Gentrification: A taxonomy of grief

When Spike Lee’s anti-gentrification rant went viral a few weeks ago, I decided it was unlikely I would add anything productive to the debate, and so I made a conscious decision not to write anything about it.

The folks at In My Backyard DC felt differently:

Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience in D.C. suggest that restrictive land-use rules should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.

John McWhorter felt even more differently:

Basically, black people are getting paid more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives for their houses, and a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant. And this is a bad thing… why?…

[L]et’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers.

No two of these three descriptions of gentrification are totally compatible – even though IMBY DC claims Lee’s side, I’m more than a little skeptical he would agree that what Brooklyn needs is more development – and obviously McWhorter and Lee are almost totally opposed. And yet they all, at first blush, seem correct to me.

The problem is that gentrification is a many-headed thing, and Lee, IMBY, and McWhorter are all thinking primarily about different heads. We need a better vocabulary: a taxonomy.  I think it should go something like this:

1. Gentrification as intrusion. This seems to be what Lee is talking about, mostly: These neighborhoods are communities, in a thick, human-network sense, and as communities they belong to the people in the network. In many cases, those communities are especially valuable because the people who live there don’t necessarily feel safe – or at ease – elsewhere, for all sorts of very rational historical and contemporary reasons. So when people without roots in the neighborhood move in, they’re doing something akin to crashing an intimate party: both assuming obnoxiously that they’re welcome in a place they weren’t invited, and – maybe worse – breaking the kind of safe space environment that was so valuable to begin with.

2. Gentrification as homogenization/commercialization/hipsterfication/etc. Often a corollary to #1 is that in addition to being party crashers, gentrifiers are culturally obnoxious generally. They’re pretentious, or overly materialistic, or cliquish, or too similar to every other resident of a “hip” American neighborhood. This is also in Lee’s rant.

3. Gentrification as displacement. In addition to cultural problems, the arrival of the roving mass affluent class means people who are willing and able to pay housing prices that the previous residents couldn’t. And that means the previous residents will have to move. This is Lee’s second major argument, it seems.

4. Gentrification as exclusion. IMBY tries to agree with Lee on #3, but really they’re talking about something else. Lee’s argument, which is the more standard way of understanding the issue, is all about appropriate levels of demand – and, more specifically, who can appropriately demand to live in a neighborhood – while IMBY is much more concerned about appropriate levels of supply. This is actually a huge distinction, even though it seems academic: The first suggests that the solution to gentrification is to prevent gentrifiers from moving in – which is, in fact, exactly what Lee wants – while the second suggests that we ought to try to make enough room for everyone. The first imagines gentrification as a process in which one group of people displaces another; the second imagines gentrification as a process in which the government acts to exclude certain groups by artificially raising prices.

5. Gentrification as integration. McWhorter sneers at all of that and describes gentrification as a natural – and triumphant – process of desegregation at the end of a century of enforced segregation. If a community only came into existence because its residents were forced by physical and legal violence to live together – as, in fact, is the case with nearly every black neighborhood in the country – then it should begin to fall apart when that violence disappears. That’s not something to mourn; it’s something to celebrate – it’s a step closer to the world civil rights activists have been fighting for for literally hundreds of years.

Like I said, I’m compelled by parts of all of this. That said, they don’t all stand up equally well to scrutiny. In particular, numbers 2 and 3 seem off. I guess I’m too much of a cultural relativist to get much behind the idea that I should hate a group of people because I don’t like their style. Skepticism about the displacement argument sort of follows from that: if I don’t think we ought to be judging which law-abiding people are and are not desirable residents of a given neighborhood, then it’s pretty hard to endorse a solution that calls for doing exactly that.

Number 5 is a couple steps further in the right direction, but it’s also got a major flaw. It’s absolutely true that racial integration is something to celebrate, and the fact that racially homogeneous neighborhoods only exist as a result of violence isn’t appreciated enough in most conversations about gentrification. That said, the communities that are left after gentrification has run its course are hardly the kind of promised land that utopians and activists dreamed about. Basically they exchange racial integration for economic segregation. The door is still closed, in other words; we’ve just shuffled around who’s on the outside. And, of course, the outsiders are still disproportionately black and Latino.

Which leaves 1 and 4. Unfortunately, they’re not totally compatible, either. Which, I guess, is the point: a world in which people are free to choose what neighborhood they want to live in – which is a world far superior to the current one, in which they can’t – is a world in which it’s going to be really difficult for the kind of tight-knit communities Spike Lee has in mind to exist. Or rather, the communities will still exist; they’ll just have to share space with lots of other communities in the same neighborhood. That’s not a small thing: given that millions of people have spent most of their lives in segregated neighborhoods, and have reasonably come to feel that those neighborhoods are their homes, their disappearance is a huge blow to people who have done nothing to deserve it.

But just because a grievance is legitimate doesn’t mean it can be satisfied. The bottom line for me is this: not only there is no way to prevent a given group of people from moving to an area if they can afford to do so, but any attempt to put up those kinds of barriers is bound to be unconstitutional. And that’s as it should be. This country has a shameful history of urban violence and segregation, and many people have fought very hard for a long time to overcome that. Even if I recognize that moving towards integration is, in fact, a mixed blessing, I’m not comfortable with any vision of the future that includes actively blocking it. The overriding goal of housing policy ought to be to allow people to live where they want to live; the best way to do that is some combination of allowing supply to meet demand, along with some protections against displacement and subsidies to those who truly need them. What, exactly, would Spike Lee have us do instead?


8 thoughts on “Gentrification: A taxonomy of grief

  1. Does #5 inevitably lead to economic segregation? If most of the population are renters who are displaced by in-movers, then I could see that happening (and that’s unfortunately true). But if they were owners, then you get a mixed neighborhood of richer new people and previous residents who don’t want to sell out at higher prices, and that seems like a good thing to me.

    I think something ultimately has to be done about the fact that so many urban African-American communities are made up of renters with little to no equity in their homes and not much other than legal barriers to prevent them from being displaced as soon as it becomes profitable to do – especially since it’s an artifact of racist housing finance rules and policies. Something to turn most of that population into homeowners in their own communities, giving them some equity and narrowing the persistent wealth gap with white households.

    1. No, that’s a very good point. Integration only leads to economic segregation if 1) integration is caused by higher-income people moving in, and 2) the “exclusion” dynamic applies, ie, supply is limited. Otherwise, integration is just integration, and generally good, except insofar as you subscribe to the “gentrification as intrusion” argument.

      I’m not sure how much turning renters into homeowners is part of the solution – not that I’m against it, I just don’t know. I’m also not sure how you’d do it.

      1. I just don’t see any other way to square that particular circle, unless you get the ability to build lots of housing elsewhere in the city (thus relieving the pressures of gentrification in poor neighborhoods). As long as the bulk of the communities remain long-term renters, they’re always going to be at risk of displacement short of some really strict laws preventing it (and even then that doesn’t always work – see San Francisco).

        I’m also not sure how you’d do it.

        Probably some type of combination of eminent domain and buyouts of the landlords (since otherwise buyouts would quickly become impossible). You’d then restructure the lease agreements into mortgage agreements, and count the accumulated amount that the renters have paid over the years as payments towards that (meaning that if they’d paid more than the value of the now-home, they get some money back). Instead of people paying rental payments, they’d be paying payments towards mortgages.

        In the mean time, they’d now own the home with the rights that entails, and have potential equity if they wanted to turn around and sell out. Assuming they want to – if they’d prefer to remain renters, that would be available to them.

        . . . It’s not going to happen anytime soon, obviously. Or ever. Our society just doesn’t have that type of commitment for something like that, even if it would go miles towards rectifying the wealth gap between black and white households.

    2. I expect the ability of long-term ownership to create a mixed-income community would depend on the local property tax regime. Here in Texas we rely heavily on property taxes (no income tax), so combining all the taxing jurisdictions, the total ad valorem rate on a single parcel in Austin runs ~2.5%. With a rapid run up in valuation, that can present an incredible displacement pressure. Several East Austin neighborhoods have seen proper tax assessments go up by a factor of 5 or more in a decade.

      To be fair, that’s often from a low base, but in tracts with a MFI of $20-30k/yr, an extra $4k in property taxes is a huge hit.

      The flip side of this of course is that these are property owners, and their property is now worth more than they ever dreamed. If they owned any other asset that had experienced such a massive run up in value, I doubt any one would have sympathy for the associated tax bill.

  2. “So when people without roots in the neighborhood move in, they’re doing something akin to crashing an intimate party: both assuming obnoxiously that they’re welcome in a place they weren’t invited, and – maybe worse – breaking the kind of safe space environment that was so valuable to begin with.”

    That’s pretty much the way long-time, tightly knit white communities felt when blacks began moving into their neighborhoods in the 1960s. They didn’t like being invaded by outsiders either. We deride those who resisted integration as racists. Should we do the same to Spike Lee and others who think like him?

    1. Well, John McWhorter (who, for the record, is black) certainly thinks so. I wouldn’t be quite so strident, just because I think people really do have cause to be upset if their enclaves, which provide shelter from legitimate stressors in society at large, are punctured. I guess I think the difference between Spike Lee and defenders of all-white neighborhoods is that I find the stressors of being black in a predominantly white or mixed neighborhood more legitimately stressful than the stressors of being white in an integrated neighborhood. That said, like I wrote, I think taking a firm line about who does and does not get to live somewhere is, in the end, indefensible.

  3. Precisely. Gentrification is too complex to pin on one driver. It’s far too easy to select one reason from the gentrification buffet and pin it on a differing population, whether it is age (a prime driver), race, income or class. In Houston most of the city’s gentrification seems to be driven by the oil industry and accompanying services. Without oil, Houston’s cultural landscape would look much different than it currently does. So, “Gentrification as globalization” might be a more apt label for Houston.

    We’re seeing gentrification happen in Houston’s Inner-Loop neighborhoods as infill development occurs. And, as a city without a zoning ordinance, neighborhoods are changing at the blink of an eye.

  4. Hmm..mmm. I tend to agree with your original idea, which is that the less said about Spike’s comments…the better.

    Cities are not constant…they change. That’s the whole point of a city. The best example of this is Spike’s own movie, where a stuck-in-the-mud old Italian guy can’t accept that his neighborhood is not an Italian neighborhood any more. Spike now seems determined to be the old stuck-in-the-mud. He can’t accept that the neighborhood is changing. Spike is irrelevant. He’s a fogie. He’s a fake. Gentrification is just part of the same ebb and flow that make cities the adaptable, glorious things that they are. Get out of the way, Spike.

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