Fighting Gentrification, But To What End?

Fighting Gentrification, But To What End?

Blocking new development does not stop renovation and displacement.

In San Francisco (ClockworkGrue/Flickr)

When rising rents chase poor and middle-class residents out of urban neighborhoods, left activists are prone to pin the blame on new buildings. In Seattle, “Fight Development” was the slogan of protesters who sat in streets last February to block Microsoft commuter buses. In San Francisco, the Tenants Union backed a June referendum that made it harder to build housing along the waterfront.

There is a political logic to this strategy. Tenants and anti-development homeowners share a common enemy: the owners and builders of commercial real estate. In cities with rent control, pro-tenant politicians typically turn to homeowner groups to fill out their electoral base.

But this would seem at best an alliance of convenience. As economists are quick to point out, limiting the overall supply of housing is no way to lower its price. Blocking new building does not stop renovation and displacement.

Renters’ interests fundamentally clash with the demands of not-in-my-backyard homeowners. Civic associations insist that low-cost homes will destroy the character of their neighborhoods. When they complain about neighborhoods’ changing “character,” they mean something more than exterior appearance. In cities dominated by low-rise housing, the splitting of big houses into less expensive units—invisible from the outside if all enter through one door—is a particular target of their ire. Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, looking back at the controversy that erupted when he championed a modest loosening of the ban on two-family houses in one-family areas, likened his experience to that of a character in a Franz Kafka novel.

The original purpose of single-family zoning was to make housing not more affordable but less. Realtors were among the chief advocates of zoning when it was introduced in the 1920s, and one of their objectives was to raise rents by limiting the construction of apartment houses. Their allies were the buyers of newly built residences in what were then advertised as “high-class” subdivisions.

Why, then, do so many critics of gentrification put development control at the head of their agenda? In part, it’s a way to find easy victories. A new apartment building that replaces a parking lot won’t drive out tenants the same way a condo conversion will, but it’s much easier to stop.

But much more is going on here than mere political opportunism. A deeper affinity between the two anti-development camps often lurks beneath the surface. For a fair number of grassroots advocates, concern about affordability begins with a desire to keep the neighborhood just the way it was when they moved in. Sympathy for low-income neighbors comes second.

At their worst, local struggles against gentrification have less to do with rising prices than with preserving the special cachet of a newly hip neighborhood. Much as in a fancy suburb that must fight off a developer, locals find the new buildings and their occupants to be in poor taste. Development is “sucking out what’s left of Seattle’s soul,” that city’s shuttle bus protesters complained, with “the bland architecture of conspicuous consumption.” When global capital is fingered as the driving force, resistance to change acquires a veneer of leftism, allowing the edgy brand image of the locality to escape the taint of conservatism.

Affordability arguments crop up, too, in places where the political fashion runs more to the center. Here one finds them turned on their head and used explicitly to keep multi-family housing out of expensive areas.

Builders in Washington, D.C., have taken to replacing small single-family rowhouses near downtown with taller multi-unit buildings. The owners of other rowhouses, renovated during an earlier phase of gentrification, dislike these “pop-ups.” City planners, yielding to their pressure, proposed to put a halt to many of these apartment conversions. The rationale given for this zoning change is affordability—it will hold down the price of three-bedroom single-family homes.

Even in Greenwich, Connecticut—where, if anywhere, the gentrification horse has long since left the barn—a ban on townhouses was justified as a means of preserving less expensive single-family houses.

Whatever the motivation, limits on new building do little to preserve low-income housing, and they ultimately boomerang. A tide of demand for urban living is washing over the country after a century spent pushing people into suburbs. The number of people who want to live in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York exceeds the number of homes for them. If no more housing is built there, simple arithmetic says that someone must be forced out. That someone, we all know, will not be the rich.

Downtown high rises help relieve upward pressure on rents, but they are not the kind of city living everyone wants. Urbanism will only be affordable if urban neighborhoods of all sorts are made plentiful. That can only be done by altering old single-family and rowhouse sections of cities and inner suburbs—the places where anti-gentrification campaigns are most often based—so that they become dense, lively, walkable urban districts.

Such a transformation will not come if new buildings are allowed in grudgingly, placed where they will least offend the neighbors. That only creates a denser version of the suburbs. Change must be embraced and guided toward outcomes that are both more urban and more just.

When new apartments line the sidewalks of shopping streets, buses run more frequently and customers walk to stores. Old and new residents alike can then escape the heavy cost of an automobile.

Zoning laws can be changed to allow conversion of garages and unused bedrooms into rental apartments. This makes housing less expensive for owners and tenants alike.

In a city where neighborhoods never change, good, walkable neighborhoods must inevitably be the preserve of a few. In a just society, they would be for everyone.


Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His new book, Dead End, is about the politics of urbanism and transit.


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