The Young Working Class Women Left Behind by Gentrification in UK Cities

/ July 29th 2020

Written by Natalie Gil, Company, Refinery29

In casual conversation, ‘gentrification’ has come to describe how an influx of oat milk and young suited professionals has sucked the ‘coolness’ or worse, ‘grit’ out of the UK’s biggest cities, like London, Manchester and Bristol. But this surface-level equation of gentrification with an area’s authenticity masks less media-friendly stories of inequality and class – because when poorer communities are ‘decanted’ from inner cities to the less fashionable fringes, to make way for the middle class, mostly white people enticed by the shiny new luxury flats and the minimalist cafes, it’s often young women and women of colour who suffer most.

There’s much debate about how to define gentrification, but at its heart it’s about “the politics of urban space: who the city is for, who is empowered [and] who is marginalised,” says Dr David Madden, associate professor of sociology at the London School of Economics who specialises in housing, public space and urban restructuring. A switch from social housing to market rate housing is “a pretty good indicator”, as is big developers acquiring property in an area that had previously been the domain of smaller or less commercial landlords, he says.

Dr Madden explains: “Gentrification is gendered because housing, power and urban space are gendered. Anything that makes housing more precarious is going to impact women in distinctive ways. Some of this is a result of women’s structural position in labour markets. In other cases, it is as a result of direct oppression women experience within household.” When social housing is hard or impossible to access, as it now is, women who face domestic violence or other dangerous housing conditions have fewer options for support and safety. The responsibility of parenthood – which still falls disproportionately on women – is also made even more difficult when you can barely afford to keep a roof over your head in the area you call home.

Nadine Makeida Davis, 27, is a single parent who lives and works in Hackney, the London borough in which she grew up and where her family moved to when they first emigrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 2950s. Of the £1,600 that she earns each month in her job as a data analyst apprentice, more than half (£920) goes towards the two-bedroom flat she rents from a housing association, while her working tax credit and child tax credit go straight towards childcare. Davis is struggling to get by in the borough she’s lived in her whole life, and where she’s built a home for her son.

“I feel bad that I can’t afford to do anything with my son at weekends,” Davis says, adding that while the pair love spending time in Hackney’s many (free) green spaces, she doesn’t want him to be disadvantaged compared to his mostly middle class, white peers at school. “I want to pay for him to do extra activities but because of how pricey it is around here, I have to take on a side hustle, which most people in London are having to do now. You can’t just afford to live off your job.” As such, Davis is currently sleeping in her living room and turning her bedroom into a sewing room to work on her side project. “I have to have extra money coming in so my son can have a life.” Most of Davis’ family have already been priced out of Hackney and dispersed to neighbouring borough Haringey and Romford in Havering, on the eastern outskirts of the capital.

While the impact may be felt most keenly in London, the ill effects of gentrification on housing stock extend way beyond the capital, and women all over the UK are being forced to carve out lives away from their home communities. Kirsty-Maria Turner, 33, a team coach from Bristol Energy, says she has been “100% priced out” of the city in which she was born – deemed one of the country’s top 10 most gentrified areas last year – and the only way she can afford to stay is by living in a “rundown” property with flatmates. “I can’t afford to move anywhere else and the thought of buying is literally a dream.” Having grown up working class – her dad worked long hours as a chef in industrial kitchens while her mum looked after the children – Turner continues to “live paycheque to paycheque”, which makes the rapid gentrification of Bristol – a trend that has maligned by other city natives through the campaign to ‘Make Bristol Shit Again’ – difficult to accept.

“There are new developments of housing everywhere, companies are rebuilding hospitals and old factories into extremely expensive apartments that are so small and so expensive. Fifteen years ago, a flat in Bristol would have cost about £60k. Now a one-bed with a tiny living space sets you back a minimum of £250k,” she says, aghast. “Most people I know are on around £18- to £22k – how are we supposed to save and buy a house in a place like Bristol? When new-build properties are so expensive, they’re beyond our reach.”

The cost of daily life in Bristol has also skyrocketed and is becoming prohibitive for young working class women. “Small things like the price of coffee or lunch are becoming more and more like London,” says Lauren Poole, 23, a junior graphic designer who was born in the city and continues to live and work there. “I’d expect to grab lunch for no less that £5 or £6 in London but not Bristol. If you don’t take lunch to work with you, all the food stalls and markets around the centre are very expensive.” She cites the invasion of “trendy bars, restaurants and socialising spots, or what I call ‘Instagrammable places’,” and the huge increase in the city’s student population during term time since 2007, as the key culprits.

It’s impossible to ignore racial inequality when discussing gentrification, and when largely white populations of small business owners migrate into inner cities, they often fail to engage communities of colour. Southwark’s “cultural destination” Peckham Levels was recently criticised for “failing BMA residents” by not doing enough to give back or appeal to the local community, and it’s an all too common tendency as gentrification takes hold. It was unignorable for Asma Shah, who grew up on Peckham council estate and has been living in east London’s Bethnal Green for two decades. After realising that working class women of colour weren’t reaping the benefits of gentrification in the rapidly changing East End, she founded You Make It in 2011, a charity that aims to improve employment opportunities among young women of colour by encouraging new businesses to “become open to our kinds of women”, Shah says. Ninety-six percent of You Make It’s applicants are black or Asian, which reflects the fact that BAME women are proportionally more likely to be unemployed than other ethnic and gender groups.

“There are so many opportunities here in the East End around employment, and a growing cultural and creative economy, but the kinds of women we work with don’t feel part of those changes. They don’t know how to begin to access them because they lack the networks and confidence to,” says Shah. She believes it’s “ridiculous” that most people who work for the myriad new businesses that have sprung up within the last decade “seem to be white and very well spoken. Why haven’t businesses tried to hire diversely and engage with the local community in their job creation?”

Shah continues: “Gentrification is a really odd things, it’s this thing where house prices are driven up and wealthy people from other areas flock to places like Hackney because it’s cool, but then those new people, those business owners, those gatekeepers to other opportunities, seem reluctant to integrate with those already here.”

Davis, in Hackney, also recalls feeling some social tension at the school gates because of how her borough’s population has changed. She has felt judged by middle class, mostly white parents because of how she believes they perceived er class and ethnic identity. “I was studying when my son first started school [and] parents didn’t speak to me, because I’m one of the youngest mums,” she recalls. It was only when she started working full time – thanks to help from You Make It – that other working mums started to warm to her. “I think they assumed I was just a single mum on benefits.”

Aside from more money from taxation for local services and a greater interest (among middle class parents) in how state schools perform, are there any benefits of gentrification for young working class women? “If you define gentrification as reorienting the city towards more powerful and elitist groups, then there are no social benefits to it,” Dr Madden believes. “It helps particular groups who profit from it, but by definition its benefits are monopolised by a privileged few.”

However, despite her aforementioned financial struggles and some hostile looks, Davis has come to believe that her opportunities are arising from gentrification are hers for the taking, even as a working class women of colour. “You have to learn how to use gentrification to your advantage,” she says, citing her gratitude towards the middle class parents – former teachers themselves – who helped her out when she had concerns about how her son was faring at school. “It’s important for people who have class privilege, as well as white privilege, to help out people that don’t have that,” she adds. “When people from different areas and classes mix, so much can come from it.”

The businesses and cultural venues that Shah has worked with in east London “do seem to want to reach out to our community of women, but have said that until coming across You Make It, they’ve not really known how to engage with them.” The work she’s doing to encourage majority white small businesses to recruit from – and engage with – local communities, and the effort shown by young women like Davis, is evidence that the benefits of gentrification can trickle down, but the onus shouldn’t be on the working class populations themselves to make it happen.

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