Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Roots of Gentrification

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There is an ongoing online debate as to the nature of gentrification. While the effects of gentrification can be easily defined – namely, the physical replacement of a working-class population with that of a middle-class population – the origin of the phenomenon does not hold quite such a consensus of opinion.

Blogger Jeremiah Moss frames the argument as one of morals: He cites corporate-friendly policies by city aldermen coupled with a complacency from the gentrifiers themselves culminating in what he defines as “hypergentrification,” separate and distinct from the sort that changed SoHo or Park Slope in the 80s. In his debate with professor John Joe Schlichtman of DePaul University, the professor rejected moralist arguments concerning the gentrifiers themselves (and countered that many of the pundits arguing against gentrification are themselves gentrifiers) but rather suggests a general political under-representation of the original populations of affected neighborhoods – due to being their marginal economic status and and a tendency to be renters – leading to an inability for them to secure a space for themselves when the neighborhood shifts gear.

The blogger for Invisible Systems goes one further to say that it is not necessarily the fault of middle-class gentrifiers or rapacious landlords at all, but that of our economic model itself: Capitalism is at fault, for it presents a system in which simple aggregate self-interest will result in the displacement of the poor from any but the worst districts. Libertarians tend to conclude that such is not necessarily a bad thing, for the economic benefits outweigh the human costs. I, on the other hand, believe it to be an indictment of capitalism, for the benefits of urban living depends squarely on heterogenous circumstance occupying the same physical space: It is our daily reminder of otherness – across race and class lines – that allows us to tolerate, accept and ultimately humanize different people. Without it our cities do not have nearly the cultural capital they need.

However, I do not necessarily believe capitalism is entirely at fault, or, rather, I should say that the failures of capitalism are so structural that it is hard to even recognize our current system as capitalism, as for there to be capitalism there must be open competition. However, entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, anti-competitive. A prime example would be the current FCC debate on effectively rescinding net neutrality, which is quite clearly an anti-competitive move by internet service providers. The corruption comes in that the current appointed chairman of the FCC – Tom Wheeler – was himself a paid lobbyist for those very same ISPs. Indeed, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University has suggested in a recent paper, for instance, that we do not live in a democracy but rather an oligarchy, and that our political apparatus is currently set up specifically to marginalize popular will.

On a somewhat smaller scale, I have argued that landowners in New York have actively and aggressively lobbied the city government to halt development so as to maximize the value of their current properties, exacerbating the housing crisis and further unbalancing the economic equilibrium. This is more or less the argument of activist Nikolai Fedak, who argues that were restrictions to development lifted, the free market would have had a more organic solution to the housing crisis. However, there would have to be a will by developers to do so, and Journalist Steven Wishnia has pointed out several means by which New York City’s various incentives to build more affordable housing – the city’s 421a Program, for instance, or the state’s Mitchell-Lama program – have been corrupted by private companies not only to circumvent their stated mission of providing affordable housing but also to siphon public subsidies and tax abatements for the construction of luxury condominiums. Likewise, Bloomberg’s trickle-down means of attaching affordable housing to new private luxury developments in exchange for developer-friendly zoning relaxation has been ineffective to the point of being a Potemkin policy.

As such, it would appear that the impetus is then laid on government’s feet to unravel the knot of this particular issue, as capitalism cannot function without regulation and popular will cannot function without proportionate representation, and neither is evident. The city, at this juncture, would have to step in and build massive projects with a focus on co-operative housing in order to alleviate the issue, but the city itself can ill afford to build anything near to the demand required and the federal government is loathe to step in because their political power doesn’t really stem from populist will. On the whole, however, this isn’t necessarily an alien circumstance for the urban dispossessed: Anybody who rents knows what it feels like to live on borrowed time.

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