The problem

From Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ’s series on gentrification:

James Rudyk says affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant or that certain people or businesses should stay out.

But…by definition, it kind of does, doesn’t it? If housing values don’t “remain stagnant,” then they’re growing. Another way of saying that housing values are growing is that housing is getting more expensive. In a neighborhood (Belmont Cragin, in this case) with home prices already above the city average – in a city where something like half of all residents are paying more than 30% of their income for a place to live – that suggests that every increase in housing prices is going to stretch the budget of some people who live in the area, and put the community beyond the reach of other city residents who might like to move there for better schools, safer streets, etc.

In other words, affordability will suffer.

This is the fundamental problem with using housing as our country’s main vehicle for wealth accumulation: as soon as you buy a home, you have an enormous incentive to see its value grow. But that interest, of course, is directly opposed to the interests of any people who might want to buy, who want – in many cases, need – housing prices to stay flat or even decrease in order to find a place to live. In a place where the vast majority of homes are not subsidized for the low- or moderate-income – and Chicago will be that kind of place for the foreseeable future – that means that strong returns to housing are directly opposed to affordability.

It also means that statements like this are really hard to take from theory to reality:

“If residents on Diversey and Laramie really do want a Starbucks, then let’s put in a Starbucks. If they really do want a Trader Joes, then let’s put in a Trader Joes. If they’re really fine with the fruit market, let’s leave the fruit market. So the question is, who makes that decision?,” he said.

Rudyk hopes it’s the people who live here, and not outside investors. He says that may determine whether Belmont Cragin redevelops or gentrifies.

This imagines that there are two groups of people: Belmont Cragin residents, and “outside investors.” But that’s not really true.

A very common refrain in gentrification debates is that “the community should decide,” or that changes should “benefit the community.” But as Michael Kendricks points out, “the community” is always made up of many different people, with many different interests. Virtually any decision that’s made about a new housing development, or store, or transit project, will benefit some members of the community at the expense of others. That is politics, and anyone who has been to a neighborhood meeting about anything, large or small, has seen firsthand that neighborhoods are not above, or below, politics.

It’s tempting, in this as in any situation, to try to find a way that everyone – or everyone you consider a “good guy” – can win. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot more conflict here among the “good guys”* – conflict that isn’t about misunderstandings, but about real and immediate self-interest – than we’re willing to admit.

* I say “good guys” because I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about a middle class family in Belmont Cragin wanting home prices to increase in their neighborhood so they can have some financial security for retirement. The point, though, is that the consequences of that totally benign goal – multiplied by hundreds of thousands of homeowners – are anything but benign for people caught on the wrong side of affordability.

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