Gentrification shreds the fabric of our cities while making rich developers even richer
11 min read
When I moved to Austin in 1976, I lucked into finding a small, dog-run style house that must have had a lot of dogs running through it over the years, for it was pretty run down. That was good, though, because it meant I could afford it on my minimalist salary. Located in a working-class neighborhood just off of South Congress Avenue, the house was about 100 years old and needed a lot of work, but it suited me just fine. As did the mixed-race neighborhood of striving musicians, retirees, ex-hippies, unemployed writers, cab drivers, and several marijuana peddlers. It was an unpretentious, genuinely eclectic community of laid-back, free-spirited Austinites. (Our unofficial slogan was, “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”)
We had plenty of bars, churches, and other places where neighbors would gather periodically in various groupings, but one spot was a magnet for the whole community, regularly pulling practically everyone in. The H-E-B, our area’s supermarket, was part of a mid-sized chain of Texas grocery stores named for its founder Howard E. Butt. The family smartly chose to market Mr. Butt’s initials, rather than draw attention to his namesake body part.) Our H-E-B was widely popular because its workers paid attention to the community they were in, stocking staples like 20-pound bags of frijoles, smoked ham hocks, and cornmeal-breaded catfish, as well as auto-repair parts and low-priced barbeque grills made from barrels.
Ironically, it was the store’s attentive connection to its customers that suddenly made me aware of an unsettling reality in the late 1990s: The neighborhood was fundamentally changing. My wake-up call came from my friend Molly Ivins, the bigger-than-life Texas populist and gloriously talented writer who also lived in our offbeat, Southside habitat. “Hightower,” she barked alarmingly into the phone, “you will not believe what I just saw them selling at the H-E-B.” Before I could muster a guess, Molly drawled out: “Por-ta-BELLOW mushrooms!”
Well, there it was–foodie evidence that gentrification had crept into our neighborhood without so much as a pretty please.
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Soon after, the gentry were spreading all around us. Modest old homes were spiffed up and marketed at jaw-dropping prices–now starting at around half-a-million bucks, with rentals above $4,000 a month. Likewise, the collection of inexpensive, fun-and-funky shops strung along a couple of main corridors has been thinned out by skyrocketing rents and escalating property taxes, and replaced by chic boutiques and pricey restaurants. And we were dismayed (and not a little embarrassed) when the new merchant class of absentee owners rebranded our whole South Congress neighborhood “SoCo.” (It would’ve been more honest to dub it “SoEx,” as in So Expensive.) As money poured in, many longtime friends, neighbors, and much of the funkiness were squeezed out. Nonetheless, I hasten to add that the neighborhood retains enough of a sprinkling of the uncommon places and unorthodox characters to remain a delightful place to live and enjoy. If, that is, you can afford it.
LIKE WALL STREET, SILICON VALLEY, and other centers of corporate conceit, the high-dollar world of real estate gentrifiers is filled with hustlers propelled by their own arrogance and avarice. In 2015, one of these, F&F Real Estate Ventures, was trying to cash in on a gentrifying boom sweeping East Austin’s long-established Mexican-American community, rapidly displacing the residents’ modest homes, small businesses, and proud culture.
The Anglo impresarios of F&F had bought a commercial property in the community, intending to oust the owners of a local pinata store, demolish the building, and flip the property to some upscale emporium with no ties to the community. Sure enough, in the wee hours of a February morning, it proceeded to crush the little shop. Alas, the gentrifiers had not bothered to notify Sergio and Monica Lejarazu, who rented the store, about the imminent destruction. All of their merchandise and business equipment were also crushed.
Austinites erupted in outrage at the blunt-force immorality of these profiteers, but F&F pushed back. Jordan French, one of the Fs in F&F, had this defense: “Say you have a house that was infested by roaches. You have to clean that up.”
The Lejarazus were eventually compensated and have relocated their shop. F&F renovated the piñata property and leased it to “Blue Cat Cafe”–an eatery that lets customers dine with cats.
To the amazement of longtime locals in many parts of America, gentrification has surged in recent years, suddenly swamping whole communities in US urban centers, as well as in close-in suburbs and quaint small towns. The developers, bankers, and public officials pushing such incursions try to soften the destructive impacts of gentrification by cloaking the term with euphemisms like “revitalization” and “enrichment”–implying progress for all and a beautiful community uplift. In fact, though, it has nearly always been a code word for a particularly ugly form of class war.
The process often amounts to a forced taking and the involuntary removal of lower-income residents, businesses, and cultures from an area that the affluent “discover.” The discoverers decide they either want the area for themselves or want to flip it (at an extraordinary profit) to even more affluent buyers. The rationalization for this taking and displacement rests on four wobbly pillars of conventional wisdom (perpetuated, of course, by the gentrifiers, not those gentrified upon).
Wobbly Pillar #1
The “evolving affordability” of a community is a natural and immutable process through which wondrous free market forces transform low-income areas into prosperous neighborhoods–for the benefit of all.
Wrong. Gentrification is a function of power, not natural law or economic inevitability. It occurs when wealthy, politically connected interests make decisions in closed-door meetings to take over the neighborhoods of people who have little money and power, thus no effective voice or recourse in the taking. The takers usually make a pretense of negotiating with longtime property owners. But it’s a scam, for the developers hurl high-pressure, low-ball pitches at the locals, overpowering families that can’t afford lawyers and lobbyists to go to bat for them.
Renters are worse off, rarely even getting fair notice that a hellish Dickensian disruption is coming at them. Even if they’ve been integral members of the neighborhood for decades, the ousted tenants’ rights to appeal are curtailed by economic and legal realities. The seriously skewed balance of power is exemplified by eviction courts, where up to 90 percent of tenants don’t even have lawyers to represent them. In one of many recent examples here in Austin, more than 200 working-class families (including 121 children) were abruptly ejected two years ago from an affordable apartment complex. Their lives were thrown into a tailspin when the mega-developer that bought the complex summarily cancelled their leases. In a backroom deal tenants were unaware of, much less involved in, the city had given special zoning exemptions that allowed the new corporate owner to bulldoze the long-standing family homes of these mostly Latinx residents and to erect high-end luxury apartments on top of the detritus. Rents for these new, ritzy dwellings ran up to $36,000 a year–way above the the total annual income of most of the displaced families. As one tenant said of the brusque eviction, “We didn’t have any way to stop them. They treated us like dirt. All they gave us was a kick in the ass.”
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Deep cuts in federal support have shifted fair housing responsibility to cities and towns. So start where you live!
Our friends at People’s Action have taken on the housing crisis at the national level with a People’s Hearing on Housing–and they have member organizations in 26 states. Find one near you. peoplesaction.org/affiliates/
The Right to the City Alliance fights for the rights of all residents to help shape their cities and the policies that govern them. righttothecity.org
Mark Horvath of InvisiblePeople.tv tells the stories of folks without housing and offers ways to support them.
Wobbly Pillar #2
It’s only a relatively few Americans (mostly low-income, less productive people) who are inconvenienced by being priced out of their homes and businesses, and even they generally benefit by being freed from the confines of their old, economically stagnant environment.
Millions of middle-income previously secure in homes they owned or rented have had to move out of their neighborhoods and even out of their cities, because gentrification has drastically raised home prices, property taxes, and rents. While it’s obviously beneficial to have such essential community servants as teachers, police, and firefighters live among the people they serve, who among them can afford it?
When one Oakland, California, school principal started teaching in 2001, the story was: Teachers are never going to afford a house. And now it’s: Teachers can’t afford an apartment.
So the city’s teachers have to move clear out of the county and face long, dispiriting commutes to and from their classrooms.
In metro areas across the country, consumer demand for affordable apartments is huge and fast growing, but that mass market goes begging because developers can make far greater profits by building upscale units for wealthy people seeking trendy neighborhoods.
And so it goes: Gentrification begets gentrification.
DO YOU WONDER why even many middle-income Americans can’t find affordable apartments for their families? It’s largely because corporate developers have abandoned them, building very few places for the majority of apartment seekers. In fact, in 2015, according to rentcafe.com, “in as many as 14 US cities, the choice for renters between luxury and non-luxury new apartments was non-existent as all large developments opened were luxury rentals.” That’s 100% luxury v. 0% affordable! Also, more than 90% of new construction in the fast-growing metroplexes of Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, and Houston was built for high-end renters.
A survey by RENTCafe, a nationwide apartment search website, found that 75 percent of all new apartment complexes built in the US in 2015 were luxury developments! You might expect that skew toward housing for the affluent in the Northeast and California, with such super-pricey cities as New York and San Francisco, so I was surprised to see that luxury construction was most dominant in the South, where 78 percent of all apartments were upscale and in the Southwest where the number reached an appalling 88 percent.
For poverty-income families, being gentrified out of an affordable space can mean more than a long commute. It often forces them to move into bad and dangerous housing; pay up to 70 percent of the family’s monthly income for a place to live; face eviction (there were 2.3 million in 2016, not counting the unofficial ones, with landlords often simply locking tenants out); and fall into deeper debt, poverty and, frequently ending up homeless–living in their cars or on the street. The toll lands heavily on children since they make up a third of Americans without homes–astonishingly, the average age of a homeless person is 9!
Meanwhile, here comes Team Trump heaping scorn on poor people even as it it callously slashes budgets for pro-grams aimed at giving them a chance for decent housing.
Indeed, Ben Carson, the incompetent US housing secretary, is pushing a vicious Trump proposal to triple the rent that the lowest-income residents pay for apartments in public housing projects. Touted as a deficit reduction plan, this outrage would cast a million of America’s poorest children out of their homes. And this from a multimillionaire cabinet honcho who tried to make taxpayers buy him a new $31,000 dining table and chairs for his private executive suite in America’s housing agency.
Wobbly Pillar #3
Gentrification is good for society at large, reducing blight while lifting low-value properties to their highest and best use.
Neighborhoods are more than a collection of properties, and a community’s value is far greater than the combined financial valuation of those parcels. While predatory developers know the minute details of zoning codes, campaign donation laws, and foreclosure loopholes, they know little and care less about unique cultures, Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, MD. social fabric, local history, natural beauty, and other intangible, non-monetary sources of a community’s true value. So they use the former to tear down or plasticize the latter and call it progress.
Yes, we can all agree that lower-income neighborhoods need and deserve upgrades, amenities, and new vigor, but why are we allowing rank profiteers to pre-tend they’re providing any of that by taking the neighbor out of the ‘hood. Corporations assert that the ethical guideline for real estate development should be to attain the “highest and best use” of property–and then they conveniently define “highest and best” only by the increase in their own profits. Such blatant robbery would make even Jesse James blush.
Wobbly Pillar #4
Okay, there is a bit of downside to gentrification, but we should accept a little human displacement as a reasonable price for the financial gains the process produces in the overall economy–and we definitely must not tamper with the structural forces at work.
First, whenever the vague phrase “financial gain” is flashed as the neon-bright rationale for any big community disruption, the proper retort is: financial gain for whom? With gentrification, the answer almost always is that the moneyed few gain at the expense of the struggling many. Second, financial gain at the price of fairness, diversity, and social harmony is a bottom-line loss for any community. Third, gentrification is a direct cause of the gaping inequality dividing America, intentionally used by the affluent as a wedge to further separate their individual good fortunes from the Common Good.
Not only is gentrification creating a nationwide housing crisis, but it has now metamorphosed into a devastating assault on America’s democratic ideals, endangering our social unity.
Embracing the process of gentrification as the natural course of things (and often benefiting from it), wealth-friendly politicians advocate merely sticking Band-Aids on some of the lethal ruptures–such as the often used “remedy” of requiring that developers pay some of the moving costs of families they displace and dispossess.
But far from accepting gentrification as an untouchable economic force, We the People must organize to protect ourselves from the predatory powers that are literally invading our cities. This means going straight at such structural causes of gentrification as unrestrained capitalist greed, corporate money in politics, institution-al racism, and, most fundamentally, the immoral sense of superiority and entitlement that has inflicted today’s wealthy interests.
Impossible? Not at all. In fact, the rampant spread of corporate outrages, human indignities, and community destruction caused by gentrifiers have sparked a rising “culture of resistance” all across grassroots America. After all, even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. The millions who’ve been kicked out–along with those who sense that they’re next on the list–are kicking back. To help, check out the Do Something Box.