OK, Gentrification is Lousy. Now What?

by Joshua Michtom

Gavin Mueller’s anti-gentrification screed at Jacobin, as Ester Bloom notes, raises as many (maybe more) questions than it answers. Principal among these, I think, is, “What is the solution?” It is certainly worthwhile (if not, at this point, terribly original) to detail and decry gentrification. But what then?

I am reminded of Schlichtman and Patch’s fascinating article from last year on attitudes about gentrification among urban studies scholars. The article purports to ask urbanists how their own housing choices affect their thinking on gentrification and gentrifiers, but in so doing, raises a more important point: gentrification, and the vilification of gentrifiers as agents of displacement and homogenization, is a red herring. The problem is that there is no natural economic incentive to create economically diverse neighborhoods. As a result, individuals seeking to maximize their own wellbeing (seen, as always, through the lens of race and culture) tend to take actions that (inadvertently and otherwise) isolate the poor in undesirable areas and then, when those areas become desirable, exclude the poor from them. We cannot arrest this process by decrying “gentrifiers,” but by deploying the resources of government to counteract the economic incentives that tend to segregate us.

In recounting their own adult housing histories, urban studies academics Schlichtman and Patch define themselves as “gentrifiers” — they concede that one way or another, their choices contributed to the displacement of poorer people from once undesirable neighborhoods. Then they frame the dilemma that I find most compelling:

Our ‘reasonable’ or even ‘good’ decisions on the micro-level produced negative results on the macro-level due to our class positions. Our knowledge of the structure has not helped us to circumvent these outcomes. … If avoiding gentrification is the end goal, the middle class … is trapped. We all seem to agree with the broad brush strokes: everyone with too much education, too much cultural capital, is the enemy, the problem, the gentrifier; unless, that is, they choose to live in the suburbs — and then they are a different kind of enemy.

Here’s the trouble that they’ve identified: there is a spectrum of economic (and, frequently, ethnic) segregation on the neighborhood level. Both ends of the spectrum — concentrated poverty and ethnic ghettoization at one end, concentrated wealth and resulting ethnic and economic exclusion at the other end — are undesirable. But we don’t know how to get neighborhoods into the ideal equipoise. This is the dilemma that progressive urbanists have: on the one hand, we want more affluent people and more white people to forego the suburbs in favor of poorer and browner city neighborhoods — because integration is good. On the other hand, we don’t want those people, in eschewing the suburbs, to make their new neighborhoods inaccessible to the people who used to live there — because gentrification, which becomes de facto segregation, is bad.

What the authors mean when they say that good decisions on the micro level lead to bad outcomes on the macro level is this: what we call “gentrification” isn’t usually a tidy project, or one we can even identify at the beginning: at first, one or two somewhat more affluent families move into a down-at-the-heels area. In time, a few more follow. Because these new residents have healthcare and stability and leisure time and money, they frequently have more success than poor residents at improving schools and access to municipal services. As this happens, the same landlords who were renting more cheaply to people who couldn’t pay more begin to see the benefit of sprucing up their properties to charge higher rents to wealthier people, or selling to them and reaping a windfall. Now the neighborhood is “in transition.” There’s some halfway decent housing stock and some middle class folks, and that makes it an easier fit for other, less intrepid members of the middle class to move in. Soon, there’s a critical mass of middle class residents, and commercial landlords start to see benefits, choosing to build up spaces and rent to higher-end businesses that cater to the new, higher-end clientele. In time, the more modest businesses and the less affluent (frequently more ethnically diverse) residents are priced out.

Whom can we blame for this? I don’t think it’s fair to single out the first middle class arrivals, nor the folks who follow them and start to agitate for better schools and cleaner streets. After all, isn’t voluntary integration, both ethnic and economic, to be lauded? I doubt we would say that it is the duty of the middle class to leave poor areas as soon as possible, or, if they stay, to accept lousy conditions that they have the resources to change.

Nor can we blame the landlords. They are in business, after all, and businesses are supposed to maximize profits based on market conditions. I don’t know of many sectors of the economy in which we expect private actors to reduce their profits voluntarily in the service of an inchoate social benefit.

The problem, ultimately, is capitalism. It is a system designed to channel goods to the people willing and able to pay the most for them, including real estate. (Part of the reason we have the vast networks of suburbs and exurbs we have, after all, is because middle class people were willing to pay more for an acre of house and lawn than farmers could pay for an acre of soybeans or corn.) It stands to reason that when a decent-sized group of middle class people decides it likes a neighborhood, the poor people in that neighborhood won’t last.

This unhappy state of affairs is exacerbated by one of the fundamental facts of urban poverty: poor people seldom own their housing. This means that anti-gentrification activism by residents — who are almost all tenants — is unlikely to change the tide. (Compare this to the success with which owner-occupied white suburbs have historically resisted non-white incursions.)

In essence, capitalism doesn’t like an economically diverse neighborhood, because it fails to maximize profits. Arguments about the long-term benefits of cultural diversity and generalized increases in economic mobility mean little to the individual landlord choosing between renting an apartment to a Section 8 tenant for $600 a month or to a young professional for $1200 a month.

I’m not saying people with the resources to live in economically homogenous areas shouldn’t choose more diverse areas. They absolutely should choose such areas, because residential integration is, I think, the only way to overcome the big non-economic cause of inequality: the entrenched, subtle prejudice that springs from prolonged separation and lack of familiarity.

What I am saying is that voluntary efforts at integration are necessary but not sufficient. Throughout history — in more enlightened moments, anyway — we have recognized occasions when the aggregate effect of individual actions was collective detriment. It’s why we have anti-trust laws, car emissions standards, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. If we, as a society, really value socioeconomic integration (and the racial integration that likely goes with it), we must create economic and legal incentives for mixed-income neighborhoods: competitive subsidies that encourage landlords to make properties available to low-income tenants, both residential and commercial, even in neighborhoods where more moneyed would-be residents are available; and public housing that is physically integrated with private housing, not set apart in vast tracts or imposing towers.

To vilify gentrification is counterproductive. Gentrification creates, at least for a time, vibrant and diverse neighborhoods that are enjoyable for all their residents. Inveighing against gentrification, on the other hand, does little beyond creating a warm feeling in hearts that beat for justice. We would do better to advocate long and loud for laws and regulations that allow for gentrification’s benefits while arresting its depredations.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Illustration by the author.

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