Lessons for London
By looking at the effect the Olympics has had on previous host cities and their housing markets, London can learn some valuable lessons. Chloë Stothart reports
When the starting pistol fires for the first time at this summer’s London Olympics the housing world will be racing to ensure the games’ legacy is more than just medals.
The London bid’s big claim was that it would regenerate one of the capital’s less prosperous boroughs. Many of the previous five Olympic cities also used the games as a catalyst for development with both good and bad results.
So what has the Olympic housing legacy been over the past 20 years? And are the combined lessons from Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Bejing, important for Londoners today? Read on to find out.
Barcelona is often held up as a model of how to use the Olympics to regenerate a city - but its approach still attracted its share of criticism.
‘Barcelona was quite successful in terms of urban re-zoning and development but the model of Barcelona has been questioned in terms of social housing development for the less well-off,’ says Professor Gavin Poynter at the University of East London’s social sciences department.
A 2007 report by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, a Geneva-based, non-governmental organisation, found 624 families, some of Roma origin living in shanty towns, were relocated to make way for games infrastructure or related projects. The city agreed rehousing or compensation with the residents.
The report, Fair play for housing rights, says the main Olympic village in Poblenou was turned into 1,841 homes which were sold on the open market. The other Olympic villages in Barcelona included some low-cost housing. A third of the 205 houses at Parc de Mar were sold to low-to-moderate income families chosen through a lottery by the council, used for social rent or managed by co-operatives to house their members. At Vall d’Hebron, 150 of the 488 houses were sold by the local council at ‘moderate prices’ to low-income families, and in Badalona 898 houses were sold by the developers at ‘moderate prices’ as part of their planning agreement. A total of 600 houses were built in another nearby town, Cerdanyola del Valles, which later became student accommodation.
Atlanta’s Olympic village became student accommodation but the games also had another more significant housing legacy: it triggered a controversial scheme to demolish three estates of public housing and replace it with a mixed-income development.
The goal of the scheme was to reduce the concentration of poor people in the city centre. A study by Professor Harvey K Newman at Georgia State University’s department of public management and policy, says just 545 of the 1,115 households who lived in the two largest estates demolished were given public housing or vouchers towards private rents by their public landlord the Atlanta Housing Authority. More than half the residents ‘moved or were evicted without any assistance or the ability to track their locations’.
Another criticism of the development was the drop in public housing from 1,845 units before the games to just under half the 1,442 units in the new schemes. Few original residents moved into the new homes and most ended up living much further away from jobs and transport on the outskirts of central Atlanta. But those who did move back felt the benefits. ‘If you were fortunate enough to move back you had an extraordinarily nice place to live,’ Professor Newman says. ‘The woman who was head of the tenants’ association both before and after [the games] felt there was great advantages in bulldozing the old East Lake Meadows [estate] and replacing it.’
Sydney’s Olympic facilities were mostly built at Homebush, a government-owned site which housed an abattoir and a munitions store, therefore a previously polluted area was cleaned up and no homes were demolished. But the 2007 COHRE report does recount allegations that poor people living in boarding houses and rented homes were evicted to make way for tourists visiting the games, although it acknowledges that some of these evictions might have happened anyway on the back of the city’s existing property boom.
The city did, however, introduce a protocol praised by COHRE to prevent homeless people being unnecessarily moved on by police while the games were being held.
The Olympic village homes were sold on the open market. Professor Poynter says the Olympic village took a few years to get established as a suburb but there was a ‘conscious effort’ to integrate it into the city.
The COHRE report suggests the Olympics led to a huge increase in house prices and rents but a paper by property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, Reaching beyond the gold, found that larger, more mature housing markets, like Sydney and Atlanta, which already had high levels of investment in housing development and intrastructure, tended to experience less Olympic-driven house price inflation while places like Barcelona saw larger rises from the games.
The Athens Olympic village became 3,000 subsidised homes after the games. Families could buy the properties for around half their market value from the Workers’ Housing Organisation, which enables working people to make contributions to the organisation in order to receive subsidised housing loans and rents. According to COHRE’s report, 17,800 applications were made for the homes, which were mostly allocated via a lottery. The report says by April 2007 there were virtually no shops, infrequent buses and that the local authority refused to collect rubbish or maintain the green spaces in the village. Newspaper reports published a year ago say there were ongoing problems with amenities.
Several other schemes used to house journalists during the games became accommodation for students on low incomes at local universities.
The main losers in housing terms from the Athens event were about 2,700 people, mostly Roma, who were either evicted from their settlements to make way for Olympic facilities or saw plans to build new homes for them abandoned as public funds were channelled towards Olympic projects, according to the COHRE report. However the report adds that Athens did not experience major house price or rent inflation as a result of the games.
The Beijing games involved the construction of a massive amount of infrastructure including 62 roads and upgrades to the airport, light railway and the underground. The COHRE study estimates that around 500,000 households in Beijing had their homes demolished between 2000 and 2008. Some of the homes were dangerous or did not have proper planning permission, resulting in families moving to better quality homes.
The report also estimates around 20 per cent of the people who had to relocate went from having a low income to a precarious one after the move, and some people who were renting or were migrant workers were not entitled to compensation while others did not receive enough to be able to afford similar, basic properties within a reasonable distance of jobs and essential services.
Some of those who refused to move alleged that thugs, said to be hired by the demolition firm, tried to intimidate them into leaving, the report says. The report also mentions difficulties for evictees bringing their cases to court and that two people had committed suicide in protest at their evictions. The Chinese government criticised the COHRE study and said 6,037 people had been displaced since 2002 for the construction of Olympic
stadiums. ‘During the process, the citizens have had their compensation properly settled. No single person was forced to move out of Beijing,’ news agency Reuters quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu as saying. The flats in the athlete’s village were sold as luxury apartments after the games.
Each of the previous five games have had some sort of negative impact on housing - often for the poorest people - but also brought some housing benefits. London’s bid, made in 2005, promised affordable housing although it was vague on the details.
The current plan is for just under half the 2,818-home athlete’s village to become affordable housing: 354 homes to be rented at around 80 per cent of market rates, 350 for shared ownership and 675 homes for social rent, mostly for people in work or pre-employment programmes. The remaining 1,439, owned by property firms Qatari Diar and Delancey, will mostly be rented at open market rates.
In total up to 8,000 homes will be built in the Olympic park by 2030, according to the London Legacy Development Corporation. In the time between the bid and the games, not only has the economy slumped but the government has brought in caps on housing benefit and introduced intermediate rents at up to 80 per cent of the market rate. Social policy researcher Penny Bernstock at the University of East London, suspects housing associations might be reluctant to buy more units in the park because the rents would not be fully covered by the capped level of housing benefit, so low-income households will be priced out of the scheme.
In addition, more money may have to be invested both in managing the high-density housing in order keep it desirable and in subsidising housing associations to let the homes at social rents, says Ms Bernstock. ‘What is the point of spending £9 billion and getting a lot of buy-to-let and a very transient community? If you want a mixed community you have to invest.’
Ms Bernstock’s colleague Professor Poynter fears that pressure to recoup money invested in the Olympics through sales plus benefit caps might prevent the Olympics giving a big boost to social housing. He says: ‘London’s aspirations for legacy were much greater than any of the [previous] host cities but all these conditions are ones that perhaps inhibit that being achieved.’