We’re pleased to publish another contribution from City Observatory friend and colleague Alex Baca. Alex has written about cities while living in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland, OH, and earlier this year authored a three-part review of Derek Hyra’s Cappuccino City. She’s back this month with more thoughts on how we talk about, think about and react to gentrification.
In this year’s Answers issue, Washington City Paper’s annual cover package devoted to sussing out reader-submitted queries about the District of Columbia, one totally over-it inquirer wrote—evidently, in all caps—”When will gentrification end?”
I worked for City Paper from 2010 to 2012, and copy editing fell under my duties as assistant editor. By the time I was a young twenty-something in D.C., the trajectory of the city’s bougiefication was older than I was. Still, many people—including, it should be said, journalists—were living in neighborhoods, like Park View and Bloomingdale, that they claimed they could never imagine looking like or costing what they did. This meant that stories of the friction of cultural change were fresh every day.
It’s easy to get lazy, and fall into tropes, when you feel like you’re perpetually writing about the same thing; when you’re writing about gentrification in a place where it, as most people take it to mean, is happening, there’s the doubly exhausting feature of feeling as if it invades every aspect of your existence—where you live, what you eat, what you do for fun, and how you get around. Still, the word itself, as City Observatory, other publications, and academic research has repeatedly made clear, carries plenty of connotations but does not singularly, definitively mean one thing.
Eventually, when proofing stories, I started circling “gentrification,” “gentrified,” or any other variation and kicking drafts back to writers or editors, asking them to rewrite the sentence, paragraph, or story without using the word. It forced us all to be more clear about what we were talking about—a good thing, because what we were talking about ranged expansively, and included not-so-gentrification-y topics like D.C.’s police chief to then-mayor Vince Gray’s shadow campaign. This exercise also, I think, made the City Paper stories that were explicitly about the particulars of gentrification more credible, more worthwhile, and more truly reflective of D.C. at that time.
It would be inappropriate, and absolutely not in the Answers issue’s spirit, to send—as I would have to a writer—this question back to its asker with a crude markup demanding clarity. We can also reasonably infer what they meant, anyway: “When will gentrification stop?” is as much a plea as an inquiry: When will rents stop rising? When will fancy restaurants, which I don’t want to go to, stop opening? When will D.C. stop the process of becoming something that doesn’t feel like home to me?
Unfortunately, though City Paper’s response takes the question seriously, it does not adequately address its concerns. It instead responds in the fashion of the “cappuccino lens,” my reappropriation of Derek Hyra’s terminology for cultural change. Like the City Paper take in question, Cappuccino City was a missed opportunity, as I wrote in my review of his book:
We cannot craft good policy without first establishing an ideological framework that appropriately considers what is going on in America’s Shaws, so that we can future-proof neighborhoods, cities, and regions for as many scenarios as possible. That necessitates admitting that both increased housing supply and strategies to mitigate physical and cultural displacement have a role in contemporary urban policy. Hyra had that opportunity. He squandered it to double-down on an out-of-date discourse.
The most powerful part of editor-in-chief Alexa Mills’ response is a tremendous statement from Harvard University’s Lily Song, who riffs beautifully on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark “A Case For Reparations”:
“‘I would argue,’ says Song, ‘That we cannot begin to tackle gentrification without a reparations agenda of targeted spatial and social investment and deeper reckoning, reconciliation, and healing that not only takes seriously institutional racism but also the moral/ethical deficiency and complicity among Americans who do not know or choose to overlook our collective history of mass plunder and trauma. It would go beyond simply recognizing the profound injustice of politics, business, or urban development as-usual to actually begin unraveling the system from the core.”
Unfortunately, this is reduced greatly by the fact that it follows this, from Columbia University’s Saskia Sassen:
‘Gentrification might diminish a bit,’ she says, ‘But there is an even more negative force: the buying of properties by national and foreign individuals (who just want a luxury place), speculators who are cleansing their money by buying buildings, and financial firms who can make money off luxury buildings even when those buildings are empty.”
Mills’ response uplifts the argument that we must “begin unraveling the system”—the uniquely American system of which Coates writes in “A Case For Reparations”—”from the core,” but essentially chalks up widening income segregation and homelessness to global capital. It is easy to do this. The super-rich, and the developments that cater to them, are highly visible; that a cabal of luxury apartments stands empty when the majority of renters in the U.S. are cost-burdened can quickly slip to cast the necessary argument to add more housing as gauche and offensive. Moreover, shadowy foreign investors are vaporous things of which we can wash our hands, because they’re not ours. Unfortunately, investments in real estate in D.C. are not as great, or as insidious, as Sassen makes them out to be, as Payton Chung shows for Greater Greater Washington.
Sassen’s take, like Derek Hyra’s blaming of newcomers for rising rents, is a way of pointing to something removed enough from our own lives that we absolve ourselves of the responsibilities Song rightfully demands we undertake. Framing Sassen and Song as she does allows Mills to skate over an actual solution to “gentrification,” offered by The New School’s Mindy Fullilove: “Intervening in this trend involves substantial investments in affordable housing, she says. Many scholars and policymakers concur.” Centering the cultural anxieties of change conveniently glosses over the fact that lots of displacement happens without development; that “gentrification might not drive poor people out of neighborhoods, but gentrifying neighborhoods are where there’s a greater risk that when low-income households leave their apartments those spots will be taken up by wealthier people”; that building more housing for the rich can, in many cases, help the poor. In a 2017 paper called “Supply Skepticism,” Vicki Been, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Katherine O’Regan explain that substantial investments in both affordable and market-rate housing are needed to bring down its cost. Been elaborates on that here.
Substantial investments in affordable housing are barely possible and hardly popular. Neither is building new market-rate housing. While some renters understandably fear that market-rate construction will lead to displacement, a greater threat to affordability are the residents who have delayed new units in affluent, single-family neighborhoods. If D.C. were to pummel the spoils of its growing tax base into a social housing program, that housing would hardly penetrate large swaths of the city, as a report released this week by the D.C. Policy Center finds:
This mix of the housing structures that favors single-family units in the District is a major factor of exclusion. Even small changes in the mix of buildings can make meaningful improvements to the inclusiveness of the city. Consider the eight assessment neighborhoods in Northwest (Hawthorne, Colonial Village, Woodley, Foxhall, Burleith, Kent, Spring Valley and Berkley) with an average of one unit per building—all single-family homes. These eight neighborhoods, collectively, have 4,876 housing units in 4,748 buildings. Adding a single low-rise multifamily building with 100 units in each of these neighborhoods would increase their housing units by 16 percent while increasing the number of buildings by 0.2 percent.
In D.C., Wards 2 and 3 have evaded or preempted the responsibility of housing the city’s citizens by continuously fighting new construction or instituting regulations like historic districts that make it difficult to build more. As a result, neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa, and the Southwest Waterfront, zoned for a greater variety of housing types and not so fully occupied by those with the luxury to protest change, are the only places that can realistically accommodate new buildings.
Those places look overwhelmingly different as a result, and the same physics work at a regional level. Because income mobility in the D.C. are is relatively high, people are not going to stop moving there; for many individuals and families, it may be more lucrative to stay. Expecting D.C. alone to shoulder the metro area’s burden for housing proximate to jobs, or transportation, will only exacerbate and accelerate the scarcity of affordable units.
Song’s call to unravel the system could easily begin with a reevaluation of what we deem as acceptable, what we permit, and where we permit it. We can begin that work today. We could choose to commit to radically inclusive fair-housing policies in our cities, especially as the federal government dismantles funding and protections for that work. We could institute a land-value tax. We could choose to pay out financial dividends to our residents, be more generous in our voucher systems, or legitimately institute reparations. We could cease funding roadways and funnel that money instead into public transportation. We could permit, in places zoned exclusively for single-family homes, denser housing. We could ban parking minimums. We could do all of these things, and more, quite swiftly.
I’ve argued such points since 2010. To be sure, in the intervening years, no American city has shown that it can successfully balance affordability and demand with existing policies. But we haven’t tried the things listed above, or more radical ideas beyond them, not because they are impossible, or because they don’t work. Rather, we’ve avoided them because they are unpopular to those with financial wealth or the wealth of time to protest. And they require a vastly different set of organizational goals than our municipal governments—which tend to fixate on growth and economic development—currently possess.
My frustration with Mills’ answer stems from the fact that the media has a great responsibility to do right by this topic and by the many others, like education, health, and transportation, whose fundamental truths—for example, adding more housing to increase affordability—are often counterintuitive, nearly always unpopular, and require keeping politicians accountable. City Paper has in its lifespan done a masterful job covering the shifts, jabs, and discomforts of an in-demand region that’s hurtling toward an unfamiliar future; it answered a similar question in 2014 in a much more appropriate way. More and more stories nationally are explaining how and why where we live changes as it does—without falling back on gentrification as shorthand, and often alongside reporting on specific ways to make housing more affordable.
Perhaps not coincidentally, more and more pro-housing policies are emerging nationally: California’s SB827, Minneapolis’ citywide allowance of four-plexes, Buffalo’s elimination of parking minimums. These policies are not, and cannot be, panaceas, because there is no one reason that housing in America is inadequate. But they are a desperately needed start. D.C.’s own entreé, the amendments to its Comprehensive Plan, commanded a record thirteen-hour hearing last week that questioned fundamentally whether neighborhood stability or affordable housing is more important. The amendments to the Comp Plan that pass will guide the District’s land use in coming decades. If the Comp Plan does not provide for a citywide increase in new housing, D.C. will become even more expensive and exclusionary.
As Daniel Herriges writes in a series of posts for Strong Towns about how to address both gentrification and concentrated poverty, “The relevant fact is that marginalized people tend to be excluded from economic opportunity whether or not their neighborhoods are gentrifying in some particular sense.” Gentrification, as we understand it, is not going to stop. Additionally, the U.S. is sorting and segregating faster than ever, and so the gravity of what gentrification is has only grown weightier; we can sense it in a way that we could not decades ago. One of our many moral responsibilities as a society, I believe, is to ensure enough places to live, as well as wages high enough to make a reasonable fraction of those places to live within the reach of most people. But even in the best-case scenario, one in which as many people who choose to be housed are as safely and affordably sheltered as possible (perhaps by the kind of massive social housing program increasingly occupying the imagination of leftist commentators), the discomfiting nature and seeming unfairness of change is likely to persist.
Mills writes that though many have dedicated their careers to understanding gentrification, “none can predict the future.” But predicting the future is not the point. No one is ever going to be able to foresee in clear-enough detail what comes next, so we instead must plan to be resilient enough to staunch blows that we won’t recognize until they hit. We have not yet truly committed to attempts to building cities that work for the many, not the few. It’s time to try.