Gentrification, human rights—these are broad terms for complicated ideas. To understand how these activists could claim that the manifestation of the former is a violation of the latter, it’s helpful to consider the history of both. The modern concept of human rights took shape in the years immediately after World War II, when world leaders came together to devise a doctrine that would serve as a legal and intellectual buttress against another Holocaust. In 1948, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document identifies several universal rights, including education, healthcare, and freedom from torture. Nowhere, though, does it say anything about gentrification.
Nor could it have. That term didn’t come into use until nearly two decades later, when Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, coined it to describe the growing phenomenon of young bohemians moving into a section of London that had fallen into neglect and disrepair. At the time, there was a theory that gentrification was a natural process that inevitably played out when artists and other adventurous types struck out for the urban frontier. Later in the decade, that perception changed, and this boundary-pushing came to be viewed as the result of some larger forces. As Neil Smith, the late influential geographer, put it in Gentrification of the City, a 1986 collection of essays, “It is apparent that where urban pioneers venture, the banks, real-estate companies, the state, or other collective economic actors have generally gone before.”
Smith’s work is an important touchstone for the members of Right to the City, who view gentrification as the result of a “systemic” effort to drive up profit margins for real-estate developers. Through rezonings, tax abatements for developers, and the privatization of public spaces, local governments and federal agencies often work to change low-income neighborhoods at the encouragement of developers, they argue.
It is the resulting displacement of people who can’t afford increased rents that, in the eyes of these activists, amounts to a human-rights violation. (Homeowners, at least economically, stand to gain from the changes, since their property values often rise as a result.) Drawing on Le droit à la ville, a 1968 work by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre whose title translates to “The Right to the City,” the organization argues that all people, including the disenfranchised, have the right to remain in their apartments and homes and shape the political and cultural landscapes of their communities. The UN Declaration of Human Rights already asserts that everyone has the right to be protected against “interference with his... home.” Lenina Nadal, the communications director for Right to the City, says the group hopes to build on this idea. "It is an ideal time to expand the idea that inhabitants not only have a right to their home, a decent, sustainable home," she said, "but also to the community they created in their city."