Those with above-average economic power can’t help but be gentrifiers?

One public policy student suggests it is really hard for those with economic advantages to avoid being gentrifiers, even when they don’t move into up-and-coming urban neighborhoods:

But it’s worse than that: it doesn’t even matter where you live. Moving to a higher-income neighborhood – one where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income – means you’re helping to sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area segregated. You’re also forcing lower-income college graduates to move to more economically marginal areas, where they in turn will push out people with even less purchasing power. You can’t escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape their whiteness, because those are both subject to systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the classes, there is no division between “gentrifiers” and “non-gentrifiers.” If you live in a city, you don’t get to opt out.

The upshot here is not that we should all descend into nihilistic real estate hedonism. But we need to recognize what’s really going on: that what we call “gentrification” these days is only one facet of the much larger issue of economic segregation. That people get priced out of the places they already live in is only half of the problem. The other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that people can’t move to the neighborhoods to which they’d like to move, and are stuck in places with worse schools, more crime, and inferior access to jobs and amenities like grocery stores. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it’s no less of a disaster.

And all this, in turn, is the result of a curiously dysfunctional housing system – one that’s set up to allow market forces to push up prices without regard for people who might be excluded, and to prevent market forces from building more homes and mitigating that exclusion.

The emphasis here is on the system: people with more economic resources have more opportunities to move where they want and the capital tends to be or go where they go. A few other thoughts:

1. This reminds me of the book Colored Property which argues a key shift took place in the 1950s and 1960s as white homeowners started arguing for their economic, rather than race-based, rights. Thus, buying a nice home in a nice white neighborhood wasn’t about avoiding blacks or other minorities; it was about taking advantage of one’s own hard work and protecting one’s property values. These are the same justifications underlying the system today: people with more resources argue they should be able to move to nice places and have nice amenities. But, this comes at the expense of fewer resources in other places.

2. Students often ask me what they can do about issues of poverty and social injustice. I try to inform them about these systems as well as tell them that one of the bigger choices they will have to make after graduating is choosing where they live. Should they as relatively wealthy Americans with cultural capital simply chase nice amenities, high property values, and a secure and high-paying job overall? Or, could they choose to contribute to and learn from other kinds of places?

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