After the Oliver Twist poorhouse became luxury housing with a segregated playground, London bans segregated play-areas

The world is full of corrupt oligarchs looking to smuggle their money out of their countries and put it somewhere where the rule of law that they have helped to dismantle at home still reigns; a favourite safe asset class is luxury housing in major cities, which is viewed as easy to sell on short notice due to the large supply of other money-laundering oligarchs.

Cities don't need more luxury housing, though (not least because a sizable fraction of it is never occupied and sits empty, a safe deposit box in the sky): they want affordable housing. But since neoliberal orthodoxy has made it nearly impossible to imagine that cities might publicly fund their housing, cities are left begging commercial developers to build "below-market rent" housing (that is, housing that is intended to be lived in) rather than hyper-profitable luxury housing.

A favoured tool for accomplishing this is to offer developers exemptions to urban planning restrictions in exchange for designating a few of the units they build as "subsidised" or "low income" housing. For example, if a plot of land is designated for buildings that are no taller than 20 stories, a developer might be given permission to build to 25 or 30 stories, provided a couple of those additional floors are below-market-rent housing.

But part of the appeal of luxury housing for oligarchs is segregation from poor people. The foundational belief of right-wing thought is that some people are intrinsically superior to others and that God tells you who the best people are (by giving them white skin, or penises, or a lot of money). This presents a problem for the developers, who know that the luxury appeal of their fancy apartment blocks will be reduced if there's the possibility that you might see a poor person in the lobby or the lift (not all poor people are objectionable, of course: a poor person who works for the property management company and doffs their cap or tips a curtsy is actually rather decorative and pleasant, but the poor people who think they're as good as you and aren't afraid to show it are an affront to the natural order of things).

To solve this problem, property developers design their buildings to performatively punish, degrade and humiliate the below-market-rent inhabitants, making them use separate, shabby lobbies around the back of the building, serving their floors with separate banks of uncared-for lifts, and more.

There's enormous imaginative effort put into the project of punishing poor people who want to rise above their station. Back in May, a luxury flat developer made headlines when they changed the plans for a block of flats being built on the site that inspired Dickens to write Oliver Twist, adding a wall that would block poor inhabitants' children from playing in the communal playground. The poor children could still see the playground, but their gardens would not open onto it any longer, and they would be confined to a narrow strip of grass around the back of the development.

This form of cruelty inspired my new novella Unauthorized Bread, in which IoT devices are added to the arsenal of humiliation and extraction tactics available to landlords who preside over poor doors and poor floors. As I wrote in Unauthorized Bread: "even the pettiest amenity would be spitefully denied to the subsidy apartments unless the landlord was forced by law to provide it," or as John Siman paraphrases, "Free markets is a euphemism for fuck you."

Apparently the business of segregated play areas was sufficiently mustache-twirlingly evil and cruel that it will not be allowed to continue. The Greater London Authority has banned the practice, forced Henley Homes to tear down the segregation wall and to throw a party "to apologise" to the residents.

The fight was led by the women of the Lilian Baylis estate, whose cause was taken up by Green assembly-members like Sian Berry.

Emma and her neighbours feel that the affordable homes were built to meet a target but then put in a separate building so they wouldn’t have to be given access to communal spaces.

She said: “We are the 20% affordable, aren’t we? They’ve just shoved us all in one block and given us nothing. It would be nice if there was somewhere to meet our neighbours, somewhere all the children could play together.”

To get permission to build, developers must provide a certain percentage of affordable homes. All the accommodation in the block that does not have playground access is classed as affordable. The first five floors are social housing and the rest shared ownership, with buyers paying reduced rent to Moat Homes.

Emma’s neighbour Rachael, who also brings her five-year-old and one-year-old out to play on their scooters among the cars, said the residents feel discriminated against and ask: “If that is their playground, then where is ours?”

Alan Camp Architects, who won an Evening Standard award for best large mixed tenure development for their involvement in the site, refused to comment. Councillor Sizwe James, cabinet member for growth and strategic development at Greenwich council said councils did not have enough power to force access.

London officials ban segregated play areas in future housing developments [Harriet Grant/The Guardian]

(Thanks, Mom!)