Olympic Redevelopment in London: Displacement or Empowerment?

Posted by Matthew Brian Hersh on August 9, 2012

The Olympics are filled with fascinating storylines that illustrate an athlete's life-long goal of competing at the games—often overcoming adversity in the process.

But there's always another story quietly taking place just feet (or is it meters?) away—the effect of the games on the neighborhoods in which they take place.

That story is more often than not a tragic one. Although the wave of development in the years leading up to a host city's Olympic games is often accompanied by promises of community benefit long after the torch is extinguished, the reality is often more like Barcelona, where housing prices increased 250 percent in the eight years leading up to the 1992 summer games.

Olympic redevelopment “can be a train wreck for folks living in the immediate area who get priced out of their housing as prices inflate,” writes Greg Rosenberg on Rooflines.

Add in the recently adopted U.K. government definition of "affordable housing" as 80 percent of market value—with no reference whatsoever to income—and the picture just gets worse for East London residents, who are going to get shoved out just as good things finally start happening to their neighborhood.

And yet this type of scenario may yet be averted.

A community-wide effort to make sure that the Olympics cash the check they wrote when lobbying for support from East London’s residents is underway. This campaign could result in Olympic Village being transformed into housing, including 800 permanently affordable units under the stewardship of the East London Community Land Trust (ELCLT).

The permanently affordable part is key to ensuring that the benefits of redevelopment are available to existing residents, not just newcomers.

ELCLT has momentum. Just two weeks before the London games started, the ELCLT acquired a 4.5-acre site once home to East London's St. Clements hospital. The acquisition capped an eight-year campaign shepherded by the London CITIZENS coalition to turn those derelict buildings into 200 permanently affordable homes.
When the ink was dry, London Mayor Boris Johnson lauded the effort for putting residents "in the driving seat and empower[ing] them to take stewardship of what will be a fantastic new neighbourhood."

This story—activists working to stave off the threat of gentrification and displacement in the low-income East London neighborhood around London’s Olympic Stadium—has been conspicuously absent in the two-week media onslaught that is the coverage of the 30th Olympiad.

That’s too bad. This type of victory would be gold for London and it would be in line with those Olympics-type storylines, only more permanent.

About the author more »

Matthew Brian Hersh proudly served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics. He displays many of the trappings of a New Jersey sports fan: dispirited Mets fan, former Nets fan before they left the state, and normally satisfied Giants fan. Hersh lives in Highland Park, NJ with his wife and two children.

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