On being a gentrifier

About two months ago, I convened a meeting of an urban book club at my apartment in Logan Square. The book in question was a scathing indictment of gentrification as a colonial project whose thesis we took turns more or less affirming. Every person in the room was white. Every person had graduated from a relatively prestigious four-year college. And every person was currently living in a neighborhood at some stage of gentrification.

What to call the tension between our conversation and our lives? Hypocrisy? Delusion? Something much worse?

Mine is a cohort – the youngish, college-educated, left-leaning set – that places a great deal of moral significance on geography. (Probably everyone does; I can only speak to our particular code.) Most of us believe in a moral imperative to reject the suburbs: to disavow environmentally-destructive sprawl, ethnic homogeneity, cultural sterility. In the city, well-to-do neighborhoods aren’t much better: you become a hoarder of privilege, sharing a home with the oppressive classes. And if you move to a poor or working-class neighborhood with your college degree, earning potential, and cultural power, the rents that rise in a ripple outward from you and your friends are just as damning.

As a result, we tend to carry a lot of guilt about our living arrangements. We have a lot of conversations about whether or not it’s acceptable to live in our current neighborhood, or the one we’d like to live in. Sometimes we reassure ourselves by discussing the obviously graver transgressions of the people who live in some other neighborhood. Sometimes we find solace in some part of the continuum of gentrification that we’re comfortable with: the very beginning, when you can kid yourself that your presence isn’t changing anything; or when the tipping point has tipped, and the damage has already been done.

And sometimes we pass around articles like this one, entitled “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier in Oakland.” To be clear, I think most of the suggestions in the article are good ones, and without that title, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. But then they would be “20 Ways To Be a Considerate Neighbor,” or “20 Ways To Be a Decent Person.” It’s the title’s promise – learn how NOT to be a gentrifier! – that I think is misguided and dangerous.

That’s because – as the moral geography two paragraphs up indicates – there’s no way out of being a gentrifier, if you happen to have the social or economic capital that causes gentrification. Regardless of whether you say hi to people on the street or forge cross-cultural social ties, your presence in a non-white, non-affluent community will, in fact, make it easier for other liberal arts graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you, and not the previously existing residents; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses; and, if your city restricts housing supply (it does) and doesn’t have rent control (it probably doesn’t), to ultimately create an economically segregated neighborhood of the privileged.

Similarly, living in a neighborhood where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income means you are helping sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area exclusive. You can’t escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape white privilege, because those are both systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the relevant classes, there is no division between “gentrifiers” and “non-gentrifiers.” You don’t get to opt out.

It’s still worth it, of course, to follow all the advice about respecting the people around you and all that. My point, though, is that you can’t stop there. Being considerate in your day-to-day interactions is a good start, but if you spend a lot of time fretting about your contributions to gentrification, I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of the underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.

In the case of gentrification, I think that means moving beyond the narrow issue of displacement – which I suspect dominates the conversation partly because it fits the narratives of personal guilt we find so fascinating – and to the more fundamental problem of economic segregation. That is, the fact that people get priced out of homes they already live in is only half the problem: the other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that folks can’t move to neighborhoods they’d like to move to, and are stuck in neighborhoods with worse schools, more crime, and less access to jobs and amenities. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it’s no less of a disaster.

What to do about all this, obviously, is up for debate, although I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve 1) some kind of protections for people about to be evicted because of rising rents, 2) subsidies for the very low-income, and 3) an end to exclusionary caps on housing construction that keep prices artificially high. But I think it’s necessary to shift the debate away from how to achieve personal salvation for the sin of being a gentrifier – both on the part of ourselves or our peers, and on the part of developers and landlords who act according to the rules and incentives of the current system – to how we ought to change those rules and incentives. In other words, Mark Fishman is not why Logan Square is gentrifying. Neither are you, at least not in the ways you might think. But you can do something about it.

5 thoughts on “On being a gentrifier

  1. Oh, God, that POS article? When I first saw it, I thought it just made a few really bad points, like the prostitute-shaming in point 3, or the backhanded suggestion in point 4 that it’s the gentrifiers and not the old-time NIMBYs who feel entitled to park illegally.

    But I’m beyond that now. The article is bigoted. It’s not obvious to people whose idea of civil rights comes from either feminism or black American civil rights, for a bunch of reasons, e.g. sexism and American racism are both deeply intertwined with class. Forms of oppression that aren’t like this can make Americans go haywire. For a hypothetical example, I submit that if a hundred American social justice activists read up about Belgium’s language issues, in which there’s no clear privileged side, they’ll come up with very different conclusions. For a non-hypothetical one, Amy Chua’s World on Fire is an extended defense of a specific kind of racism practiced by national majorities against richer (“market-dominant”) minorities; the reaction I remember seeing from the American center-left at the time was “interesting analysis of the problems of globalization” and not “did she just justify anti-Chinese discrimination as the alternative to race riots?”.

    Going back to the article, the issue is that within a city’s housing debate, the long-term residents are the privileged party whatever social class they are and the newcomers are the oppressed party. I do not have the power to deny housing to anyone – restrictive zoning never relies on the gentrifier vote (as if I even have the right to vote). But the long-term residents have the power to deny housing to me. That’s why I don’t live in the neighborhood adjacent to UBC but in the next one over, which I can afford on a postdoc salary. But the NIMBYs here oppose the Broadway subway because more students would come live here. People of all classes do it, although of course it’s harder to crack when it’s rich people (think rich suburbs). I can’t show up to a zoning meeting and argue otherwise – the NIMBYs, aided by articles like this, are primed to discount anything I say because I’m here temporarily. It doesn’t matter that I follow point 10 more closely than any car owner who shops at suburban discount retailers; I haven’t lived here for enough years, so I’m definitionally to be ignored. And this assumes I even know where to find information on when and where the zoning meetings are, which I don’t.

    1. I think it’s a really important point that longtime residents have *some form* of privilege over newcomers, although I think it’s much, much more important to think about their privilege over *potential* residents. That said, I don’t buy at all that newcomers/potential residents have to be the “oppressed” class on balance. The race to attract “creative class” residents means that local government officials often pursue policies designed to benefit well-off newcomers to the detriment of their own present constituents, and in a gentrification scenario newcomers with purchasing power absolutely have the power to raise rents and price out older residents. It doesn’t matter that you can’t vote; landlords motivated by profit will adjust to attract you anyway.

      1. Newcomers with purchasing power have the power to raise demand, not rents. Rising rents come from a combination of rising demand and strict limits on new construction, which the anti-gentrification activists fully support on the spurious grounds that more construction means more displacement.

        In New York, community boards make developers go through hell for anything other than (limited) as-of-right development: if the developer doesn’t think there’s demand for this much parking, they’ll extort community benefits to grant the developer the right to build housing and not parking. In Los Angeles, a recent FOIA request revealed some of the in-kind benefits the established residents got in order to allow new construction in some neighborhoods.

        Going back to the article, look again who it’s addressed to. It is not addressed to the elected official or the power broker, demanding services to existing residents rather than pointless chases after Richard Florida’s approval. It is addressed to people who chose to move to Oakland for whatever reason – perhaps they were priced out of San Francisco, perhaps they work in Oakland, perhaps they’re a couple with one partner working in San Francisco and another in the East Bay.

      2. In a regulatory context in which supply is constrained – ie, every city in the USA – the power to raise demand drastically is the same thing as the power to raise rent. It’s also the case, of course, that in most contexts, the newcomers are just as anti-development as the older residents, and they often have the power to keep supply constrained, or make it even more so.

        Where anti-gentrification activists also work to constrain supply, they are shooting themselves in the foot, I’m with you there.

  2. I generally agree with your conclusion, but as you would with the Oakland piece, I’d change your headline. As you said, you don’t get to opt in or out of being a gentrifier, but I see a slightly different reason for that: gentrification is not an individual act.

    While Americans still have a deeply puritanical streak, the forces at work and the outcomes that follow are the product of collective action. One *cannot* be a gentrifier or a non-gentrifier because such a thing does not exist. All you’ve done (and me too in my own city!) is seek out and find the most attractive housing situation for your particular interests that fits within your budget. There’s really no reason to feel individualized guilt over that.

    As for the collective issues, among the many at hand, and perhaps the simplest (not the easiest) to change is the one you describe as “exclusionary caps on housing construction.” I’m semi-optimistic that this will change, and while it should happen in the toniest neighborhoods first, even if it happens in the gentrifying ones, at least that will mean less displacement of the existing residents.

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