Heygate estate

Location, location, location

Three years after graduating I decided I’d had enough of working life, and went back to university to study a masters in American History. Not the most useful qualification for a career in the voluntary sector you might well think, but sometimes the relevance is all too apparent.

One seminar came flooding back to me recently: the brilliant Lizabeth Cohen talking about the urban planner Edward J. Logue, who, in the late 60s and early 70s, spearheaded the redevelopment of Roosevelt Island, a neglected strip of land between Manhattan and Queens. The development was conceived as a fully integrated community, housing low, moderate and higher income residents; the coveted river views were not reserved for those who could pay the highest price, and all residents shared the same community facilities. To Cohen’s mind, Logue successfully created a thriving, mixed income community.

It was the Guardian’s recent piece on the long awaited regeneration of the Heygate Estate in Southwark that drew the connection. The proposed redevelopment is controversial because residents claim the compensation they’ve received is insufficient to be able to stay in the area. The proposed regeneration will contain fewer units of affordable housing, and critics argue that the affordable rents will be above previous council levels. Of course this concern that low income households are being driven out of central London by redevelopments of this kind is repeated all over the capital.

Developers have an obligation to include affordable housing within major developments. However, they often argue that the new units will generate more revenue as a luxury development, and negotiate with local authorities to swap their affordable housing allocation for a cash sum. This is exactly what happened in another Southwark location; developers gave the council £3.5m to avoid including social housing in the development.

I was more shocked by the rationale for including less affordable housing : according to a council report, the new development would need a separate entrance and lift for social tenants, or their presence in the development would ‘have significant implications on the values of the private residential properties.’ It’s the first time I’ve heard the argument made in such stark terms.

The housing crisis is no secret, and with the number of homeless families with children staying in B&Bs the highest it’s been for a decade, we urgently need to address the lack of affordable housing (we recently published a collection of essays looking at what philanthropists could achieve by supporting housing projects). But it’s not just about the number of affordable homes; the composition of communities has a profound impact on the individuals who live within it. We know from work like the Spirit Level that in societies where there is more interaction between people of different income levels, there are higher levels of trust, lower fear of crime and so on. Current practice shows a move in the opposite direction, segregating people of different income levels. We don’t currently have a solution which provides affordable homes for all, but we shouldn’t miss opportunities to integrate social housing into communities, rather than hiding it away in less desirable locations.

Today is Housing Day—a celebration of those who live and work in social housing—which asks landlords, tenants, suppliers and workers to share their ‘day in a life’ stories through a live tweetathon (#HousingDay). I know I’d like to hear more about it.