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Image courtesy Ginte B, 2014

Where on earth do we live?

As Mayor Bill de Blasio promises space for creatives in New York, should London follow suit?

Last week, Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, delivered his state of the city address and announced plans to build 1,500 affordable live-work spaces for artists. While this is commendable, and more than is happening in London, is this really something we should emulate here, and demand from Boris?

The arts play a specific role in the form of the city: for New York, it meant 56.4 million tourists last year, as noted by de Blasio. And in London, there’s a long history of the role of artists and arts spaces in the gentrification of specific areas – the YBA boom and the resulting transformation of east London into an expensive hub of beards, cereal bars, Boxparks, and unliveable rents, and the ensuing development of south east London into an arts ‘destination’ as the east became too pricy for the artists that had made it attractive to the property developers and boutique brands.

This is not particularly a reason against spaces for the arts, as a longer timeline involving the privatisation of the public sector, such as the selling of council homes under Thatcher, as well as the deindustrialisation of the UK, which left a load of empty industrial space in east London, and a plethora of factors that come with the practicalities and ideologies of neoliberalism, are concomitant with gentrification also. And artists need a place to live – as does everyone.

The real problem with taking cues from the New York mayor and demanding a paltry amount of live-work spaces for artists is that we ignore greater issues and allow a couple of new builds to patch up and divert from huge struggles which have a larger impact on artists and society in general. Firstly in England, unlike the US, we have an Arts Council, and it is under attack. The Arts Council in the past meant that arts spaces could grow and become stable, but now there is a smaller pot that has resulted in many great projects being restricted to online, nomadic, or temporary existences.

What you lose without access to a regular space is a chance to build a local community. There have been some great projects to come out of this precarity – often the best are those that address this, such as the Kitson Road Living Project that created HAUS PARTY [towards a messy singularity] (unofficially known as the #fuckfrieze party) in 2013, as well as their continued use of home space for sociality, solidarity, some art, tattoos and a book – yet the stress of precarious living is undoubtedly beginning to outweigh the creativity that imposing such conditions can induce. Campaigns to protect our arts council and resist temptation to move towards a US model are needed – if access to arts funding is increasingly available only through commercial or private avenues, then this does and will homogenise the art that is made; one simple reason being that there are less sources of funding so less difference.

Secondly (and although I come from the arts, much more importantly), a claim for housing needs to be structural not superficial. On the 31st January, there was a march outside City Hall that demanded Boris Johnson deal with endemic problems such as lack of actually affordable housing and inflating rents through devices such as rent control, building more council homes and halting the proposed demolition of properties on approximately 70 London estates. Focus E15 Mothers have been campaigning against Newham council’s evictions since late 2013. There is currently an occupation on the Aylesbury Estate, the sister building to the Heygate Estate that was home to more than 3,000 people that were moved on (rather than given homes on the new development on the site, as the council had originally promised), costing Southwark council £44m. The council spent a further £21.5m planning the redevelopment of the Heygate, before it was sold to the Lend Lease Group for £50m. 

We need to ask which people "affordable" housing schemes really help, as these schemes are carried out by private companies, and make up a small percentage of the homes that are actually being built in these developments. When tenants of the Heygate estate were evicted, generations of families and communities were split up as people were forced to accept homes on the peripheries and even outside of London, or be left homeless. This was an act of social cleansing in a public-private partnership between Southwark council and the Lend Lease Group.

As Jasmine Stone, from Focus E15 Mothers, chanted when Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales lost his temper at campaigners, “Affordable housing is NOT affordable. Affordable housing is 80% of market rate.” The problem is this: we have lost social housing, and calling something "affordable" and calling for "affordable housing" to be built for artists skims over the most salient issues. Further, it is an ineffective plan as it doesn’t create enough homes, and you probably won’t be able to afford them anyway – if you can, you’ll likely be priced out as their "affordability" rises with the market value. 

We don’t need a few "affordable" live-work spaces akin to what was promised by de Blasio. We need rent controls, more tenants’ rights, more legally enforced responsibilities of care on landlords – they should be housing not exploiting people. We need to refuse the squatting laws of 2012 – there are more than 80,000 empty properties in London. And we need working social (not "affordable") housing to be built by councils, with money from government raised through fair taxation (no more non-dom tax exemption, perhaps?), rather than private companies in the pockets of councils building "chic-urban" developments at the cost of whole communities left with nowhere to go. 

What’s the best way of protecting artist residences? Protecting everyone’s residences. 

Rozsa Farkas is a south London-based curator behind Arcadia Missa gallery space. Kitson Road No.6 was produced with the generosity and energy of Marios Stamatis and Sarah Boulton. Published by Camberwell Press. Get it at the South London Gallery bookshop.