Updated: May 24, 2021
Apparently, you don't need dot-com wealth to ruin an area for its low-income residents. The Pioneer Press quotes Secretary of HUD Andrew Cuomo ruing the "cruel irony" that prosperity is shrinking the stock of affordable housing nationwide: "The stronger the economy, the stronger the upward pressure on rents.” Barbara Ehrenreich,
When city leaders become too reliant on the plans and dollars of the private sector, the people who had been living and working in these neighborhoods all along have no one to look out for them and the lives they’ve built.…
Gillian White in The Atlantic
In nearly every other industrialized nation besides the United States, there is near-consensus that purely private land markets will not meet the needs of the poor, and so measures have been taken to ensure that at least some land remains off the market or subject to regulations that make it affordable.
Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City
Change happens; sometimes we wish it didn’t. Not-In-My-Back-Yard resistance is something advocates build on when opposing something but bemoan when they are trying to make something happen. In previous decades the standard image of NIMBYism was of suburban middle-class white families protesting affordable housing or bike paths to “protect property values” or “keep crime away” – reasons that progressives denounced as thin covers of prejudices about racial, income/class, language, religious, and cultural differences. More recently, in an amazing flip, the protests have come from low-income (often African-American) communities and even some white working-class areas protesting against public improvements – new sidewalks, schools, parks, or bike paths – as triggers for gentrification and displacement.
Change is inevitable. But it can be guided and its impact softened and slowed. Improvements to the built and service environments can be balanced by policies and programs that preserve affordable and stable residential patterns. It’s not that change won’t happen, but the energy driving it can be harnessed rather than allowed to simply play out its own profit-driven and often discriminatory dynamic.
Staying ahead of market-forces and systemic racism won’t happen by itself. The increased globalization of markets and the growing number of multi-national businesses means that leaders of a city’s biggest corporations are based elsewhere, often leaving local politics to local elites – usually real estate related firms: developers, building and road construction firms (and unions), big landlords, the Chamber of Commerce. These groups typically benefit from the increased profits of a rising market, as do local governments’ property tax revenue. So, pressure to regulate the market will have to come from the public through organizing and advocacy.
BOOTSTRAPS AND HIGH LACES
Of course, some percentage of people normally move every year -- studies showthat by itself gentrification doesn’t increase the percentage of people leaving an area. What is different in upscaling neighborhoods is that those who leave are not replaced by people of similar demographics. As old-time property owners use the opportunity to raise rents or gain a windfall from selling at high prices, the rising cost of living and the changing retail and social environments create a type of exclusionary wall, a virtually gated community, only allowing in more upscale residents. The slide from invigorating mixing to gentrification to displacement to exclusion is a familiar process in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, Somerville’s Davis Square, Cambridge’s Area IV (“the Port”), and other places.
Neighborhood change is not such a bad thing when it happens slowly, with potential movers able to freely make informed choices, communities able to maintain social connections, and no one losing their financial shirt or personal dignity. Demographic diversity is a desirable neighborhood characteristic, as is the cultural richness and energy that newcomers bring to an area. Even when the people moving in are wealthier than the typical resident, the initial phase of gentrification sometimes has positive effects. The newcomers attract more businesses, are able to demand more attention from public officials, and have skills and resources that can help a neighborhood organize itself to deal with local problems.
Obviously, it’s not that low-income or non-white communities can’t do some of this for themselves – the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) is just one of many successful Boston examples of a low-income, racially mixed community pulling together when given the tools and resources to do so. And securing those tools and resources for those communities should be the priority focus of progressive advocacy. But the fight for these tools and resources is not always successful. And in their absence the presence of a certain percentage of newcomers can be a positive addition to the mix, despite the tensions inherent in the new class and race combinations.
Neighborhoods are locations; communities aresocial relationships. Communities take years to emerge and continuing care to maintain. The problem in working class and low-income neighborhoods is not that change starts, but that it goes too fast and too far.
In "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness," Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein cite research showing that “losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy…people are ‘loss averse.’” Given the larger context of our disintegrating social safety net and the disappearance of traditional blue-collar jobs, it’s no wonder that old-time residents are worried about change and end up opposing things that their neighborhood desperately needs and that their families will benefit from – street lights, playgrounds, trees.
While income, class, and racial disparities are always compounding factors, displacement by wealthier people affects white working class, immigrant, and African-American communities alike. The legitimate concern about how market forces are a type of “rationing by income” – including access to residential areas -- underlies some of the NIMBY nervousness about transit, complete streets, and other public improvements in better-off middle-class white areas such as eastern Massachusetts’ Charlestown, Medford, and Arlington. Unfortunately, people’s fears – especially around reviving cities such as Boston, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco – have a strong basis in fact.
But markets are not “acts of god.” They are a series of human interactions. They are human-made and therefore capable of being human shaped through collective action – meaning public policy. For example, the current urban renaissance is not simply the result of individual decisions. City leaders have spent millions of dollars rebuilding downtowns, beautifying boulevards, investing in the arts. In fact, much of the increased value of downtown property, and therefore the escalating cost of rents and purchase, comes from what’s around it — the surrounding infrastructure, the quality of the environment, the amount and type of business activity, safety, and a dozen other attributes determined by public action and taxpayer investment. This is not a new insight – Henry Georgewas explaining one version of its importance in the late 1800s. Today, by skimming off the luxury opportunities of maximum profitability, private investors are reaping what the taxpayer has directly or indirectly sown. Henry George’s political insight is as true today as it was over a century ago: the public has every right to recapture some of that value for the benefit of those caught in the grinding gears of that change.
MARKET FORCES AND POLICY
Sometimes, as has happened all too frequently in Boston history, displacement of “unwanted” or politically weak groups can be the result of a deliberate attack. In previous decades, urban power brokers sought to “reclaim” working class and low-income neighborhoods for new investment with blanket bombing actions like highway construction, urban renewal (often part of a larger strategy of what was accurately described as “Negro Removal”), and other drastic interventions.
When I first arrived in Boston, Urban Renewal’s destruction of the ethnically mixed working-class West End had already happened. Still unfolding was the massive destruction of affordable homes across the Roxbury and South End routes of the planned Inner Belt Highway, intended to let suburban professionals get into the city more easily. (The fight against the Inner-Belt is one of the great democratic insurgency success stories of this region and the nation.) Also happening was the racial blockbusting along Blue Hill Avenue, a vicious process that decimated the city’s Jewish community. That was set off when the city’s major banks responded to demands that they stop discriminating against non-white mortgage seekers by bankrolling the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) scheme, but only allowing the lower-requirement and interest rate loans to be used in “Red Lined” areas. This armed predatory real estate firms with the ability to shoot Black buyers into white areas like bullets from an assault rifle, wiping out the old communities while setting up the new comers for financial hardship – collecting lucrative fees from both sides.
The recent move of the better-off back into the city may seem like the impersonal and diffuse working out of personal choices and market dynamics. But markets and choices are shaped by policies. The rightward pro-business tilt of politics in recent years, both in the US and internationally, has created escalating inequality, giving the upper 20% of our own population and the top 1% of many less-stable nations enormous additional wealth, which they’re often using to buy property – driving up prices in their preferred neighborhoods, pushing the next income layer of renters and buyers into other neighborhoods, and ratcheting up price inflation across the entire housing market.
Although people usually prefer to socialize with cultural, income, racial, and lifestyle peers, our national history and institutionalization of racism has had particular effect in residential patterns. The market-shaping impact of racist policies is painful exposed in "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein. Through repeated examples, he illustrates how the “sorting by income” that occurred (and still occurs) within the housing, education, and employment systems was totally entwinned in local, state, and national policies deliberately designed to foster racial segregation. Unfortunately, conservatives continue to deny the institutional intentionality of racial discrimination: in 2007 Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that discrimination that is “not traceable to [the government’s] own actions” requires no constitutional remedy.
THE WEALTH OF CITIES
Ironically, unless public officials use their market-shaping power to begin implementing ways to create more sustainable conditions for middle-income and lower-income residents, our cities are likely to get strangled by their economic “success” – just as the success of Cambridge’s Kendall Square has made it too expensive for new start-ups to locate there. True: given local government’s dependence on regressive property taxes, it is new development and rising property values that provides the funds for physical improvements and urban services. But it’s also true that a city’s vitality depends not only on its attractiveness to young professionals and rich investors but also, to an extent we seldom acknowledge, on the presence of a non-professional workforce (meaning middle-income, working-class, and poor families). And this, because of the demographic reality of today’s workers, implies cultural diversity along ethnic/racial and place-of-birth dimensions.
Markets will not disappear. But they must be shaped. The only way to combine economic growth with population fairness requires that we mediate the impact of market forces. If we want to have both urban upgrading and demographic stability – or at least slow displacement to less destructive levels – we need to limit land speculation by regulating the real estate market to soften its negative impacts, and by entirely removing a significant amount of property from the market. Public policy, shaped by advocacy, is the most powerful – if not the only – tool available to address this problem or secure these goals.
TRIGGERING PUBLIC INVESTMENT
Public sector, taxpayer-funded investment is an essential foundation for livability in every neighborhood. And, as much as anyone else, low-income people deserve good parks, lighting, schools, transit, roads, sidewalks, bicycle accommodations, and other public amenities. However, all too often, in poor neighborhoods, maintenance and upgrading of desperately needed physical and service improvements have been neglected for decades both as a result, and then as a reinforcement, of the area’s poverty and powerlessness. A city analysis in Boston, for example, show that “Sixty-five percent of the sidewalks in [low-income, predominantly non-white] Roxbury and Dorchester are either in fair or poor condition; by contrast, 68 percent of the sidewalks downtown and in the [upper-income, predominantly white] Back Bay are in good condition.”
It often takes years of protest and advocacy to get government to make significant improvements in a low-income neighborhood’s facilities, much less more sophisticated investment in Smart Growth initiatives and Transit Oriented Development. But, in an infuriating Catch-22, it sometimes feels like any public attention immediately makes an area more attractive to higher-income “pioneers” and then even higher-income “settlers.” Even without public investment, market attention may be drawn to the area because of an influx of “transitional populations” – students, artists, gays. As the newcomers arrive new restaurants open to serve them, the retail mix gets hipper and moves up-scale. The newcomers often have the political clout to demand better public services. The area becomes more attractive and noticed. Rents and home prices increase. And long-time residents – working class and low-income ethnic whites, immigrants, and African-Americans -- get displaced.
Transportation has a particularly transformative effect – a recent study found that rents go up about $43/month for each 100 meters closer to a transit station. The working-class Davis Square where I once hung out disappeared with the new subway stop. Planning for the Green Line extension to Somerville’s Union Square has unleashed property speculation and driven up rents. Smart investors are already gobbling up property along Dorchester’s still developing Fairmont Line.
However, the public investments -- streetscape improvements, transit access, bike paths, green space, or public buildings – are not the cause of the upscaling. Larger demographic and economic pressures have built up around certain neighborhoods in certain cities like a gigantic thunderstorm. Despite predictions of Internet-generated decentralization, cities are more economically important and residentially attractive than any time since WWII. The high-profit growth industries of finance, banking, high tech, pharma, and the like are moving downtown following the young professionals who they want to employ. Joining them are the empty-nest baby boomers looking to leave the suburbs for less car-dependent, more lively places to live. Topping it off are absentee, overseas owners seeking safe harbors for some of the enormous fortunes they amassed in their home countries.
The storm clouds that pour newcomers into an area are formed by regional weather patterns -- by the economy and public policies – rather than by local conditions or improvements. Public investment in long-overdue and desperately needed improvements in previously neglected areas simply provides a lightning rod for the surrounding economic thunderstorm, focusing attention on a particular place and sparking a fire of disruptive profit-seeking. The public projects are what people see; they are like a flag waving at the top of the pole. In reality, the problem is neither the flag pole nor the lightening; the problem is that so few efforts are made to prevent the sparks from getting out of control.
The flood doesn’t hit everywhere, only in cities with burgeoning “new economy” firms – digital technologies, bio-tech, banking – usually growing around a university. From a national or even regional perspective, it’s a relatively short list of locations, skipping over most rural areas, small towns, “rust-belt” former manufacturing regions, even mid-size cities and many suburbs – leaving them with declining populations, economic opportunities, and budgets often in spite of desperate public investment by city and state governments.
Even within boom towns, the gentrifying flow is selective: it starts downtown, in scenic areas along the waterfront or on hilltops, in neighborhoods with desirable houses or open space, and where it’s possible to easily get to downtown workplaces without using a car while at the same time easy to use a car to get out of town.
Other places, lacking these amenities or having some “negative” characteristic (too much crime, too many poor people, too Black) are skipped. In fact, nationwide, decline is more typical than rejuvenation. A recent study found that for every “neighborhood that’s gentrified since 1970, 10 have remained poor and another 12 have slipped into poverty…. [with the negative conditions significantly related to] racial composition.”
These left-behind neighborhoods also deserve a better deal – empowering tools, resources, and self-organizing opportunity to come up with their own vision of an improved future, as well as the power to make it happen.
MORE IS NOT ENOUGH
The standard answer to the urban housing crisis is to build more. In theory, a gargantuan increase in the amount of new housing would create a more fluid and affordable market better to serve all income levels. Reform of our damagingly old and dysfunctional zoning laws and more intelligent mortgage criteria would certainly help – were public pressure able to get them passed over the objections of powerful real estate interests who benefit from the status quo.
But it would take an almost unimaginable number of new, multi-bedroom (family-friendly) units to make a difference, far beyond the desire of today’s capital markets to create. In Boston, for example, nearly 30,000 new units are needed over the next six years to merely keep up with current demand,and many more than that to bend the cost curve down – and only 3,200 are on track for completion in the coming year, almost all of which are downtown luxury condos. And even if the gargantuan number of new units needed to tilt the local supply-demand balance were enough to lower prices, booming cities are such a desperately desirable destination for so many people currently living elsewhere that a drop in home costs could simply attract more willing-to-relocate buyers, driving prices back up.
Given the growing inequality of our society as a whole, if left to itself the real estate market will continue its current tilt towards the highest end of the luxury market, with negative spill-over effects on everyone else. We need to create programs, including market incentives, that explicitly facilitate the creation of housing affordable by those the market currently ignores. We need to reshape the real estate market to change the profits to be made (or not made) for certain types of development, and to severely reduce or entirely eliminate market pressures on some percentage of our city’s housing.
For example, in an effort to piggy-back off the boom in luxury housing, San Francisco, advocates are promoting a ballot initiative requiring at least 30% of new housing to be reserved for middle- and low-income families. Developers say this ignores the financial reality of new construction. Advocates disagree, saying that the huge backlog of demand for high-end residences will both continue to distort the market and cover the costs of inclusion.
COMMUNITY PRESERVATION IN CHANGING MARKETS
Preserving communities does not mean freezing them in their current configuration. It does mean ensuring that a significant number of current residents have the opportunity to either affordably stay or to move on to places that better meet their aspirations and needs.
Inclusionary zoning is an essential housing equity strategy. Additionally, in the shameful absence of any federal policy to ensure adequate homes for all residents, states and cities need to find ways to reduce the cost of construction by using tax-foreclosed and city-owned land or providing low-interest loans – all subject to developers’ agreement to create family-friendly units and to sell or rent a significant proportion of the buildings at prices affordable by moderate and low-income families. Even with this, for many city families the purchase price needs to be further lowered through low-interest homeowner loans and mortgage pools. (The sub-prime loan disaster shows how NOT to do this, but there are many successful and sustainable models such as mixed-income non-profit Community Development Corporations.) Affordability can be made permanent through limited-equity ownership models and land-trusts; mortgages can be subsidized in ways that translate into partial public ownership. (This also requires an expansion of home-ownership training programs and mutual-support groups to strengthen families and communities.)
For those unable to afford to purchase, we need family-appropriate (e.g. multi-bedroom) scattered site public housing programs that are well designed and well run, as well as more rent subsidy programs – some of which can be negotiated with developers seeking development rights or who have been found in violation of building codes, perhaps letting them avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for fixing up a unit and renting it at below-market levels.
And for those who do want to move out of their old neighborhoods, we need much more aggressive state-wide enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as more effective “anti-snob zoning” programs in the suburbs.
There is a certain percentage of both urban and suburban populations that is purely anti-growth. At best that’s a nostalgic impossibility – more often, it’s a gloss for racism and exclusionary snobbery. Change is the only permanence; it is what keeps a city healthy and flexible. In any case we’ve got little choice: we’re in the middle of an urban land boom which may slow down but, given that new land is hard to create, is not likely to permanently go away – at least not until climate change floods or another generational culture shift once again send people fleeing. The only question is if we allow the booming market to force us into the increasingly unequal and segregated patterns it inherently creates or if we shape the market to preserve those qualities of life that we want.
This is not just a local housing issue. We already know that the greater a society’s degree of inequality the weaker its democracy. In “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett gather data showing that the more unequal a society’s division of resources and power, the greater the social problems experienced by people at every level of the hierarchy. It’s not just the material suffering of those at the bottom or even in the middle. It’s about the overall quality of life and the degree of personal dysfunction. The cross-class mechanisms of inequality-related personal pain and interpersonal stress are not always clear, although one suggestion is that the higher the cliff between the top and the bottom the more life turns into a vicious competition for survival, the more insecurity everyone feels, and the less we are able to express our humanizing feelings or act in loving ways even towards family and friends.
We need to find ways to protect significant numbers of original residents from suffering the effects of real estate (and other) market changes. It isn’t the bus stop or T station or bike lanes (or cycle tracks!) that drive out people; it’s the cost of living there. The problem isn’t the public improvements but the pervasive private efforts to capture the value of those improvements for personal (or corporate) gain through increased prices and profits.
This means that public investment in poor neighborhoods should remain – or become – a high priority for city leaders. If they want to reduce the lightening-rod effect, they should increase spending enough to make improvements in a larger number of previously neglected neighborhoods so that no one of them stands out. And while parallel private investment should be encouraged, it should be controlled and tempered with programs to counter the damaging impact of unregulated markets on local housing and commerce.
COMMUNITY PRESERVATION IN CHANGING MARKETS
Housing is not the only area needing attention, although stable living arrangements are the foundation for a range of next steps. Food and social services, cultural and social activity, safety and transportation, jobs and training are also important. But in all these areas, success at welcoming needed improvements while avoiding transformative gentrification ultimately depends on strong community organizations and progressive political mobilization. If newcomers and long-term residents can unite around a common vision of a vibrant, diverse, and safe neighborhood, the programs needed to influence the housing and retail market can be implemented. It is a long-term and evolving effort – equity is a more of a process than an outcome – but it can be done, with advocates as facilitators.
Still, the reality is that the more powerful the larger forces shaping a neighborhood’s demographics the more difficult they are to resist. Some neighborhoods will evolve slowly and gracefully. But others will experience disruption and general displacement. Change is always risky; but stagnation is worse – both for eco-systems and neighborhoods.
The world today seems tough, a bit out of control, scary, and hard to change. But, as a former history teacher, I know that people have felt this way many times in the past as well. And some of their situations were much, much worse. Take a deep breath. Now move on. As a character sighs in Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, “It was always sad, the way the world was going. And always a new age dawning.”
It’s too easy and shallow to say that people oppose improvement projects primarily because they don’t like change. It’s true – but not really the point. Of course, people have learned to deal with the status quo, for all its faults, and change threatens whatever feelings of comfort and security they may have, however tenuous that may be. But it’s not change in general that is scary; it’s certain types of change. And those of us who think that change is needed have to figure out how to deal with that opposition.
So, bring on the bike and bus lanes, the playground lighting and the cleaned-up parks, new stores and school buildings. And, at the same time, bring on the local community organizing that is the key to protecting people from destructive profiteering. It is possible – as well as desirable – to both improve the neighborhood and preserve community.