A little over two weeks ago, ILFA ran a post titled "The Human Cost of Flipping a Brownstone on Dean Street" that described the ugly tactics used by landlords to force longtime rent-stabilized tenants to accept buyouts and leave their homes. It was the blog's most-linked and most-read post of 2013. Some readers responded with shock and horror, while others with experience in NYC's housing industry nodded and noted that these sorts of things are, in many ways, par for the course in gentrifying neighborhoods (a similar discussion was taking place on Brooklynian at the same time). Brownstoner linked the post, along with a New York Times article from the same weekend, "Gentrifying Into Shelters," which argued that gentrification - and development policies that promote it - contributes to homelessness in New York City. Using ILFA's post as an example of how this might happen (I had noted that some of the tenants under attack were seniors on fixed incomes and unlikely to find affordable rent-stabilized places if they left, putting them at risk of homelessness), Brownstoner asked readers "do you think rising rents are to blame for homelessness?"
Both Brownstoner and the Times received extensive replies from readers, many of whom were skeptical about this connection. I'd wanted to respond, but hadn't quite motivated myself to write something until the New Republic ran a blog post that suggested gentrifying neighborhoods, and people moving into them, in particular, were somewhere between apolitical and anti-political. Being a gentrifier, loosely defined, the post argued, doesn't influence political behavior. Or, as one of the pollsters interviewed put it, "there's no such thing as 'hipster' on the voter file."
Is this true, and if so, why? This is a long post, but in it, I want to suggest two things: first, that there isn't (much of) an electoral politics of gentrification because the processes that produce it are hidden behind a series of myths, and secondly, that if those of us moving into these neighborhoods took the time to educate ourselves about these processes and listen to our neighbors who've suffered from them, such a politics might emerge. There's an immense and growing body of research, scholarship, and activism around these issues, and while I realize most folks who spout off on comment threads aren't necessarily looking for a summer reading list, I hope at least some people who take a serious interest in these issues will find some of what follows useful.
The question of whether and how gentrification (and policies that promote it) causes homelessness has been around for awhile; Peter Marcuse tackled it with a series of pieces on "Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement" in the mid-1980s that argued that federal, state, and local policies had shifted during the 1970s to dis-incentivize the creation and maintenance of housing for low-income and working-class people in New York. In some neighborhoods, like Park Slope, these policies promoted gentrification, while in others, like Brownsville, they produced abandonment. Both processes - gentrification and abandonment, which Marcuse suggested were two sides of the same coin - eliminated units of affordable housing, particularly flophouses, single-room occupancy buildings, and other very-low-income housing, leading to a squeeze that displaced low-income New Yorkers, leaving many homeless. In an interesting echo of Marcuse's work Slate magazine recently ran a piece arguing that SROs and flophouses should be brought back.
Twenty years later, in the mid-2000s, another scholar of gentrification in New York City, Lance Freeman, published some seemingly-surprising findings. In a series of articles on residential mobility in gentrifying neighborhoods, Freeman argued that data demonstrated that direct displacement - in which a longtime, low-income tenant is forced out and replaced with a higher-income tenant - was relatively uncommon; in fact, low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods moved less often than similar folks in poor and working-class neighborhoods. In a city packed with liberal-ish gentrifiers wondering how guilty they should feel about their impact on the neighborhoods they were moving into, Freeman's work was gobbled up with great gusto, producing headlines like "Exploding the Gentrification Myth," and "What's Wrong With Gentrification: The Displacement Myth." These articles, ignoring Marcuse, contrasted gentrification with abandonment, arguing that these were, essentially, the only two options available to post-industrial cities. Breathe easy, gentrifiers, they wrote - without you, the city would just be abandoned. Such arguments are still deployed frequently, as evidenced by comments on NYT and Brownstoner.
Freeman, unlike many of those who celebrated his work, delved deeper into the question of what gentrification meant for low-income New Yorkers. In his 2006 book, There Goes the Hood: View of Gentrification from the Ground Up, he put data aside for ethnography, and talked to folks in Harlem and Clinton Hill. Did people enjoy certain benefits in gentrifying neighborhoods? Sure they did - lower crime rates, better city services, better private amenities - and that's why they tried to stay on longer in their apartments than they might have in a poor neighborhood. Homeowners, in particular, benefited from rising home values, though occasionally those who were land-rich but cash-poor found rising taxes forced them to sell, albeit with good returns.
However, Freeman noted, the larger argument that gentrification was a rising tide that lifted all boats couldn't be sustained. Jobs created by new businesses rarely went to longtime locals (the Times article made the same point two weeks ago), middle-class parent involvement in schools did little for working-class children, and contact between new arrivals and longtime residents seemed, on the whole, to produce more suspicion than understanding. Additionally, intra-neighborhood mobility, for poor and working-class folks, was significantly reduced. People without steady or reliable incomes (who often inhabit buildings owned by unreliable landlords) move a lot, but they frequently stay in the same neighborhoods, if they can. However, once a neighborhood starts to gentrify, they can't do that anymore. With respect to homelessness, as whole neighborhoods of the city gentrify, the supply of low-rent housing decreases, leaving those on the margins with fewer options and more competition for them. Direct displacement - as described in ILFA's post about 1076 Dean - may be rare, but indirect, aggregate displacement of the poor from gentrifying neighborhoods is not.
There are real costs to urban policies that promote gentrification, including homelessness. Faced with this, some folks will suggest that gentrification is the lesser of the two evils, but as Marcuse's work showed 30 years ago, that's a limited and unconvincing perspective (for updates on Marcuse, check out the best comprehensive book out there, simply titled Gentrification, which covers many of the most recent research findings and scholarly debates about the process in simple, straightforward prose).
Others will offer some variation on the platitude that "change is the only constant," but such a statement, divorced from an analysis of HOW change happens, only serves passive acceptance of the status quo. Liz Robbins had a well-researched piece in the New York Times last week that chronicled urban change in Crown Heights over 125 years through the life of a single home, 1372 Dean Street. It was a useful reminder that neighborhood changes are not just the result of individual choices or tastes, but shifts in the political economy of cities resulting in part from decisions made by elected leaders. Robbins quoted Brooklyn historian Craig Wilder, who also appears in the film "My Brooklyn," (reviewed here and on ILFA in January), which offers a useful look at how these policies have shaped development in downtown Brooklyn over the past decade.
So, what of the "Night of Drinks And Fun" co-hosted by Howard Dean and Bill de Blasio at The Crown Inn? Titled "Why the Hipster Vote is Meaningless in New York City," the New Republic post poked fun at Franklin Avenue and cited polling data that suggested that being newcomers in gentrifying neighborhoods doesn't shape political behavior (what would these people care about, the author snarked - bike lanes?). According to the accepted wisdom, these folks, if they vote, don't vote with their neighborhoods in mind.
I'm inclined to believe that better awareness of the costs of gentrification, as well as better understanding of the policies that drive it, might generate a different politics. I don't mean to be naive - such a process is very tough, as it means acknowledging racism and classism, and how many newcomers, including this blogger, benefit from them (often unthinkingly). It also means rejecting the dominant free-market mythology that suggests all change is a product of individual choices, and the variation on this myth that suggests the only other potential path for a city is abandonment. It means getting out and meeting neighbors, checking discomfort and privilege at the door and actually listening to people, and thinking critically about whether the political and economic structures that brought these groups of people together are the best available to us.
Many folks in the "first wave" of gentrification - artists, students, employees at NGOs, etc - have common cause to make with longtime residents, far more so than with the developers who seek further transformations. Here in Crown Heights, many such people and longtime residents together are working hard to build political alliances. The Crown Heights Assembly has made housing justice their primary focus, and the Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine, who earned a nice write-up on DNAInfo this weekend, are hosting a series of events combining art and activism on Lincoln Place this summer. The Crow Hill Community Association's Housing Working Group also shared these links, which have excellent information for anyone confronting a situation like the one described in the original post about 1076 Dean. If reading that post or the Times piece about gentrification and homelessness disturbed you, as they did ILFA, don't mourn, organize. Take this summer to get out, meet folks in the neighborhood, and talk and think with them about what a different urban politics might look like. There have been plenty of statements suggesting that "it's too late" for Franklin Avenue, and maybe it is, but there's a whole city out there staring these challenges in the face and a mayoral election coming up soon. It's never too late to think differently about the places we lay our heads.