politicians have been chosen by us to make the difficult decisions about town planning and how to arrange our country’s resources, including our land, and whatever decisions they make will inevitably upset someone. As I meet with the developers, they talk about their commitment to providing more housing so that everyone can have a home and not be left in substandard and neglected accommodation.
The housing crisis
It is true that UK urban centres need new houses. The Mayor of London’s office predicts in its London Plan that one million more households will need accommodating in London over the next 20 years and so the rate of housebuilding will have to increase. Eleven thousand new homes would certainly help towards that target, but is just building more flats enough?
London currently faces particularly challenging housing issues. Firstly a soaring homeless population and overcrowding in social housing, while multiple houses sit empty. Writing in Times Higher Education, Tim Hall states that, “in central London there are more bedrooms than people, many of them empty each night. At the same time, across the city hundreds are illegally housed in rented garden sheds.” Available housing is snapped up in a matter of days at unsustainable prices with rents regularly exceeding 50 per cent of a person’s gross salary.
A huge stress on the system is investors who buy property and then leave it empty waiting for the price to rise. An asset that could be used as a home becomes understood on a purely commercial basis, further reducing the available housing stock and exacerbating the scarcity. Various policies are being employed by governments, both local and national, to tackle this with extra taxes due on investment and empty properties. However, these measures seem only an attempt to slow, rather than reverse the trend.
Some areas have been transformed through redevelopment, but with new buildings came higher prices and advertising targeted to those who can afford a more affluent lifestyle. There are frequently stories of outrage at the small number of social or affordable housing units that a new development may include. This leads to a change in the social fabric of the area and as middle class values and lifestyles move in, long term residents and small businesses are forced out by the rising prices. While areas that have developed in this way have arguably a richer local economy, there is a question about whether the price that is paid is too high.
“New buyers into the posher private housing, often portrayed as ‘the pioneers’, are sometimes a little bit guilty of making out that they are ‘opening up’ a new part of London as if thousands of people already living in the area have not had their own organic fabric of a community. It seems like the thousands of poor people in poor housing that sits cheek-by-jowl to redevelopment zones are often made invisible in the new shiny plans… Is the ‘regeneration’ of the area then simply a place to invest and profit from an over-inflated housing market or is it a scheme to develop renewal for all of the local population, old and new? First rung flats on the property ladder, Buy-To-Lets, corporate rentals – none of these add anything to the already existing community… None of this denies that where we have lived for a long time isn’t perfect. Far from it, it’s often harsh and sometimes unrelenting but at least it’s somewhere that’s been lived and grown according to the more simple needs of people and not pure individual or corporate profit. Community is not something you can consume, it’s something more common, organic and human than that.”
When I consider the situation I find myself in, both in my local estates but also across London, many questions come to my mind. What kind of city are we building? Who are the people that we expect will live in any new buildings? What will the social fabric of their lives look like? Will they be homogenous communities or places of diversity? What happens to those who already live in these spaces? Who makes those decisions? What is the driving force behind the decisions being made – finance or people?
Many of London’s new developments could be described as the driving force for the process of gentrification in their area. This process is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste”. It affects long term residents deeply as they watch their communities being transformed into places they do not recognise. I have, on several occasions heard it called “ethnic or social cleansing” with questions about where poorer, and often immigrant, communities are supposed to live. At the same time it can turn areas with substandard housing, high crime and low employment into vibrant communities with new economic opportunities.
At the heart of the unease around gentrification, I believe there are two issues; the lack of recognition of the specific culture of the traditional population and the lack of power afforded to them to make decisions about their own area. In my own situation much was made by the local council of how they wanted more mixed areas of housing and to do away with struggling estates. While this sounded admirable and positive, it was always an outsider’s view of another group’s estate. For many local residents their estate is not and has never been ‘struggling’. For them it is a vibrant working class community with different values and challenges to those represented by the local councillors. Their feeling is that they are misrepresented and unheard. This was further shown through the consultation process with residents that is a required part of any planning application during a redevelopment. When 80 per cent of the estate residents opposed the scheme the consultation area was widened to include surrounding streets that would not be affected. This consultation process continued to grow in size until over 50 per cent of people contacted agreed with the scheme and it could be signed off. The decision of a person living several streets away who would not be losing their home was given as much weight as someone at direct risk of demolition. This further confirmed to residents the feeling of being undervalued, unheard and pushed out.
This situation was summed up for me recently in a comment made by someone who has worked on several redevelopment schemes across the south of England. I had mentioned that I was going to the beach with local residents and she replied that she had been part of the regeneration of that particular seaside town. I did not know much about the location but she commented that as developers they recognised the need to “put in some culture” so that the place could be improved. Perhaps it was shorthand for increasing opportunities, but it implied that this seaside town was devoid of any culture before the developers arrived.
I have learnt through working in estates that there is certainly a marked difference in the culture I encounter and the culture I bring from my middle class background. There are certainly times when I wish that people were more organised, used diaries, spoke more quietly and turned up on time. However, I find myself envious of a community where neighbours will sit out together chatting and watching their children playing, where residents band together to put on a summer picnic just for fun and where children grow up surrounded by their extended family. This is not an effort to idealise estate culture which also faces the reality of overcrowding, crime and violence, but the community I have begun to know is far from devoid of culture and life.
Gentrification seems often to be an almost subconscious process. I find it hard to believe anyone would set out to intentionally unsettle whole communities, but the drive to ‘improve’ large areas with the promise of better outcomes for all is hard for those in authority to resist. Even with the best intentions towards local residents, new properties inevitably will be higher in price than those they sought to improve on and when the only people who can afford them are richer ‘outsiders’ an area will begin to change. New businesses will come in to support the newer residents and over time the new culture will begin to dominate. This is also not straightforward for the long-term residents. As the area around my local estates has begun to gentrify, I’ve heard comments such as “I hate all this gentrification and rich people taking over, but I do like the new Waitrose opposite my house.” Improvements are not necessarily unwelcome, but the slow loss of voice and culture lead to an uneasy feeling.
Returning to my seaside-bound coach trip and our driver took us past the now infamous Grenfell Tower, which never fails to produce a gut-wrenching response however many times you see it. This tower had housed many of the friends and relations of my fellow coach passengers and the stories and pictures from that night continue to haunt many. Watching the TV the morning after the fire I was struck by the message that survivors were consistently saying. Loudly and through their grief, they expressed how unheard and ignored they had felt for many years at the hands of those in authority who should have been serving them. “Social cleansing”, “not being taken seriously”, “ignored”; these were all phrases that I heard daily but now they were being amplified across the country. This fire was one of those events that seemed to sum up a larger story, while the new local name for the council of ‘Klensington and Chelsea’ speaks volumes.
The issue that seemed to take the wider public by surprise, however, was that the building may have been made unsafe, through the infamous cladding, in order to appease richer residents who did not like the tower’s appearance. Within a couple of days of the fire emerged documents of residents’ highly organised campaigns to alert the authorities to their concerns about fire safety. It appears these concerns went unanswered despite repeated attempts. With residents of Grenfell Tower expressing how sidelined they felt in discussions with the council and Tenant Management Organisation, it seemed to reinforce again how power was concentrated in the hands of those in authority and out of reach of those whose lives were directly affected.
Towards a theology of gentrification
“Gentrification is at our doorstep, and I do not know what to do. I can love my neighbors with my entire heart and soul, but what does that mean when every month more are driven away by increasing rents? How is our gospel good news for anyone but the gentrifiers themselves? I’ve come to realise that people like myself—white do-gooders, to be more precise—have not been taught adequate theology for our times. My neighbors do not care if you have a robust urban missiology. They would like secure, affordable housing and good schools for their children. They have practical, tangible needs that are altogether forgotten in a capitalistic, consumeristic society where those with plenty ignore the realities of others who would never buy a latte at the new corner coffee shop.”
Working out a theological response to gentrification is a challenge. There are many different approaches to take which may help to build towards some sort of an answer, but there is much more thought and conversation needed.
Land and assets
One approach is to begin with land and housing, and explore how this has been viewed in the Bible.
If we go back to the Jewish Scriptures we see that at the heart of an understanding about land and housing lies the belief that everything belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters” (Psalm 24:1-2). All land belongs to God and principles for its use by human tenants were laid down in the Torah.
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land it was divided up between the tribes and then further divided between clans and families. This land represented an opportunity to create wealth and sustain a family. Everyone started with similar land resources and economically were comparably equal. Over time some clans would prosper and become wealthier, while others struggled with bad harvests or bad business sense. For those who struggled, this would lead to a reduction in wealth and the land would need to be sold to support family members. In turn, this would then reduce opportunities to create further wealth and would have a detrimental effect on multiple generations. To prevent this, in Leviticus 25 God lays out the rules for the practice of the Jubilee Year.
Every 50 years land was to be returned to the original clan, slaves were to be released and debts forgiven. Although there is no evidence that this practice was ever followed, these laws ensured,
“that constraints were built into the Mosaic law to put a sharp brake on the accumulation of property in a few hands. The Jubilee laws… were designed to prevent the development of a cycle of permanent deprivation. And behind this principle of periodic restoration of an equable distribution of wealth was the idea that the people were the tenants of Yahweh.”
This push towards an equal society where all have opportunities and no-one is left behind reflects the importance of all being valued as made in the image of God rather than on the basis of wealth and status. An equal community where all are protected and where everyone’s interests are served is at the heart of a biblical understanding of society.
Sadly, over time, the nations of Israel and Judah lost their way and became more divided into rich and poor. The prophet Isaiah cautioned the nation of Judah saying, “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isaiah 5:8). To be joining house to house and field to field meant accumulating wealth, not enacting the Jubilee Laws and thus depriving fellow Israelites of their living. Isaiah continues with a warning that the people will be overrun and defeated by surrounding nations as a punishment from God for their unjust behaviour.
While this might be difficult to apply to modern times and the mass redistribution of wealth can appear overly left-wing, perhaps part of the problem is that we have come to view housing, neighbourhoods and community space as a commercial asset rather than a human right. If we view a house as a commodity, then it will go to the highest bidder whose aim will be to maximise the money that can be generated from it. If the house is seen as a community asset that must be given to the one most in need as their human right, then different decisions would be made. Perhaps this distinction would be the first step in working out what the principles of the year of Jubilee may look like today. This would not necessarily stop redevelopments or gentrification but if people’s needs rather than financial gain were the driving forces behind these schemes, it is hard to imagine that they would not turn out quite differently.
At the heart of gentrification is the supplanting of one culture over another; for some this is a sign of improvement, a lift to those who have been stuck in poverty. For those on the receiving end, the destruction and alienation of the values and community they have held dear is a distressing situation. Looking down on another’s culture seems alien to the way of Christ when we consider that Jesus was incarnated within a particular culture, choosing not to despise it despite its lowly estate compared to heaven, and how he treated Gentiles with whom he came into contact. Perhaps a clearer view on how the culture of others should be viewed is through Paul’s experiences in Athens in Acts 17. Paul finds himself in this great metropolis, at the heart of philosophical thought and is given the opportunity to engage. While speaking with the Athenians at the Areopagus he does not condemn their idols, poets or way of life despite the writer recording that Paul was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Instead Paul engages with their culture and uses it as a way of explaining the message of Jesus. He begins to quote their poets, refers to their idols and tries to see the positives and potential connection points in their culture.
Affirming and finding ways of appropriately engaging with different cultures is essential for all to flourish. This is not to say challenge is a bad thing, all cultures have their blind spots and negative issues, but beginning with valuing others must surely be the starting point for a theology of gentrification. Within the process of redevelopment of an area, the difference this may make would be that developers would try and understand the local history, the people, what is important and through conversation, work out ways to bring about the changes needed rather than deciding plans from the outside.
A voice to the voiceless
In the wake of Grenfell Tower, anger among the residents was understandably high. When those in authority refused to speak or visit with the people affected emotions ran even higher. A few days after the fire the local bishop, the Rt Rev Graham Tomlin, accompanied several local residents to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister and support them as they tried to get their feelings across. While this was a one-off example of helping those who so often feel unheard, the principle of supporting the voiceless is a strong biblical one. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
It may be easier to see the voiceless when tragedies such as Grenfell happen and the wider situation is laid bare, but perhaps part of our theology of gentrification is to work out where the voiceless are in the midst of the redevelopments of our towns and cities and ensure that they are being heard. This takes more time, more listening and being prepared to hear different things than expected, before the challenge of then working out how to help people be heard and in what forums.
Shaping new places
My final potential approach to gentrification is perhaps counter to all of the others. For some the constant redevelopment and upgrading of a neighbourhood is an inevitable process that began with the earliest humans and has kept going ever since. Did the Georgians think the Victorians were reckless with their expansion of cities and streets of terraces? Did the Stuarts upset the Tudors with their different ways of doing things? Perhaps some of the towns and cities that we know and which people fight to save have the same founding stories as other modern redevelopments, that of unwelcome intruders? If gentrification is an inevitable force that cannot be stopped, then perhaps, instead, it should be seized as full of opportunities for mission.
If this approach is taken then the conversation moves to affecting the shape and culture of the place that is being developed, and ensuring it is done in a way that contributes to human flourishing and mission. Given that UK planning laws require developers to contribute to the infrastructure and community facilities of anything they develop, there is a lot of scope to engage and help them by offering a partnership in providing services. Getting access to a community building and then being part of developing a brand new neighbourhood can give a lot of opportunities for mission. This is part of the strategy employed by London Diocese across several large scale developments. These new buildings have led to new churches, organisations and projects which are a real blessing in new areas of housing.
While this approach can sometimes feel a little cavalier and jumping on the bandwagon of potential income streams and assets, there is a feeling that if the church does not shape new communities, who will? Developers may be expert at building houses, but do they know how communities function, what services may be needed to support the most vulnerable, or how to stick it out in a place for a very long time? These are all gifts that the church can bring.
Gentrification is complex, slow moving, often painful and easy to miss if you’re middle class. It is changing the make-up of our towns and cities and affecting the lives of millions who feel left behind and ignored. The church has struggled to respond to much of this, perhaps because we do not know how. I hope in this article to have highlighted some of the issues that gentrification brings up and perhaps provide some pointers towards areas for further theological thought. I hope that as churches engage more with this issue, we will see deeper engagement and commitment to our fast changing urban areas and the beautiful communities that live there.
Dorling, Danny. ‘All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster’, Times Higher Education, 20 February 2014, accessed 21 September 2017
 ‘Urban Pioneers Ride into Town’, Southwark Notes Blog, undated, accessed 21 September 2017
 'Grenfell Tower Fire', Grenfell Action Group Blog, June 14, 2017, accessed September 23, 2017
 Mayfield, DL 'Church Planting and the Gospel of Gentrification', Sojourners, July, 2017. Accessed 25 September 2017
 Anderson cited in Holman, Towards Equality (London: SPCK, 1997), 7