Gentrification – a response to International Business Times article

A few of my friends have posted a link to this article or talked about “how amazing Maboneng, Newtown or Braamfontein is”. While these areas are indeed trendy and great places to go for good coffee, they have come at a tremendous cost to the urban poor. In order to create these areas, the poor are mostly displaced to make room for “new-safer-trendy areas” in which the rich and middle class can live and play. This is called Gentrification. I would like to specifically address Gentrification and some of the comments made by inner-city property developer Mr Jonathan Liebmann through looking at this article.

Gentrification in my mind is reminiscent of the forced removals the apartheid government used to do. In Johannesburg, it has essentially meant the siding of government with a rich, economic-minority and has not been in the interests of the broader population. The partnership between government and developers to evict the poor so the rich can have trendy play areas is pernicious, ill-conceived and not sustainable. We need social housing programmes in the inner city to house the urban poor who have flocked here in search of a better life. It is now estimated that 60% of South Africans now live in urban areas. We need inner-city rejuvenation, but not the kind that is driven by these “wild-west” entrepreneurs who act primarily in the interests of larger bank balances for their investors. Rather we need rational, strategic -government and community driven development aimed at bettering the lives of the existing residents. The city MUST stop acting on the side of the rich, stop arbitrarily enforcing it’s bylaws against the poor and start acting within it’s mandate as part of a developmental state.

There are a number of points where I think Mr. Liebmann has completely missed it, I want to address three…

Firstly, can Mr Liebmann please show me the “huge, huge, huge oversupply” of accommodation he talks about – I have read that the inner city has a 99.7% occupancy. It took me over a year to find a flat to rent in the non-gentrified inner city of Johannesburg when I moved in. Mr Liebmann is welcome to come visit and I will show him around. He will see that due to exploitative rentals, multiple families occupy one flat. In my building, for example, which has 16 floors of 5 flats (80 flats), we have over to 700 adults residing – this is an average of 8.75 adults per flat (or an average of 4 families per flat. My building, while far from perfect, is one of the better managed in Hillbrow. The only way Mr. Liebmann can see there being an oversupply is because he does not see the poor as people. I have watched YouTube videos where he (and other Inner-City developers) talk about “few could walk in the inner city” before they came, and how “there are ‘only’ criminals on the streets”. Actually the number of people on the streets, where their new developments are currently housed, has mostly decreased, not increased. Due to the extreme demand for low cost housing, the so called “abandoned buildings are currently filled with people. Thats right Mr Liebmann et al – the poor are people. And while criminality is indeed high in these areas, to label all the residents as “criminals”, is ill informed, evil and based on prejudice – prejudice that belongs in another era, just like your and the City’s inner-city rejuvenation plans.

Secondly, Mr Liebmann says they provide affordable accommodation at R 1300 pm which caters to “the lowest income group”. Lets examine this claim: in order to afford a rental of R 1300 (which I am not sure is actually readily available anyway) a person needs to earn R 3900. The problem is half the households currently living in the inner city earn less than R3200 a month, which in effect means they have to share a flat in a building like mine. This means even this so called “affordable” accommodation (if available) is not affordable to over 50% of South Africans.

A third erroneous point where the author of the article is clearly confused is that he thinks he can just get private security to evict people and getting court orders to evict people is is something only the state needs to do… section 26 (3) of the Constitution explicitly prohibits any eviction without a court order. This thus applies to both the state and to private property owners. Mr Liebmann – you are not above the constitution!

I believe we need to find new methods of financing the inner city rejuvenation required. The city, not private investors, needs to lead this to ensure the vision for an inclusive city for all is achieved.