Notably successful municipal-level activists: preservationists; anti-development NIMBYs; “complete streets” urbanists.
Notably unsuccessful municipal-level activists: anti-gentrification people.
Inner cities around the country are blanketed in protected historic districts. Zoning codes have become progressively stricter since WWII, and now make most kinds of disruptive or intensifying development extremely difficult or impossible in most American neighborhoods. Mayors from Seattle to DC to Memphis are tripping over each other to build bike lanes.
But American cities are gentrifying faster than they have at any point since activists identified gentrification as an issue in the 70s and 80s.
I’m going to claim that this is largely because anti-gentrification activists, speaking broadly, have never formed a coherent theory of what gentrification is or why it happens, and therefore have no idea where in the process to apply pressure.
Let’s take, for example, this article from DNAInfo:
Depending on who you ask, Mark Fishman is either one of Logan Square’s greatest benefactors or the face of unwanted gentrification. Either way, the real estate mogul and owner of M. Fishman & Co. has come to own and manage a lot of Logan Square, and is aiming to own more.
[S]ome in the neighborhood say M. Fishman is getting a reputation for hiking rents, with some online commenters calling the recent solicitation letters “unsavory.”
Residents of 2536 N. Sawyer Ave., a 50-unit building recently acquired by M. Fishman & Co., have launched a Facebook page protesting what they call an unfair mass eviction.
Though it appears M. Fishman Co. has lawfully given residents proper notice that they must leave or pay more — 30 days for month-to-month renters, or 30 days before leases are up — occupants say the tactics are heartless at best.
“The scenario is painfully familiar: A developer eyes an opportunity, and in the drive to cash in causes trauma, homelessness, and illness,” reads the page’s “About” section.
This scenario is, in fact, a painfully familiar narrative about gentrification: a greedy developer comes in and raises rents, displacing old residents in the process. It has a corollary, which is the culturally insensitive young professional who is willing to pay that newly-raised rent and thereby displace old residents as a result of his or her insensitivity.
Both of these narratives – which absolutely dominate the left’s conversations about gentrification – explain the process by pointing to ethically questionable individuals and their individual decisions. That is how we come to have an article about gentrification in Logan Square that revolves entirely around a single storefront real estate business.
That might be plausible if gentrification happened in patchy, isolated neighborhoods in a few places where such malefactors happened to congregate. But clearly, that’s not the case.
First, look at those numbers – especially the middle column – and bask in the abject failure of the anti-gentrification movement. Second, consider that when between a quarter and half of all eligible neighborhoods are gentrifying in cities all over the country in the course of a single decade, we’re not talking about the actions of individuals. We’re talking about something systemic.
Specifically, we’re talking about capitalism. For all of our rhetorical confusion, housing is mostly treated as a commodity in this country. Its price is set by the market. For whatever reason – a cultural return to urban living, falling crime, the cycles of capital investment, etc. – people with money are increasingly moving to urban cores. In most places, the supply of housing has not changed radically. Therefore, rents have gone up.
Furthermore, at this point, living close to a major American downtown is probably the best way to gain access to amenities like jobs, restaurants, and, increasingly, good schools. There’s no obvious way to convince people who have the choice to turn that proposition down. There’s no obvious way to convince developers or landlords who can make boatloads of money off of this reality not to do so.
More importantly, this is how the system is supposed to work. People are supposed to move where they would like to live. People are supposed to make money where they see an opportunity. Within the framework of capitalism as we know it, there is no way to tell yuppies they can’t move to working-class neighborhoods, and outside of a very few cities, no way to dictate what prices landlords charge – and certainly not what prices homeowners can sell their homes for – any more than the government sets prices on bread or furniture. And yet this is where anti-gentrifiers have decided to make their stand: trying to guilt people into doing something which is clearly not in their interests, and which the government clearly has no ability to compel them to do. This is a recipe for exactly the kind of disastrous losses the anti-gentrification movement has been experiencing from the beginning.
Contrast this with the other local movements I listed above: preservationists and NIMBYs have a relatively straightforward goal, which is to prevent new development, a request which is absolutely within local governments’ powers of land use, dating back to the early 20th century. Urbanists’ demands that streets be reconfigured to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians are, again, well within the understood powers of local government.
Anti-gentrifiers, on the other hand, are fighting the fundamental laws of capitalism by attacking Mark Fishman.
But if we understand gentrification as a systemic process, rather than the result of decisions made by bad people, then it seems that we have two options for fighting it. Option One is to remove housing from the arena of capitalism by socializing the management of residential property. As a political program, it certainly has its problems, both on the merits and in its prospects for becoming law, but it’s a totally coherent approach to the problem. And there are activists who champion it, even if they’re pretty marginal at the moment.
Option Two is to mitigate the problem of displacement within capitalism. Before getting into that, let’s stipulate a few things: first, although it does happen, the biggest problem of “displacement” in gentrifying neighborhoods is not actually that people who already live in the area have to leave; studies have shown that low-income outmigration rates in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods are remarkably similar. The problem is that the type of person who would previously have moved into the neighborhood can no longer afford to do so, and so soon you get an economically segregated community with all of the horrible social and economic inequality that goes with that. What that means is that policies like targeted rent control – which help existing residents but do absolutely nothing for everybody else – aren’t particularly helpful.
Second, the government cannot prevent anyone from moving where they want to move. The government cannot prevent people from renovating their buildings with better kitchen appliances or new coats of paint and plaster to make them more attractive living spaces for white collar workers. What that means is that preventing new development – another favorite target of anti-gentrification activists – will accomplish absolutely nothing. If preventing new development were a way to combat gentrification, then historic districts from Lincoln Park in Chicago to the North End in Boston to half of San Francisco would be bastions of affordable housing. They are not.
In other words, if gentrifiers want to move to an area, they will move to an area. And if housing is bought and sold on the market – that is, if we have rejected socialization or decided we need an interim strategy – prices will rise accordingly. Subsidized housing programs within the current framework are absolutely dwarfed by the need for cheaper homes, particularly if we consider that in large parts of our most important cities those subsidies would have to go not just to the poor and the working class, but large parts of the middle class as well. Moreover, an enormous proportion of low-income housing is built – by design – in economically segregated low-income neighborhoods, which severely blunts its progressive effects.
All of this is why, despite the apparently icky optics of making common cause with the very same developers they currently demonize, one of the key non-socialization reforms anti-gentrifiers need to make is allowing supply to match demand and ease the upward pressure on prices. Like socialization, it is a systemic approach to a systemic problem, and therefore works on the scale needed to really make a difference. Subsidies are still important, of course – prices will never be low enough for some people – but increasing supply might allow them to fall to a point where the number of people who need subsidies is close to the government’s capacity to realistically provide them.
The evidence that housing supply restrictions cause higher prices – and more economic segregation – is very strong. And yet because this approach, allowing for increased supply, is so at odds with the primary leftist narratives about gentrification, it encounters pretty massive resistance from anti-gentrification activists. If up to this point we’ve blamed the entire process on developers, how can it be that the solution is to let them build more? The answer, of course, is that the initial theory is totally wrong.