Cities Need Slums?

I’m not sure I accept the need for actual “slums”, but I definitely agree with the general proposal that cities need to “age in place”, both the people and the buildings. Gentrification has it’s place, but only when nothing else will go there.

In twenty years time, will we look back on the mass revitalization of whole swathes of our inner cities in the same way as we do now, when considering how roads were “driven” into cities. Widened until they couldn’t be made bigger, and then new roads, motorways and expressways added, almost always at the expense of those less able to defend their neighborhood, their homes.

With gentrification comes displacement. As property prices rise, at least here in the US, property taxes rise. If you’ve lived in a home for 40+ years, it’s now quite possible that a couple of years of annual property tax exceeds the original purchase price of your home. In the interim, you’ve just done maintenance on your home, no major improvement, it’s value plateaued 15-20 years after construction, and went down in relative terms as new homes, apartments, condos and “luxury appartments” went up around them.

Eventually they homes become almost too expensive for their existing residents, often on reduced pension incomes. For the buyers, a developer, will buy to demolish, build a larger home, or pack more units onto a single property. It’s been going on for ever, it’s not new.

I wrote about the impact of rising property taxes in 2014, in Austin TX. The problem though is everywhere, London, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco, even in New York where they have an element of rent protection; and my small town here in Colorado. While oldtown Louisville is currently stagnant due to the COVID-19 pandemic, house prices in the historic district, and more generally continue to rise.

I’d never witnessed it, or been exposed to it until I moved to Austin, where I was part of the problem. I bought a new/spec home. That house was one of four built on a series of small lot’s that had previously had a “bunk house” that slept seven , and two small 1200ft shotgun homes.

Robert Elms has long banged on about the consequences of gentrification in London, Bob and I are similar ages, I didn’t grow up on the borders on London as Bob did, but both our families were historically from west London. Many of my fathers family still live in outer west London, while my parents moved out to the ‘shires to social housing built specifically to house and expand housing available as London was rebuilt after the second world war bombing.

We experienced the same London in our teens and early twenties, just in a different way. Many of the clubs I went to were gone or less popular by the time Bob was clubbing, his generation had the Blitz and the whole new romantic era, I like Bob’s brother moved New York around that time. People are still “gob smacked” when I tell them that when I joined IBM in 1987 on the South Bank, in London. The parking lot was a dug-out, unfished crater. Really.

Bob talks about why he thinks cities need slums, and also offers some opinions on what should be done to make cities more affordable and more attractive. It’s a great listen.

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