“It’s Not a Crisis, It’s an Opportunity”

Repurposed sign designed by young adult residents of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Philadelphia, PA.

I started the Facebook page Housing Justice Headlines in early 2019 as a way to aggregate and share all of the articles I was reading related to the housing crisis. As a public page, anyone can see what I post, so I expected to eventually get some angry comments about Sharia Law or building walls. I was not surprised then, when I got into a heated discussion with a commenter over a rather boring Newsweek article about AOC’s connecting student debt and low wages to young people’s inability to buy homes. The exchange was silly because most people accept that low wages and lots of debt are in fact barriers to buying a home. But one thing this person wrote really struck me – “It’s not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.” I couldn’t grasp it at first. “How could anyone regard displacement, eviction, and skyrocketing rents as anything other than a crisis with devastating effects on actual humans, families, and communities?” Corporations certainly make those kind of emotion-free calculations all the time, but how could some regular working guy with a cowboy hat celebrate his neighbor’s loss as his own gain? I eventually came across two items that helped me make sense of that comment.

The first was a podcast episode sent to me by a friend who I had discussed the exchange with. The basic gist of the podcast is that people tend to adopt either more of an egalitarian mindset (we all have equal rights, power lies with the people, etc.) or more of a hierarchical mindset (that of business and free markets, things *naturally* sort themselves into a hierarchy with “sharks on top and a million minnows at the bottom”, etc.). We all carry both but one tends to dominate. Thinking about the housing crisis through each of these lenses produces vastly different analyses and solutions, and to the more hiererchical-leaning person, if you cannot afford housing it is your own fault. Wages have stagnated across all industries for the last 40 years, and there are fewer opportunities to secure the kind of high-paying job that allows for stability and a comfortable retirement. For some people, this is a sign of injustice, exploitation, and the upward redistribution of wealth that needs to be fought with union organizing and equity-seeking policies. For others, this is a sign that the proving ground of capitalism is working just fine, and that in order to succeed one must innovate and become more like the sharks to prove their place in the order. And so if real estate has become the dominant form of investment, workers who similarly suffer from the stagnation of wages – but who more-closely identify with the sharks – can increase their net worth and differentiate themselves as smarter than other workers by flipping houses and becoming landlords. Not that every person who invests in real estate thinks this way, but in order to see your neighbor’s foreclosure as your own opportunity, you need to rationalize a process that might otherwise engender empathy.

The other thing that helped my understanding was finding the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Sam Stein (through an article titled To Save Urban Planners, Cities Need Community Organizers). In Capital City, the author explains the complex and often contradictory role of urban planners in capitalist societies. Planners are tasked with balancing the spatial needs and desires of the city’s residents with the all-consuming task of raising property values. What was especially interesting to me was the discussion of the types of tools planners use to do this, as well as the justifications for any gentrification that results – all of which I have read in countless articles and comments sections where “enlightened” urban planners upheld the “natural” order of the real estate market and rolled their eyes at the silly idea that housing might be a right. While most urban planners tend to be cosmopolitan liberals in favor of “representation” and “diversity”, their orientation towards the real estate market and commitment to rising property values as a sign of a healthy neighborhood betrays an internalization of the previously mentioned hierarchical thinking.

“In the real estate state, planners can create marvelous environments for rich people, but if they work to improve poor peoples’ spaces they risk sparking gentrification and displacement.”

Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State

But why might this kind of thinking be so prevalent across the political spectrum when it comes to housing, especially when the devastating effects of the housing crisis can be seen all over the place? According to Leilani Farha (as referenced in Capital City, pg 2), UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, 61% of the assets in existence – $217 trillion (that is 217,000 billions if you can wrap your head around it!) – are invested in real estate, with about 75% of that in housing. There are a lot of interrelated reasons for this (and I encourage you to check out Capital City to learn more!), but the important thing to recognize is that land and housing are being bought up at a rapid pace, by both individual and institutional investors (but particularly those firms that can leverage extraordinary amounts of debt to purchase massive quantities of real estate), in cities and rural areas around the globe.

Source: A Fugly Truth Made Pretty: A Cartoonist’s Depiction Of Wealth Inequality

It is my completely non-scientific opinion that the reason so many people are taking this zero-sum “crisis-as-opportunity” road when it comes to housing is because they are scared. With all of this upward redistribution of wealth, the middle class is shrinking – it’s getting even harder for you to get there if you grew up poor, and it’s getting harder for you to remain there even if you were born with an economic or social leg up on your competition. People are scared of falling down the ladder and scared of their children not even reaching the ladder, and real estate investment is a much easier way to increase your individual wealth than organizing a union. The thing is that housing is so much more than a vehicle to earn “passive income”. It forms the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, along with air, water, food, clothing, and reproduction. You can choose to rationalize it as competition, but every eviction and foreclosure holds a heartbreaking story of actual human beings. There is no way to separate real estate speculation from the material effects it has on our families and communities.

It is very easy to let ourselves be ruled by fear, especially in the economically unstable times that we are living in. But I think that forging bonds of solidarity and mutual aid with the many millions of other people facing this housing crisis can be so much stronger than our fear. When we gather up all our dignity and love of neighbor, when we stop shaming ourselves and others for being poor, when we demand that housing is a human right – then we have the basis to start building the power that we need to change things together. Organizing together fills me with the kind of hope that burns brighter than any fear.

“It’s Not a Crisis, It’s an Opportunity”

Review: Gentrifier By John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill Foreword by Peter Marcuse

Image result for gentrifier book

GENTRIFIER
By John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill
Foreword by Peter Marcuse
UTP Insights
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2017
World Rights
256 Pages

If you are reading this review, there is a good chance that you may be a gentrifier. Hopefully it also means that you are curious about your role in the process of gentrification and open to picking apart what exactly is meant when gentrification is used by academics, activists, and policy makers to describe particular types of urban development. If not you will have a bad time. There is much in this book that will be controversial, flying in the face of conventional wisdom and slogans about gentrification, demanding that those of us with some skin in the game depart from the well-worn paths of description and condemnation to demand something bigger: a transformative approach to housing and community development policy (199).

 

Gentrifier’s critiques and prescriptions are presented within an auto-ethnography of each of the author’s relationships to housing in gentrifying urban neighborhoods from Fort Greene, Brooklyn to Chicago, San Diego, and Providence, as their lives change from that of single grad students, to coupled renters, to middleclass professionals with families. These narratives offer critical insight into the housing decisions people make, even as they grapple with the ethics of particular choices and place differential values on particular variables over time. While this approach is humanizing in a discursive landscape that often treats gentrifiers as a homogenous group of bourgeois capitalists, its main purpose is to allow the authors to ask the type of complicated questions left unanswered by anti-gentrification purists: What makes our lives contented; what unsettles our households or families? How does the current form of capitalism actually effect lives? How do the politics of race shape our navigation of these processes? How do we unpack the anger, guilt, shallowness, and other emotions related to gentrification? (8). What makes these vignettes so controversial is that the middleclass urban transplant reader will recognize herself in many of them, whether she is an “anti-gentrification gentrifier” or a small business owner, and that reflection is an uncomfortable one to stare at. But stare we must, if we are to engage with the author’s contention that “understanding the motivations of gentrifiers (especially us) could be a way to affect the process of gentrification today outside the revolutionary structural changes that would bring ‘social ownership of housing…social control of land, the resident control of neighborhoods’ and other just allocations” (24).

 

To understand not just gentrifier motivations but those of anyone seeking housing, the authors introduce an analytical “multi-tool” to examine the complex interplay of structure and agency in these choices, the multi-tool implying an ability to “take apart, rework, and adjust their views on a complex, ever-changing process” (26). This multi-tool contains seven types of considerations that go into an individual’s housing choice: monetary, practical, aesthetic, amenity, community, cultural authenticity, and flexibility (28). The authors then proceed to examine their own “residential biographies” using this multi-tool, developing a blueprint of middleclass urban housing choices characterized by mobility and an unfolding of different life events over time. I found the choices the authors made related to neighborhood and schooling particularly interesting as I reflected on times in the past when I had asserted an overly simplistic view of the issue, taking a rigid “send kids to their local public school no matter what” stance informed more by ideology than a thoughtful exploration of the issue. Not that myself or the authors became boosters of charter or private schools by the end of the chapter, but the nuance of their stories helped shed light on both the internal struggles faced by parents as well as the disproportionate opportunities available to middleclass parents in gentrifying neighborhoods. This of course makes things even more contradictory and complex, but one can see hints of cross-class solidarity as a possibility given the broadly similar hopes and desires parents have for their children’s education.

 

Chapter three reviews the structural forces that have created, shaped, and abetted gentrification and the theorists and interlocutors who have had the greatest impact on the conversation. Those familiar with the gentrification literature will recognize Ruth Glass, Neil Smith, and Richard Florida among others. The authors engage these theorists at various spatial and economic scales, framing these intersecting and contradictory historical processes as the “De-“s and “Re-“s – that is, the negative ones implying a removal or denial of resources and power (deconcentration, devaluation, delinking, etc.) and the positive ones implying a new beginning or an engendering of some kind of growth (rebuild, revitalization, renaming, etc.). For those not familiar with the housing or gentrification literature, this chapter crucially reaches back past the first wave of gentrification (typically seen to be in the 1970s) to explore the tangled roots of contemporary gentrification in racial segregation, redlining, suburbanization, deindustrialization, HUD’s brief foray into public housing, poverty deconcentration and various urban revitalization regimes.

 

The authors then go on to tackle what is arguably the most contentious attribute of gentrification: displacement. Even more than changes to the cultural fabric of a neighborhood, displacement of both residents and local businesses are frequently cited as the defining negative attribute of gentrification (what Patch calls the “displacement thesis”). Yet again, the authors complicate the matter, this time in a bid to rescue the narrative from the displacement thesis and its geographic determinism (that demands that gentrifiers just “stop gentrifying”) to make room for “cross-class alliances” (119). Looking at both theoretical and empirical evidence, the authors find strong evidence that there isn’t a 1-to-1 relationship between increased property values and displacement and that there are actually many reasons why low income people may move that have more to do with changes in the global economy than gentrification. Instead, they engage a model that posits that “capitalism causes both gentrification and displacement and these two phenomena have interactive effects,” acknowledging that “capitalism rewards many growth strategies” (119). This matters because a doctrinaire focus on residential displacement obscures a much more critical issue facing low-income urban residents: a lack of affordable housing development in a market driven by the all-consuming housing demands of middleclass and rich urban transplants. I’m not sure this argument will convince someone whose rent is going up and who can’t find suitable housing in their neighborhood that gentrification isn’t causing their displacement; in the absence of a broad social movement that demands housing as a right for all, the default position becomes the absurd demand that gentrifiers just go home.

 

Chapter four lays out a typology of six different types of gentrifiers, which might seem like an academic version of The Hipster Handbook (for those of us who were gentrifiers in the mid-aughts) were it not for their explicit focus on understanding why and how gentrifiers change the cultural fabric of a neighborhood. And in all fairness they aren’t really trying to prove that every middleclass transplant to a gentrifying neighborhood is easily fits into one of these categories, so much as to find some common and contrasting threads among the varying motivations, political orientations, and economic positions gentrifiers carry with them into their new neighborhoods. Reading through these six different types, I immediately saw glimpses of myself, most of my city-dwelling friends, and many of the market-oriented urban planners found on message boards and at meet-ups. The description of The Curator hit closest to home because it describes the types of people most likely to be most interested in joining (or helping to organize) a social movement that makes the transformative – and indeed radical – demands for housing as a universal right. But The Curator is most often caught up in “displacement theory” and doesn’t actually see himself as a gentrifier due to his good intentions and desire to keep the neighborhood the way it is. Underlying this type is an overwhelming focus on authenticity – who has it, who doesn’t, how to best perform it in public – that casts the original “authentic” residents of the neighborhood as oppressed, which can result in a certain kind of white saviorism whereby these “non-gentrifier” gentrifiers participate in anti-gentrification activism on behalf of their neighbors and ignore the “complex and sophisticated street-level networks” that exist all around (169). Bringing The Curator into conversation with the five other types, the authors demonstrate that they – we – all have in common the simple fact that we all serve as “disruptive forces in the economic, social, and cultural makeup of the neighborhood”, which means that there is no good-intentioning your way out of such disruption. Where the good intentions and progressive politics do matter, however, is when it comes to advocating for transformative housing policy, which is the subject of the final chapter.

 

This last chapter won’t disappoint with the controversial content, especially if you try to bounce some of the ideas therein off of your local anti-gentrification radicals. Before getting into the small handful of suggestions the authors characterize as having a transformative approach to housing and community development policy, the authors deconstruct several gentrification-related arguments that are typically put forward by anti-gentrification activists and academics, taking them to their logical end. If one is ideologically committed to any of these arguments, they will be hard to read and will likely elicit defensiveness. One of the great qualities of this book is that it gently but persistently calls on the reader to question her assumptions and reflect on her experiences throughout. In rejecting economic and geographic determinism, the authors problematize the “reform vs. revolution” binary and open up space for the reader to imagine different futures. The work of organizers and activists in Jackson, Mississippi with Cooperation Jackson, the alternative economy theoretical work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, and the radical municipalism of Barcelona en Comú come to mind as examples of people already operating within this framework but there are certainly many more. If the authors are successful, the reader will feel comfortable enough to walk towards this less-certain – yet prolific of possibility – place where we might begin to tackle the messy problem of affordable housing in the United States instead of just talking about it.

 

While the authors end on a positive note, pointing uncertainly towards the work that lies ahead, I want to circle back to the beginning of the book. It is significant that the authors chose noted critical urban planner Peter Marcuse to pen the forward to Gentrifier, building a bridge to Marcuse’s 2016 book with David Madden, In Defense of Housing (Verso). In Defense of Housing is a manifesto of sorts, digging into the roots of the global housing crisis and opening space for the radical possibility and demand for the defense of housing as a place to live instead of a real estate investment. “The way forward” according to Marcuse and Madden, “is to acknowledge the limits of formal rights to housing under the current legal and political system while at the same time pressing for a sufficiently broad, activist conception of those rights” (194). This definition of a right to housing moves beyond demands for legal protections or simply an increase in the number of affordable units built, and insists on democracy, decommodification, and dis-alienation. I was moved by these arguments but had a hard time seeing a way forward, as my own experience with urban housing movements and much of the current academic literature is that they are often defensively focused on “fighting” gentrification or eviction, with few generative housing demands. Gentrifier gives the reader some invaluable tools to unpack and defetishize gentrification and gentrifiers, enabling the reader – if she is open to it – to move from a defensive anti-gentrification stance towards an offensive stance that demands a democratic, transformative, and participatory approach to housing and community development.

 

Review: Gentrifier By John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill Foreword by Peter Marcuse