We tend to talk about gentrification as if it’s out of our control, that replacing old townhouses with identical high-end condos is a law of nature. We sigh as historically black, ethnically diverse and immigrant communities are displaced, destroying the social infrastructure that has been built over generations.
But it is not inevitable; it is the result of decades of policies that reflect the power of wealth in shaping our urban landscapes. So why do city governments in the United States generally do such a poor job of balancing people’s rights with property rights?
Samuel Stein, a PhD student at the City University of New York whose work focuses on urban planning and gentrification, tackles this question in his well-received new book, Capital: gentrification and state of real estate (Reverse, 2019). The answer has to do with money, history and economics. As North America deindustrialized from the mid-twentieth century, capital began to invest in land and buildings, “the literal and figurative space left by urban industrial flight.” Real estate is now a $217 trillion industry, Stein writes, accounting for 60% of global assets. We live in a “real estate state,” where real estate interests with capital to invest have undue influence over planning decisions.
Stein views city planners as basically nice people with good intentions. They want to make cities beautiful and liveable, but in practice their work is driven by the imperative of making cities profitable. Citizens who have attempted to have a voice in their city’s housing and planning policies can appreciate Stein’s perspective: “Planners operate within a system that must appear open to the public, while simultaneously ensuring that ultimate power resides in the hands of the possessing elites. It can be really shitty work.
Instead, Stein wants urban planning to democratize cities, making them places that belong to everyone, not just an economic and racial elite. His analysis of what drives gentrification and his willingness to think outside the box of neoliberalism have led him to solutions that challenge conventional wisdom.
Take “inclusive zoningthe policy that allows private developers to either build bigger, taller and denser in exchange for including affordable units in the project or contributing to a municipal fund for affordable housing. At first glance, inclusive zoning looks like a compromise by which cities obtain private capital to pay for affordable housing. But it’s actually a driver of gentrification and displacement of low-income people and people of color.
An alternative, Stein argues, would be to apply the policy only in affluent white neighborhoods, producing a markedly different outcome, “forcing the wealthy to integrate at least a little, rather than gentrifying the city and calling it progress.” . ”
But there are plenty of other policies in Stein’s radical planner’s toolbox. Among them are:
- Strengthen preservation ordinances to protect popular neighborhoods from predatory development;
- Regulations to prevent frequent and severe rent increases that drive out low-income residents;
- Policies that facilitate the transfer of land and properties in mortgage default to the city for housing rather than to speculators for profit.
Stein reminds us that in 2008 the Federal Reserve purchased failing mortgages as part of its bank bailout – a state-planned transfer of wealth to financial institutions – and that “the US government is already spending huge sums – around $200 billion a year – for housing, from mortgage deductions to tax breaks for developers and private housing vouchers.
That didn’t help a large number of people still living in boxes, tents and vehicles on the streets of American cities. “The housing state is pumping a huge amount of capital into such insufficient results,” Stein writes, “because we are subsidizing capitalist housing, which assumes a profit.”
The housing crisis in the United States involves much more than urban gentrification, as Brooke Gladstone and her team report for NPR“On the media”. The title of their investigative series, “Scarlet Erefers to the stigma of eviction that plunges families into homelessness or a life of housing instability. It’s an increasingly common ordeal, with nearly a million legal evictions a year and three times as many eviction filings.
This does not include “phantom evictions” – tenants having to move out because landlords suddenly raise their rent or prevent them from staying. A clearer picture of the eviction epidemic is emerging thanks to Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Expelled: poverty and profit in the American city (Penguin Random House, 2016). Desmond, a sociologist who founded the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, believes that the crisis of housing affordability and stability in the United States is structural, embedded in a national system of unjust laws and policies dating back to the founding of the country and to slavery.
Today Desmond said NPRit is difficult to think of a social policy “that amplifies our economic and racial inequalities better than our current housing policy”.
The numbers support this claim. The lack of funding means that only one in four families who qualify for social housing or housing vouchers receive help; more is spent each year on tax relief for homeowners than on housing assistance for low-income people. The mortgage interest tax deduction costs the government $34 billion a year, and the deeply flawed housing voucher program that relies on private landlords costs another $20 billion.
There are other problems with a system that prioritizes tax relief for homeowners over social housing finance: the mortgage interest deduction actually raises the price of housing. Gladstone quotes the American Economic Review saying that if the deduction were abolished, “homeownership would increase by five percent, house prices would drop by four percent, and the average mortgage balance would decline by 30 percent.”
Defenders of the current situation insist that give a free hand to the free market will eventually balance supply and demand, creating more affordable housing. The experts and research presented by NPR show that changes in law, policy and funding are needed because bad policies got us to the housing crisis in the first place.
Some of these solutions would be quite easy to implement. In some states, a court filing to evict tenants costs as little as $40, and tenants are not entitled to free legal representation. Changes to state laws to give tenants the option to pay late rent and avoid excessive fees would make eviction less attractive to landlords.
Some solutions are larger in scale and challenge the status quo. Lawrence Vale, professor of design and urbanism at MIT, believes that one solution could be to increase the number of well-funded and properly managed public housing, rather than letting it decay and be demolished to make way for private development. . A popular narrative holds that public housing does not work because residents are responsible for community decay, poverty and crime. The Gladstone team dismantled this racist, classist trope with Commonwealth Development in Boston, an example of social housing that works because management is in the hands of the residents themselves.
Along with public housing, in Stein’s vision of an equitable city, are added co-operatives, nonprofit organizations, and land trusts that take housing and the land on which it sits off the market. This would increase the amount of land in cities that cannot become an increasingly expensive financial asset. When land trusts are done well, Stein says, as in the case of Cooper Square in New York, “the result is functionally decommodified land and housing.”
Stein’s political kick goes right to the heart of the real estate state, targeting the symbiotic relationship between urbanism and gentrification that channels the benefits of public investment – parks, streets and pedestrian areas – to communities. private companies: “Cities can tax any increase in revenue owners derive from public initiatives. In this scenario, the share of profit that an owner generates from the land itself – the value that comes from location, preparation, proximity to public transit and connectivity to public infrastructure – would be considered as socially produced and therefore to no one.
Creating fair and affordable cities is painstaking and challenging work. But even in the midst of gentrification, there are democratic models of affordable housing to build on and grow. Stein points out that urban planning is about working to create the future city we actually want. This is better than letting the bulldozers of gentrification roll on.