Lessons from the gentrification wars
The fight over gentrification makes strange bedfellows. On Tuesday, San Francisco residents voted down a proposed 18-month moratorium on market-rate development in the rapidly changing Mission District. The opponents included economists, real estate interests, and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, but also a beleaguered fetish-pornography website. Hoping to make up for the revenue that it’s losing to other Internet competitors, the company wants to redevelop part of its headquarters into a music venue. Aggressive land-use controls would thwart that.
Gentrification — that is, the upscaling of urban neighborhoods amid an influx of well-to-do newcomers — has been a bete noire for local activists in San Francisco, the Boston-Cambridge area, and elsewhere for decades. But just in recent weeks, the subject has been coming into sharper focus across the country.
Thanks to a certain Bay Area adult-entertainment company, it’s obvious that disputes over gentrification can divide interest groups in unpredictable ways. Here are a few other lessons from an evolving debate across the country:
The effects of gentrification are nuanced. Back when big cities looked like basket cases, the Clinton administration had a modest program to move poor urbanites out to the suburbs. That’s where the jobs were thought to be. The revival of big cities across the country turns that assumption on its head. Detailed new research by the Federal Reserve in Philadelphia indicates that many low-income residents of gentrifying neighborhoods see improvements in their credit scores — a proxy for economic well-being. The report echoes one from New York earlier this year, which found that public housing residents in gentrified areas saw safer streets, improved schools, and higher earnings. Fears of displacement, both studies indicate, can be exaggerated.
But don’t celebrate the opening of the latest doggie day care just yet: The Philadelphia study also suggests that when the very poorest residents move out, it’s generally to poorer areas with higher crime rates.
Activists and economists are talking past each other. Rents go up. Developers build pricey apartments and condos. Economists say the former causes the latter; activists presume the exact opposite. This was the subtext of the proposed moratorium in the Mission. Manhattan residents interviewed recently by The New York Times expressed similar concerns. In theory, a vast new construction project could remake a cheap neighborhood so thoroughly that it draws yuppies who otherwise wouldn’t give the area a second look. Yet it’s the overall housing shortage that prompts them to seek out cheaper real estate, and the only way to fix the problem is through lots of new market-rate housing.
The marketing term “luxury” has taken on a life of its own. In one sense, luxury housing is like obscenity; you know it when you see it. Sub-Zero freezers, private dining clubs, a uniformed doorman keeping 99-percenters out. But “luxury” has no fixed meaning, and real estate ads often apply the term even to units without plush amenities — furthering the idea that any market-rate units are intrinsically exclusive. Not coincidentally, backers of the San Francisco measure billed it as a bulwark against luxury housing.
The new economy has a PR problem. The growth of tech-intensive industries has spared cities like Boston and San Francisco the fate of Baltimore and Detroit. But as rents march upward, the offsetting benefits that brainy transients and their startups bring isn’t necessarily self-evident to longtime residents who work in other fields. Out of a legitimate concern that short-term rentals may change the economics of housing in ways that push prices still higher, San Franciscans also considered a ballot measure putting major restrictions on Airbnb, a hometown company. Airbnb didn’t help itself with a high-handed ad campaign — quickly pulled — that celebrated the company simply for paying taxes and seemed to criticize city employees’ work ethic.
We can address concrete problems head on. The Mission moratorium and anti-Airbnb measure both failed. Then again, both were bank shots — that is, indirect attempts to keep low-income residents and mom-and-pop businesses from being displaced. In contrast, San Francisco voters also approved a $310 million bond issue to protect and expand the stock of subsidized housing, as well as a new trust fund to help old-school businesses survive as commercial rents go up. Even as a long-simmering debate over gentrification in certain urban neighborhoods merges with society-wide anxieties about inequality, there’s still no substitute for nuts-and-bolts solutions.