Beware the “Pop-Up”

How a temporary development in south London tells us all we need to know about how the housing crisis will develop as the decade rolls on

An article which appeared on The Guardian website (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/14/london-uk-housing-crisis-lewisham-pop-up-homes-ladywell-development) about a new “pop-up” development in Ladywell, south London, presented the idea that pre-fabricated homes resembling shipping containers could be the answer to the housing crisis and provide homes for the homeless. Excusing the fact that we have been here before with pre-fabs and they turned out to be a disaster then, there is nothing to suggest that this new plan, which is kind-of like making people live in the Boxpark shopping malls in Shoreditch and Croydon, or the artist studios in Hackney, will do anything to aid the housing crisis in London. If anything, this development is merely a placeholder while the council waits for Ladywell to become a more fashionable place to live among richer people. This post will explain why I feel this way about the new Ladywell flats, what I think the true motivations of this development are and why we should be wary of anything which is attempting to jump on the now very weather-beaten “pop-up” bandwagon.

The term “pop-up” has become deeply commercialised, cheapened and removed from its original use, and is now used by businesses to make themselves seem more identifiable, more current, more cool. Building a pop-up has now so jumped the shark if it hasn’t already been a task on The Apprentice it’s surely only a matter of time. The aforementioned pop-ups of the Boxparks are less shops that you can actually go to and purchase things from, and more living adverts for whichever brand is currently renting out one of the crates on offer. Anything which promotes itself as being a “pop-up” is now to be highly scrutinised and it wise to be deeply suspicious of the true motivations of whomever owns what is being “popped-up” upon. Where there may be good surface intentions, beneath them corporate interests undoubtedly lie. This refers to pop-up shops, pop-up galleries, pop-up museums (this is definitely to be covered in a future post) and, in this case, pop-up housing itself.

The first, and easiest myth to debunk about the Ladywell development is that it has anything to do with providing housing for the homeless. It doesn’t. Not “living on the street” homeless, anyway. I know all too well that sleeping rough is the tip of homelessness iceberg and insecure housing is the huge problem in the UK which more and more people are falling in to the trap of, and this is only set to increase as jobs become more precarious and keeping up with the rent becomes harder to manage. More of this in a future post also, no doubt. However, the way the Guardian makes the development sound it’s as though this is aimed at people living on the streets when it’s nothing of the sort. Monthly rent is just over £1,000. No-one sleeping rough or in a temporary accommodation bed and breakfast (http://elliotsnook.com/blog/index.php/2017/01/22/my-holiday-at-the-shit-end-of-londons-housing-crisis-by-elliot-snook-aged-30-14/) is getting a place here. Just over £1,000 a month. Not bad for the area, but still ridiculous and doing nothing to solve the housing crisis as the disingenuous headline suggests. For rent to be affordable for families in London, especially with the new and draconian benefits cap, it needs to be a lot lower than this.

There’s also the fact that this development is tiny compared to what London actually needs. It holds 96 residents in 24 individual flats. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the waiting list for housing in London boroughs. We need to be building housing for thousands and thousands every year, not temporary accommodation for 96 people and slapping ourselves on the back and saying, “Job done!”

Which leads on to the main issue, which the article completely ignores. These buildings only have a lifespan of five years, after which the council is unsure what they will do with the land. With each temporary flat (24 of them) costing over £150,000 build, I would suggest that the plan is not to rebuild these twice a decade. Instead, I predict that the council is banking on the land value of Ladywell increasing drastically over the course of the next five years, not least helped by the presence of these lovely and easily-removable tenants in their socially-aware housing making the area a more desirable and fashionable place to live. Then, when the time is right, the land can be cleared of these container flats and replaced by permanent dwellings, either rented for almost whatever the market rate is by then (Gawd hep us) or sold privately. To put it simply: This development has nothing to do with solving the housing crisis, and is instead an example of state-led gentrification, a phenomenon which is becoming all the more common as local authorities struggle for money and look to their greatest asset, their remaining land, and try to get as much as they can from it, both from increased rent and sales, and from higher rates of council tax.

This development is an example of the state acting with Local Authorities and Housing Associations to increase the value of and build upon and profit from every square inch of London. The main thing to learn from this saga is this: If you’re being told a house-builder is acting in the interest of easing the housing crisis and offering something for less than they could get for it, they’re biding their time until they can really cash in. The term “pop-up” has become a byword for “placeholder for gentrification”. The Boxparks in Shoreditch and Croydon are both there to fill space that will be ultimately taken by skyscrapers of flats out of the price range of current local residents (yes, even in already very well-to-do Shoreditch), and anything art-related in Hackney is being priced out and replaced by corporate blandness.

The housing crisis continues. As does this blog.