Monday, July 22, 2013

The Cost and (Anti)Politics of Gentrification

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 Gentrificationwhich 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. 


  1. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Sorry about the length of my comment, but this is a very timely piece for me. I'm just about to move out of a rent-stabilized apartment in Crown Heights that has been turning young and white before my eyes, just in the year I've lived there. I'm looking for a new place, possibly also in Crown Heights, and my awareness of the process of gentrification is growing by the day with every bus ride I take down Nostrand Ave., every dog-and-pony-show newly renovated apartment I see, and the more brokers, building managers, and long-term tenants I meet.

    Today was particularly eye-opening. I had just seen a place in Flatbush, and the broker gave me a ride back to Crown Heights. He had a young woman with him whom he was training to do what he does. While driving up Bedford, he started making a call using Blue Tooth, which meant that I could hear both ends of the conversation. "I'm going to call Tom back," he said to his trainee. "He manages a building on St. Marks." The phone rang and he put on a really pally and sympathetic voice as he greeted the manager and asked, "Tom, how are you doing? And Tom, people say that all the time but really, I mean it, how are you doing?"

    "The truth? I've got too many things on my plate. I'm renovating two units, I'm working on buyouts, I'm trying to fill an open position. It's a lot of work."

    "What would you say if I told you that I could totally take care of renting all your places for you?" the broker asked, winking at his trainee. "The whole process?"

    "That would be great," Tom said. "Just great."

    I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had been wondering just yesterday what makes building managers tell brokers about their open apartments even when they have a superintendent who lives on-site, like the place the broker had just showed me. My mother, who used to work for a property management company in Baltimore, told me that she would generally get the superintendent or a leasing agent to show apartments. Management companies still have people working for them in these positions, so it's not like they're saving any money by working with brokers.

    Hearing that call, I realized what they are saving: time. These people have all sorts of responsibilities, and every time they have an open apartment, that means several hours a week coordinating the showings alone, on top of arranging cleaning and maintenance (and, in this case, negotiating buyouts). The broker takes that off of their hands at no charge to them.

    Of course, with this set-up, even more people are unable to afford an apartment in their long-term neighborhoods if, in addition to a security deposit and first month's rent, they have to pay the broker up to 15% of the yearly rent on the apartment just for the privilege of finding out where openings are and viewing the rooms.

    I was already resistant to paying a broker's fee just for the obvious selfish reason, but now I've decided not to pay it for a moral reason. Brokers transform the already manipulative and predatory world of property management into an open conspiracy. The market and the rental laws are so favorable to owners that dishonorable people don't even have to pretend to be working in the interests of _prospective_ tenants, let alone the people who are unfortunate enough to already live in their buildings.

  3. I wonder if current residents of crow hill, who remember what the neighborhood was like 10 years ago, prefer it then or now.

    Some aspects of gentrification are sad, but many are very positive.

  4. Nick, I find that many of the newcomers to the gentrified neighborhoods, mostly in their twenties and thirties , artists, computer techies, social workers are good sincere people. But when I ask them about the current election, many tell me they are still registered at their parents' homes in the nearby suburbs, or wherever they were raised. Others don't seem involved, nor do they show much understanding of the current rent laws which effects what they pay. If the landlord raises their rent a certain amount, and they can pay, well, "so be it". I bring this up out of frustration, so all I can do is urge you and your friends who are involved to talk as much as you can about it, and see if it is possible
    to show these people the importance of this current Mayoral race.

  5. IT is amazing reading about white guilt.

  6. "turning young and white before my eyes"

    And this sort of veiled (kinda overt actually) racism is why so many people stop reading, and wont care about something that might deserve attention, but you or at least too many others reduce it to a racial issue.

  7. By itself, describing new residents as white isn't racist, Anonymous Critic.

  8. Agreed, Greg. I'm all for a nuanced perspective on gentrification that takes class, race, urban policy, and a whole host of other factors into account, but noting that new residents are young(er) and white(r) than those who lived her before is just observing reality.

    Also, let's be careful how we throw around the word "racism." One of the points I wanted to make in this post is that political-economic structures, not just individual choices, drive gentrification, but too often the public discourse reduces change to question of individual choices and tastes. The same thing happens with racism: rather than investigate the ways that INSTITUTIONAL racism is very much alive and very much at work in gentrification, we get caught up in narrow, useless debates about interpersonal racism and what kinds of language we're supposed to use.

    I don't think most folks living in Crown Heights, newly-arrived or here for five decades, are actively "racist," but that's not really the point. Let's look instead at policing policies that actively promote racial profiling and cheapen black and brown lives, or at real estate practices that ensure young white folks are shown new apartments in Crown Heights but African-American people - even of the same age, class, and educational background - are shown places in Brownsville and East New York. Let's look at how gun-shy banks still don't want to lend or build branches in "urban" (always a code word) neighborhoods, even as bids on homes far outstrip appraisals, making it impossible for families or owner-occupiers to compete with developers who flip buildings (see the 1076 post and comments). These are but a few examples of institutional racism - there are dozens more, which I'm sure other readers can fill in.

    This isn't to say we shouldn't strive, in our own lives, to improve our interpersonal interactions. We heard a lot about this at the CHCA Town Hall Meetings, and saying "hello" to neighbors and treating counter staff like human beings is absolutely important. But making these connections should be a route to building coalitions to take on institutional racism, not an end in itself. "Colorblindness" of the sort that demands we never mention race or racism gets us nowhere; it only blinds us to the realities of racism in our society.

  9. If it was wealthier black folks moving in resulting in this gentrification there'd still be anger, but it definitely creates more resentment because it's white people. I've heard this many times from black folks in the neighborhood. Sounds like racism.

  10. Have you asked these people you've heard from WHY they feel this resentment? If you do, you'll find that much it stems from the deep institutional, economic, and social inequalities - aka INSTITUTIONAL racism - that make it much easier for whites to move into these neighborhoods, or even to be in the position to do so (which is to say that white folks are wealthier and have better access to quality public education/well-paying jobs/credit/mortgages and the like). This resentment is compounded by the behavior of many newcomers (again, we heard a lot about this at the town hall - ignoring longtime residents, treating them like criminals, etc) and by the different treatment that city agencies, particularly the NYPD, give to white newcomers.

    If you'd made your life in Crown Heights for the past few decades and watched dozens of bright young men and women endure mediocre public educations, be hounded into the criminal justice system by racial profiling, and be denied jobs, credit, and opportunity on account of the color of their skin, you might feel a little resentful, too, especially when young white folks who've faced none of this institutional racism waltz in. If these folks sat out sipping microwbrews on their stoops without fear of a ticket, crossed the street when they saw you, or just never even acknowledged your existence, that would probably compound the resentment.

    Context matters (this was President Obama's point in his remarks on the Zimmerman verdict). Calling frustration and resentment that results from centuries of systemic oppression "racism" ignores that context.

    Power matters. I'm sure there are some people in Crown Heights who've become so poisoned by their experience of race and class in New York City that they've decided to hate any white person they see in the neighborhood. That individual, interpersonal prejudice isn't backed by the power to do much more than glare. The prejudices that are built into New York's policing, banking, labor markets, and educational system? They're backed with the power to destroy people's lives.

    Calling longtime residents racist when they express frustration with gentrification is a a dreadful cop-out. Accusing these people of racism is a way of delegitimating their resentments and critiques without hearing or understanding them. Perpetuating tired truisms that "everyone is prejudiced" makes it easier to continue believing the fairy tale that we live in a meritocracy and that gentrification is all about choice. In my experience, it makes bad neighbors and worse politics.

  11. 30 year old white guy who's live in the epicenter of all this for 8 years. Brought my girlfriend over here three years ago, amazed/bewildered at the rapid development and the specificity of it. SO FAR the best thing I've seen here is the Compare supermarket- actually serving the community as a whole. Look, I like a drink as much as the next guy but we need another bar like we need the Yankees to win another Series.

    Point is, I worked for the City- left out of frustration. My girl and I want to start a family, send junior to public school and live here as permanent residents. How's that supposed to happen when our combined income is way below 100K? I couldn't live here on my own if I wanted. And the renters with rando roommates? You're getting robbed blind.

    I'm from LI, I know about fucking expensive, but at this rate whats the point of fighting? I'm sorry, I love this hood with all my heart. But it's getting too young and expensive for me and I work 60 hours a week as is.

    Someone stop the madness.

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