The Real Villain in the Gentrification Story

It’s not young, upwardly mobile college grads.

A man walking down a street in Brooklyn
Photo by Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto / Getty

One of the worst labels that can be applied to an upwardly mobile urban dweller is that of gentrifier. The word implies a lot—for one, that culpability in the broad phenomenon of neighborhood change can be assigned to individuals. But given that the insult is often slung back and forth among members of the same yuppie class living in the same formerly affordable neighborhoods, it sometimes serves less to suggest that one’s housing choices have led to displacement of minority or low-income residents, and more to insinuate that one is insufficiently progressive.

On Twitter recently, quips by a couple of large accounts about how San Francisco had been ruined by tech millionaires spiraled into a fight among people of various shades of political opinion, from “extremely left wing” all the way to “very liberal,” about the evils of gentrification. Inevitably, it devolved into a familiar argument over who really gets to speak for low-income people of color.

Scenes like this, whether they play out on social media or in the real world, are examples of a corrosive discursive pattern. They work to tear apart a group of people whose rising clout in urban politics has the potential to make cities more prosperous and equitable.

The real villains in the tale of gentrification are not 20-something new entrants to mixed-income neighborhoods, but NIMBY homeowners in the wealthiest ones. Yet acknowledgment of the pivotal role that they play is often missing. They fade into the background even as their interests are defended by nearly every institution and elected official. This group has steadfastly refused to allow new housing in their communities—not just low-income units but the type of “luxury apartments” marketed to the young and upwardly mobile.

Cities are fundamentally engines of economic growth. They are agglomerations of workers and industries that have discovered that they are more productive together than they are apart. Happily, governments can more easily provide public services to more densely populated communities. And, less tangible but no less important, something about different sorts of people living close together creates the potential for new ideas, subcultures, and ways of being.

Perversely, instead of planning for population growth in urban areas, many American state and local governments have done the opposite: They have worked to restrict and slow construction, believing that a thriving, economically successful city could remain stagnant. In this, they were incorrect.

Local governments have, in particular, chosen to respect the class interests of wealthy homeowners by giving them the power to reject the construction of new and more affordable types of housing, in effect allowing them to economically segregate their neighborhoods. When local officials have had to create some new construction somewhere, they have turned to communities lacking political clout. Affordable-housing production in Washington, D.C., provides a clear example. Whereas the wealthy neighborhoods of Rock Creek West are just 1 percent of the way toward their goals, less exclusive neighborhoods have seen their supply swell.

At risk of repeating myself, I want to emphasize the dynamics at work here, because understanding them is instrumental to understanding the phenomenon of gentrification. When wealthy homeowners oppose new development in their neighborhoods—and when elected officials let them get their way—fewer homes are built overall, contributing to America’s undersupply crisis and raising prices for everyone. Their opposition also pushes what housing does get built into a handful of places where dissent is weaker. Even that housing is generally insufficient, however, so when young, upwardly mobile people move into these neighborhoods, they occupy not only the new high-rise developments, but also the dwindling stock of affordable housing, leaving lower- and middle-income people with few options. This phenomenon is why even high-income New Yorkers can find themselves fighting tooth and nail to rent inaccessible, unsafe, wildly expensive apartments.

In genuflecting to the class interests of wealthy homeowners, local officials have, then, set the stage for gentrification. Yes, in a narrow sense, gentrification happens when young, college-educated, and predominantly white people move to racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. But notice how insidious this framing is and whom it leaves out: the homeowners and city officials who made equitable growth impossible. This framing foments conflict among young newcomers and lower-income communities of color and turns a structural problem into an individual one. Though the former often are higher-income and higher-educated than the latter, neither comes close to matching the political power of older, long-standing homeowners.

In dividing these groups, gentrification discourse stands in the way of potential political alignment on a clear common interest: making a more affordable city. Such an alliance is not a pipe dream. As the historian Suleiman Osman notes in his book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, high-income tenants allied themselves with lower-income ones to provide political “muscle unmatched in other cities.” During the late ’60s and ’70s, Osman writes, “in a city long divided between renters and landlords, renters formed a class that unified Brownstone Brooklyn’s middle-class artists and professionals, white ethnics, and nonwhite poor.” Together, they formed tenant councils and lobbied for tenants’ rights. Osman notes that 85 percent of the Clark Street Tenant Council “were unmarried college students or college graduates working in professions. A cadre of young, white college-educated volunteers also organized the Park Slope Tenants Council.”

More recently, the power of the urban yuppie has been on display in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a stringent (and flawed) rent-control initiative recently passed; in Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu ran successfully on rent control; and in California, Oregon, and Connecticut, where YIMBY activists have pushed for housing-production legislation.

New housing is not a curse. Research regularly shows that new housing does not cause displacement, but helps reduce it. According to research by the economist Kate Pennington, for people living within 500 meters of a new project in San Francisco, monthly rents and displacement risk fell. Moreover, “landlords of rent controlled units within 100 meters” were more than 30 percent less likely to evict tenants after new housing was built.

But too much change too quickly creates the political blowback that makes planning for a growing city difficult, so ensuring that each neighborhood contributes to the production of more housing is paramount.

America has a long history of normalizing segregation. Some forms of segregation may appear innocuous, such as separating residential from business districts or keeping certain types of homes together (for example, this neighborhood for the large, single-family homes and this other one for public housing). These assumptions have been encoded in court decisions that officially deem multifamily dwellings “nuisances.”

The ubiquity of residential segregation can lead us to forget that it is the central driver of residential inequality. Instead our attention is drawn to the new—to high rises next to row houses, and the challenge, which many cities fail to meet, of integrating communities without destroying what marginalized groups call home. The future of urban housing politics rests on whether high-income tenants and marginalized communities will work together to build an equitable policy landscape or whether one or both will continue to be instrumentalized in the pursuit of keeping everything the same.

As Osman notes, this potential coalition is remarkably precarious, and in New York, for example, “while the urban poor often sought more modernist public housing and development projects, ones built for them rather than for luxury developers, Brooklyn Heights’ new middle class fought an aesthetic battle against the sameness and alienation of the modern landscape.” Similarly, today, the intra-left spats over who is a gentrifier are altogether too focused on aesthetics (ugh, tech bros, am I right?) or gotchas about who is more authentically of a place. The tenor of the bickering reinforces that the gentrification battle will be won or lost among a set of highly educated left-leaning urbanites. All the while the truly powerful sit on the sidelines, enjoying unprecedented wealth gains, a tax code designed in their favor, and the deference of nearly every politician of nearly every political persuasion.

They say that decisions are made by the people who show up. But what gentrification discourse proves is that sometimes the truly powerful don’t have to show up at all.

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