Box bikes, austerity and urban balance

gentrification in progress cupcakes (flickr mssarakelly)

The Rotterdam city council recently announced to invest 4 million Euros in so-called ‘box bike neighbourhoods.’ Box bikes have become synonymous with family gentrifiers (or yupps: young urban professional parents), as they are seen on these bikes taking their children to school and extracurricular activities – they are apparently the ultimate urban transportation solution. In the last years, box bikes have become more common in cities, especially in neighbourhoods that show other telltales of gentrification.

Through investing in ‘box bike neighbourhoods’ the city council hopes to attract 10 per cent more ‘privileged young families’ in the next four years. In addition to urban regeneration, the introduction of the Rotterdam Law in 2005, and do-it-yourself homes, this plan aims to spur the gentrification of urban neighbourhoods and the city more generally.

Unbalanced

One buzzword in justifying state-led gentrification is ‘unbalance’. The city’s population is unbalanced, because underprivileged residents are overrepresented. Urban governments are unhappy about this for at least two reasons: 1) costs (welfare, housing), and 2) it makes cities and neighbourhoods unattractive to affluent households. Unattractive neighbourhoods, so it goes, make it impossible to become a successful city.

Of course, ‘unbalance’ is related to overrepresentation of underprivileged people only. I have never heard a policy maker express his or her concern about the overrepresentation of affluent residents in neighbourhoods. Certainly there are no attempts to make affluent areas more mixed and ‘balanced’.

Anyway, in recent years, we have seen that higher-educated and affluent households choose to stay in or move to cities more often. But Rotterdam is still lagging behind and taunted, so the council claims, by ‘selective migration’: while most newcomers have a low income, many affluent residents leave. By investing in neighbourhoods that have the potential to gentrify, it is hoped that selective migration can be turned around.

Austerity

In nine Chosen Neighbourhoods close to the city centre, housing, amenities and public space are tuned to the wishes of privileged families: larger dwellings, excellent schools and child-friendly public spaces. As if underprivileged families would not need or desire excellent schools and safe playgrounds.

A recent report on the living conditions of children in the Netherlands concluded that children in Rotterdam are worst off. One of the Chosen Neighbourhoods ranks 15th on a list of child-unfriendly neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. 18 per cent of the Rotterdam children grow up in a family that lives on benefits. A cruel fact is that the city council earlier announced to cut 10 million on support for poor residents.

Affordable housing

The investment in gentrification thus seems to compete with support for poor residents. An ‘unbalanced’ population would justify this policy choice. Critical questions on state-led gentrification are quickly settled with the argument that Rotterdam and Amsterdam are not London and New York. A large share of housing is owned by housing corporations, which would guarantee affordable housing and prevent a quick development towards total gentrification.

Is this a valid argument? Housing corporations are selling off parts of their housing stock or offering them in the private rental market. At the same time they are raising rents for current and new tenants – which is (also) a consequence of a new tax scheme that should have been paid by landlords but (who would have guessed) is passed on to renters. Rents are sometimes raised by 20 per cent when a new tenant moves in. The share of social rental housing is declining. The Dutch Association for Housing (Woonbond) and the Association of Housing Corporations (Aedes) recently expressed their concerns about the affordability of housing and asked to limit the rent increases (and to abolish the tax for landlords).

This raises the question: how secure is our affordable housing market, really?

What is a good balance?

Rotterdam still has a large share of affordable housing to offer – social housing as well as cheap owner-occupied housing. But the question is: for how long? And if the affordable stock is shrinking, how is it protected against developments towards total gentrification? If the city population is unbalanced now, what is a good balance, and when would the government decide to stop investing in ‘box bike neighbourhoods’ and other measures that ban low-income residents in favour of affluent households?

But maybe urban governments are not aiming for ‘balance’. Perhaps they do wish to attract as many affluent households to the city – and thus demonstrate how ‘successful’ they are, regardless whether the city is still affordable to all. But I’m trying to not be cynical here. If urban governments claim to want to solve unbalance, let’s talk about what a good balance looks like.

Photo by MsSaraKelly on Flickr

This is modified version of an article in Dutch that appeared in the online journal Vers Beton, read here.

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