The Pandemic Disproved Urban Progressives’ Theory About Gentrification

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From California to the Northeast, a funny thing has happened recently in America’s most expensive metropolitan areas: Rents have gone down. Ever since remote workers began fleeing urban cores at the start of the coronavirus pandemic—whether to the Hamptons or their parents’ basements—urban housing markets have been flooded with empty apartments. As a result, the prices that rental units command in certain large cities have dropped dramatically, to the tune of 18 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Seattle, and nearly 25 percent in San Francisco, according to a November survey by the firm Apartment List.

The cause of the drop should hardly be surprising. The pandemic has radically decreased demand for big-city living while also increasing the quantity of available apartments. Yet this basic fact, plain for all to see, flies in the face of much received wisdom about the factors that cause urban housing prices to go up or down. Among some leftists and liberals alike, as well as the politicians who court them, the idea that developers of pricey apartments and condo buildings are to blame for high housing prices has long been an article of faith. In this telling, new luxury housing is the reason that former working- and middle-class neighborhoods in their cities have become fancy enclaves. (“You know exactly what a gentrification building looks like,” read a recent viral tweet.) Fighting the construction of such housing would not only reverse the trend of unaffordability, but from the perspective of politicians and activists would also demonstrate support for working-class residents in the process. Since the spring, the pandemic has prompted a steady flow of stories about how urban life will change forever. But COVID-19’s most lasting impact on cities might be in helping put to rest this most persistent of myths about the relationship between housing supply, the cost of living, and that four-letter word of urban politics: gentrification. Not only is it a simplistic analysis that absolves nearly anyone who isn’t a developer of responsibility for the problem, but in portraying new housing as the proximate cause of gentrification, it exacerbates the very housing crisis it seeks to solve.

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Choose any major city in America with a high cost of living, and you’ll find that the suspicion of new housing is pervasive in local politics. On a sunny day in early September 2020, for example, Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, stood at a lectern in a park in Upper Manhattan and launched his campaign for mayor. As an elected official of 27 years, he has telegraphed his desire to hold the city’s highest post for some time. But Stringer’s speech was notable for the way in which he positioned his campaign: not as the safe mainstream choice, as one might assume for a politician with his credentials, but as a revolution of the people against the powerful. Nowhere was this framing clearer than in his description of how he would change the trajectory of real-estate development in the city. A Stringer administration, he said, would mean “no more giving away the store to developers” and “an end to the gentrification-industrial complex.”

The New York mayoral race will be one of 2021’s most prominent elections, which makes Stringer’s campaign an interesting case study of some key trends happening within the progressive movement in cities. For one, it is evidence that politicians in deep-blue urban areas sense an unmet demand for the sort of unabashedly left-wing politics whose revival at the federal level began with Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly strong primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. More importantly, however, it shows that left-wing candidates in local elections believe that they must take a strong stand against gentrification as a way of demonstrating their progressive bona fides. Stringer is not alone in this regard. One of his opponents, the Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, made headlines last January for suggesting that gentrifiers should “go back to Iowa,” while another candidate, City Councilor Carlos Menchaca, decried “the wealthy developers who rezone our neighborhoods” in his campaign’s launch video. In Boston, which will also hold a mayoral election this year, City Councilor Michelle Wu has sought to distinguish herself on the question of housing growth as well. As chair of the city council’s planning committee, Wu has called for more community oversight of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal and for the elimination of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, both of which she has characterized as out of touch and overly permissive in granting exemptions from the city’s zoning laws under the current mayor, Marty Walsh.

Gentrification is a notoriously slippery term, and the popular appeal of any attempt to address it depends largely on how one defines it. By focusing on supposedly unrestrained growth as its root cause, new progressive campaigns have revived a decades-old political coalition of renters, homeowners, and other interest groups whose origins lie in a different era of these cities’ histories. This unusually broad and largely inadvertent partnership was influential in bringing an end to the era of urban renewal, and it has the potential to be a potent force in urban politics for years to come. Yet this anti-growth partnership presumes that the interests of the landed and the landless are aligned—that a policy of more tightly regulated development can both generate wealth for those who own property and redistribute it to those who don’t. In the 21st century, when halting the rise of rents and property values in many large cities has taken a global pandemic, the logic that undergirds this movement deserves a critical look.

Skepticism about growth has been a powerful force in urban politics for more than half a century. Around 1960, groups across several American cities began questioning the political economy that seemed to produce constant development and redevelopment projects, which the sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch memorably characterized as a “growth machine.” Then, as today, the slow-growthers and no-growthers were an idiosyncratic bunch. Conservationists, worried about the effect of metropolitan expansion on scenic rural areas, organized for new laws protecting “open space” and establishing environmental-review procedures for major development projects. Architectural preservationists, who preferred ornate older buildings to modernist designs and saw their work as integral to keeping urban living appealing, worked to designate some of American cities’ first historic districts. Homeowner groups mobilized against highways, commercial establishments, multi-family apartment buildings, and other nuisances that they perceived as threats to their property values and “neighborhood character.” And left-wing organizations constituting what the activist Harry Boyte later called the “backyard revolution”—a movement that emphasized small-scale community organizing and other place-based advocacy as a means of effecting social justice—participated as well, calling for processes that would allow vulnerable groups, such as tenants, to veto new projects they did not feel were in their best interest.

Observers of what came to be known as a growth revolt noted the way that its participants seemed to defy traditional partisan alignments and, through local development, battles were helping to create, inadvertently or otherwise, a new national growth policy. “Clearly the new mood is not based on any particular political ideology,” wrote Fred P. Bosselman, a prominent land-use attorney, in the journal Planning in 1973. “At a local zoning hearing you might find on one side an elderly dowager who’s voted straight Republican since McKinley and her granddaughter from a commune where they live on nuts and berries. Both are seeking to stop new development.” The unusual politics of growth arose out of a particular set of circumstances that existed in cities at the time. The immediate postwar years were an era of tremendous physical and social instability in major urban areas. In older cities in the northern half of the U.S., some entire communities seemed to be packing up and leaving for the suburbs or the Sun Belt, where new neighborhoods sprang up virtually overnight. Thanks in part to generous federal initiatives, pro-growth state and local politicians in expanding and shrinking cities alike competed for tax dollars by building major infrastructure and redevelopment projects. Neighborhoods of color frequently bore the brunt of these schemes, prompting James Baldwin’s famous observation that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”

Whether in stagnant northern cities or in the booming Sun Belt, a wide array of groups thus had ample reason to oppose urban development. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, through the implementation of height limits, density restrictions, design review boards, mandatory community input, and other veto points in the development process, they achieved more victories than many of the initial participants thought possible. The broad-based nature of the anti-growth coalition was key to its success. Nature enthusiasts, architectural historians, homeowners, and rock-ribbed socialists all found it advantageous to portray developers as a shadowy, parasitic force in metropolitan politics. Politicians, for their part, were more than willing to position themselves as defenders of this broad array of neighborhood groups and their values. But the composition of the coalition also limited the scope of its activism. In particular, the centrality of homeowners within the anti-growth alliance meant that maintaining the stability of property values would always guide the direction of the movement overall. In the 1960s and ’70s, when renting in cities was relatively affordable and owning a house was often not especially profitable, this dynamic posed no obvious problem. Environmentalists believed that they could seek to save their conservation areas, preservationists their historic districts, leftists their tenant protections, and homeowners their exclusive neighborhoods, all apparently without harming one another’s interests.

These now-half-century-old arguments have had remarkable staying power well into a different era of urban history, one in which gentrification, rather than renewal, is the hot-button issue. Despite this shift, many still insist that neighborhood change remains inextricably linked to development. As Stringer’s reference to a “gentrification-industrial complex” indicates, critics have come to portray high-end shopping and glassy condos not as lagging indicators of local demographic change but as the causes thereof. The battle lines are drawn in the form of fights over discrete construction projects. Every politician wants to be seen as the second coming of Jane Jacobs, taking to the streets to block the bulldozers and save the soul of the neighborhood.

But if gentrification is defined as a demographic transition toward wealthier, whiter residents, this approach makes for a poor policy response. This is because the forces that drive this kind of neighborhood change do not come from the construction of specific apartment buildings or retail complexes, no matter how many granite countertops or artisanal coffee shops they might contain. Instead, they result from a degree of demand for inner-city living that would have shocked the slow-growthers of the 1960s—demand that, for the most part, has been channeled not into new condos but into homes built before the first wave of anti-development activism. When white-collar firms began to re-concentrate downtown in the 1980s and ’90s, their workers, soon priced out of elite neighborhoods, bought old homes in marginal areas and modified them to their liking. The people they displaced crowded into poorer quarters of the city, or moved to lower-end suburbs, or, often, left for more affordable parts of the country altogether.

This process still predominates in coastal cities today as competition for housing has continued to push outward from the urban core. Thirty or 40 years ago, a lawyer or financier in New York who could not afford a rowhouse on the Upper West Side might have instead bought a home in Park Slope, displacing a few tenants to Prospect Heights. A decade or two later, a new generation of white-collar workers priced out of Park Slope moved to Prospect Heights, and renters left for Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bushwick. Today, the Bushwick property market is hot, and someone working a minimum-wage job might look for housing in Queens, or New Jersey, or Houston. The telltale sign of a neighborhood in transition isn’t a yoga studio or a high-rise apartment building. It is an old rowhouse, meticulously renovated and painted in the avant-garde yet inoffensive shade that Amanda Kolson Hurley memorably called “flip-house gray.”

The homeowner-friendly slow-growth activism that marked American cities in the late twentieth century is thus best understood not as the predecessor of today’s anti-gentrification politics but as the progenitor of the gentrification crisis itself. In wealthy coastal cities today, one need not develop skyscrapers or shopping malls to be a speculator in urban property. With widespread housing scarcity, simply owning a modest home in Berkeley or Brooklyn will suffice. In the 21st century, the division between the haves and the have-nots is no longer a matter of which side of the bulldozer one finds oneself on. Instead, it is a question of whether one belongs to the class that pays higher and higher rents with each passing year—or to the class that extracts them.