Rebuilding a community without bringing down the house: an alternative to demolishing ‘sink estates’

In January, the prime minister outlined plans for a £140m development programme in England that he said would improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people living in social housing estates with high levels of deprivation.

“A new Advisory Panel will help galvanise our efforts and their first job will be to build a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development, and work with up to 100,000 residents to put together regeneration plans. For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

The proposal received a mixed response. Some commentators observed that demolishing the worst “sink estates” built during the 1960s and 1970s would free up much-needed land for new homes. Elsewhere, the head of the ResPublica think tank welcomed the chance to replace ugly estates with more attractive environments

Others criticised David Cameron’s idea as a form of “social cleansing”, claiming it raised the spectres of privatisation and gentrification. And Councillor Richard Lewis, executive member for regeneration, transport and planning on Leeds City Council challenged the prime minister’s view that the problem of ‘sink estates’ could be resolved by demolition.

“Through careful management of our housing funds and rental income we have managed to make significant investment in council housing. “I simply don’t recognise the language of ‘sink’ estates when it comes to Leeds and I don’t think we should write off entire areas and the people that live in them.”

After the storm, a dramatic turnaround

A recent New York Times report echoed the view that renovation of deteriorating housing estates can be more effective than demolition. The article reported on a 1970s housing estate on Long Island that had gone into decline after years of neglect. Crime, drugs and vermin were just some of the problems associated with the crumbling properties of the estate. Things got a great deal worse when Hurricane Sandy stormed into the estate in 2012, flooding many of the apartments and cutting off power and fresh water supplies.

The obvious next step would have been demolition. But instead of being torn down, the estate has undergone a remarkable transformation that astonished the newspaper’s reporter:

“The place is almost unrecognisable. Apartments are occupied once again. Hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems are refurbished; lobbies opened up with big windows; a floodwall installed; the landscaping upgraded, with a broad promenade to the beach; and leaky facades clad with new, waterproof, energy-efficient panels. Energy bills have dropped 30 percent.”

The turnaround is thanks to a partnership between developers, government and the local community. The new owners renovated the estate at a cost of $60m, but avoided having to raise the rents of longstanding tenants through subsidies from the federal government. The improvements raised property values, enabling the developers to rent out vacant apartments at market rates.

Lessons from Long Island

As in London, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in New York City. And – also as in London – subsidised public housing has largely given way to private developments for the super-rich. The New York Times reporter described the changes in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, and other parts of New York that were once home to low- and moderate-income residents:

“Now the Village is like a gated playground for runaway wealth. Subsidised apartments all across town are converting to market-rate rentals and condos faster than City Hall can build affordable units or preserve old ones. The city Housing Authority is broke. Its ageing properties face $17 billion in capital repairs.”

Some key factors played a part in the transformation of the Long Island estate:

  • Private development was made possible through tax incentives and other publicly financed programmes
  • The developers consulted a sceptical local community, earning its trust and building consensus
  • On-site management teams maintained oversight of the renovation project
  • Design features to save energy, improve the neighbourhood and enhance quality of life were built into the renovation process

Final thoughts

The $60m price tag for renovating a single estate in New York City suggests that the £140m earmarked for regenerating England’s 100 worst “sink estates” won’t be nearly enough, and may even have been downgraded. A month after the prime minister’s announcement, it emerged that the money set aside for the project will only be available in loan form to private sector developers.

And a warning of how badly off course the prime minister’s plan could go came from The Independent, which highlighted London’s Heygate Estate:

“Formerly one of the largest social housing projects in Europe it was home to thousands, a large number of whom disagreed with its nefarious depiction as problematic sink estate. Widely praised for its green spaces and innovative architectural design, many argued in favour of its refurbishment, but it was nevertheless ‘decanted’ and finally demolished last year to make way for largely private apartments.”

Perhaps addressing the needs of declining housing estates requires a more constructive approach than bringing in the wrecking ball.


Further reading from our blog on housing and regeneration

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals
Empty homes…Britain’s wasted resource
Improving the built environment: how to tackle vacant and derelict buildings

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