Gentrification remains a touchy subject in liberal politics. Real estate investment in low-income neighborhoods leads to a wave of young, educated, mostly white, probably liberal professionals moving in. Longtime residents and businesses face rising rents, leading many of them to pick up and move to a different neighborhood, where rents are still low. In a few years time, local mom-and-pop shops are replaced by Whole Foods and upscale cupcake bakeries and all the neighborhoods’ original residents have moved out.
Oftentimes, these young urban professionals (yuppies) harbor a cognitive dissonance: Even though they can see what they’re doing and feel uncomfortable doing it, they make the choice to move in regardless. This apparent hypocrisy motivated the Marxist magazine Jacobin to write a long essay denouncing the choices of liberal gentrifiers, who Gavin Mueller blames for aligning with the capitalists who made the original investment possible:
“What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics.
You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college.
Instead of maintaining the cognitive dissonance of believing in both free choice and the evils of gentrification as most on the American Left do, Mueller blames yuppies for their choices. Unfortunately, making yuppies feel bad isn’t going to stop gentrification. The incentives at play remain unchanged, and the process of gentrification will continue unabated. Radical intervention would call for a curtailment of individual freedom: rent ceilings, bans on relocation, holds on construction.
To most of us, none of those options are palatable. We can’t restrict freedom of movement, rent ceilings disincentivize investment, and holds on construction leaves neighborhoods in decay.
Generally speaking, investment is a good thing. Retail investment brings jobs, paying customers, and tax revenue to a neighborhood. Investments in housing increase the number of available units, reducing rent (other things being equal, which they aren’t). In fact, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, original residents of gentrifying neighborhoods fare better than residents of similar neighborhoods that did not receive investment.
But still, with rising rents, some people will be priced out. What’s the best way to make sure that economic growth is broad-based?
1) Increase housing stock: For rent growth to slow, a large stock of housing has to enter the market. This may seem counterintuitive, but more housing units meet demand and lower the price for new units. On the local level, this directive means fast-tracking certain construction projects.
2) Beef up affordable housing requirements: Many localities require new construction to have a minimum number of affordable units. Even luxury high-rise apartments in Van Ness are required to set aside at least 12.5 percent of their units for Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs). If we want to protect neighborhood character, then we should consider increasing the requirements for developers in gentrifying areas.
3) Hire locally: Many new businesses shut out an area’s longtime residents in hiring. Programs like DC’s One City One Hire that connect local businesses to the city’s job seekers help to ensure every person gains from local investment.
Undoubtedly, gentrification is a tough issue, but it’s worsened by the recent nature of growth of growth in the United States, where economic gains haven’t been widely shared among income levels for a long time.
Photo: Ian Sane via Flickr