The Null Device


More despatches from the London property boom: The transformation of the London borough of Hackney from a byword for crime, squalor and perhaps an edgy bohemianism to high social status proceeds apace; the ultra-fashionable borough is now the most unaffordable place to rent in the UK, with the average Hackney resident's rent being 59.9% of their income. Meanwhile, the values of houses in Hackney have risen just under £100,000 in the past year, meaning that the average house in Hackney earns considerably more than the average resident.

The same publication, Dalstonist (a journal for the residents of the eponymous hip'n'happening playground of moneyed, well-connected twentysomethings) also has an editorial arguing that it makes no sense to blame the hipsters for rising rents, the main gist being that the typical “hipster” is a young web designer/barista/media worker/miscellaneous “creative” renting a sharehouse and on the cusp of being evicted to Walthamstow or Tottenham or somewhere to make room for finance professionals whose musical and sartorial tastes are more Patrick Bateman than Nathan Barley. Oh, and that there is no such thing as a hipster.

The people who get priced out are those who rent their homes on the private market – who have to shell out more than half their salaries just for somewhere to live. That might be people who’ve lived in Hackney for decades, like the residents of the New Era estate. Or it could be those who moved here more recently. The people who earn too much to qualify for social housing but not enough to buy a house. You know; graphic designers, jewellery makers, photographers, baristas. Hipsters, basically.
Of course, that is assuming without question that the typical “hipster” is renting, rather than having bought a flat just off London Fields with the help of their parents, or been given one for their 18th birthday. This is a somewhat questionable assumption, partly because the contemporary hipster lifestyle (itself gentrified from the days of math-rock nerds and fashion refuseniks dressed in cheaply acquired, ironically repurposed thrift-shop clothes) is not a cheap one to maintain; if one really is paying 60% of their rent to a landlord, how much does that leave for the vintage trainers, imported Japanese denim, meticulously crafted hairstyles and other sartorial items that are de rigeur to be seen in?

This malaise is not confined to the hipsterised East; everywhere across London, the city is being reorganised for (often absentee) investors over residents; a case in point is the demolition of the historic Earl's Court exhibition centre, and its replacement with expensive luxury apartments:

The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pub, music venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.
It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres.
One could perhaps blame Boris Johnson for that; or possibly the Tories' (and to a lesser extent, neo-Blairite Labour's) faith in trickle-down economics, to the extent that it's seen as an unquestionable credo that, if one serves those at the top (wealthy investors, property speculators, developers), overall prosperity will rise, and the little people will be served, as amply as they deserve, by the shower of crumbs from the high tables. The corollary to this is, of course, that anybody who questions it is really advocating a return to the Leninist five-year plan and the kolkhoz, the legacy of blood-stained failure and collective misery that bears the name “socialism”.

Also, new statistics reveal that people in their thirties are leaving London in droves, moving instead to regional cities where they can afford to do things other than pay a landlord for the privilege of having an address in a prestigious city; Birmingham seems to be the main recipient of disaffected ex-Londoners, followed by places like Manchester and Bristol. (Presumably Brighton counts as part of greater London.) There is still a net influx of twentysomethings; presumably, while one has youthful vigour, relatively few bulky physical possessions and no dependent family (or, indeed, not yet a long-term relationship), the benefits of living within staggering distance of the venues of a social life outweighs the costs of funnelling 60% of one's pay into a speculator's pocket for a shoebox-sized room. The attrition rate seems to be high, with few holding on into their 30s; presumably once they've got a partner, enough stuff to make sharehousing impractical, an aversion to working long hours and/or a tolerance to mephedrone, London no longer holds its charms, and they drop out, making room for more fresh meat, possibly of a more affluent nature. Meanwhile, the precincts associated with the young and with-it move further out (keep an eye on Newham/Waltham Forest/Barking being dubbed the “New Hackney” in media puff-pieces any day now), being pushed out by the centrifugal forces of hypergentrification. It may be that, in the fullness of time, they will be expelled beyond the M25, and London will, as prophesied by Alex Proud, become a city of rich old people, like Paris or Zurich. (But that can't happen, you say, because London is intrinsically, timelessly cool, before citing Britpop/Carnaby Street/Shoreditch or similar? Zurich, one must remember, was vibrant and edgy once; the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire (the establishment after which the Sheffield electro-industrial band named themselves) was there in 1919.)

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