Atlantic Cities editor Garance Franke-Ruta misses the real myth about gentrification

Attention conservation notice: You don’t get to complain about how people don’t understand gentrification if you don’t understand housing policy.

Over at the Atlantic Cities, Franke-Ruta writes a reasonable, if overly long (the editor needs more editing), essay of how black elites (politicians and real estate developers) actively pursued gentrification via redevelopment plans in urban D.C. There is much to commend the essay, including highlights of how African Americans contributed to the city’s comeback, and how they continue to influence urban development. D.C. isn’t just wonks, she notes: it has a strong group of creatives as well. One thing I particularly like about the essay concerns the attention she pays to naming things in the city.

The essay suggests some reasonable, if perennial, questions for those who bemoan gentrification: why in heaven’s name does urban planning have people so focused on economic development if we don’t want those efforts to work and change what appears to be a run-down and impoverished place into what it could be: a thriving and well-to-do place? Why whinge about gentrification when you’ve actively pursued it?

Here’s why some of us who are interested in justice still get to criticize.

Americans are incompetent, purposely, at two policy instruments that, because of our incompetence, hamstring place-based economic development as a means to help the impoverished people actually living in places targeted for redevelopment. Our first incompetence: public housing everywhere but New York. The second incompetence: zoning and assorted restrictions on infill and unit size. The combination of the two means that low-cost housing is undersupplied, always. The problem isn’t gentrification or redevelopment, per se; the problem is a deficit of decent, affordable housing.

When place-based economic development efforts don’t work at all, you end up spending a lot of money on people movers that have few people to move. When place-based economic development efforts work, you have improved a place, but the chronic undersupply of affordable units will mean that the spoils of that development will go to developers and land owners, while residents, over time, have to either pay more or move, particularly renters. Residents can benefit from new amenities and services, but it’s a fair bet that those able to stay are likely to be, on the margin, the most well-heeled of the area’s residents. And the long-term trajectory of the community won’t be such that impoverished residents get to enjoy the new amenities, as places that gentrify become increasingly exclusive enclaves. Right now, Harlem residents may be enjoying new services. Two decades from now, Harlem residents will be more uniformly affluent.So, in general, this is how land markets function, and markets allocate things, and that’s that. The myth is that there is nothing we can do about those allocations, or there is nothing we should do about those allocations.

I really wish the Atlantic Cities would get more complexity in their viewpoint, which seems to be “You people who aren’t experts on cities don’t understand how complex gentrification is! Inequalities exist, sure, but look at how cool these cities are now.” Well, ok, fine, but the point, for those of us that are concerned, is that we do have policies and tools that could help cushion the blows of re-development for people who will struggle with new prices, businesses, and new neighbors. We just choose not employ those tools the same way we often chose not to employ tools that would cushion and protect those who are impoverished more generally—like going decades without national healthcare policies.

What irritates: that the Atlantic Cities uses its platform to cheerlead the already-winning side on gentrification (developers and the affluent), without highlighting the fact that gentrification, while probably inevitable and inequitable (most things are), doesn’t have to be as inequitable as we choose to allow it to be.

A commenter, Peter Smith, captures my frustration:

Whenever someone writes a post that talks about gentrification, @AtlanticCities writes a multi-thousand word rebuttal post about how black people just don’t get it, that people who talk about gentrification just don’t get it, that gentrification isn’t really happening because some meaningless-and-take-out-of-context statistics, and….if we throw enough mud against the wall and ridicule any point of view which takes the issue of gentrification seriously, nobody will be able to focus on the fact that poor/black people are being socially cleansed from DC. and the ridiculing author may be up for a promotion. Colin Powell didn’t get to appear before the UN by telling the truth about Vietnam massacres, after all.

Keywords to use when attacking any story that talks about gentrification:
rehearses, tired, tropes, genre, hearkening, mythic.

And don’t forget to say, “It’s class, not race, duh!” and “Why can’t we all just get along?”

We must continue to defend the gentrifiers from points of view that threaten to sully their reputations. They are good people — black and white — and we must not allow anyone to question their benevolence.

Besides, DC is _completely_ unlike every other city on the planet — DC is _different_, you see.

DC is, of course, different, but it’s also not different. Cities are like microcosms of society, and as inequality in the US has worsened, inequality in our cities has worsened as well. The pathetic absence of any real discourse about worsening inequality in national politics also plagues urban politics, clearly.

Viz, another commenter from the essay:

If there’s fewer blacks, who cares?

With fewer blacks comes less crime, better jobs, etc.

Hard-working, well-educated blacks can stay if they want to.

Not sure what the problem is.

Isn’t it swell that racism has gone away? I feel so much better.

2 thoughts on “Atlantic Cities editor Garance Franke-Ruta misses the real myth about gentrification

  1. Great post. What are, in your view, “the policies and tools that could help cushion the blows of re-development for people who will struggle with new prices, businesses, and new neighbors.”?

    • Thanks for the compliment. I mentioned some approaches in the post, but I didn’t expand: Relax nonessential, aesthetic (not safety) building codes, up-zone like crazy (you want a new rail station; you also have to allow 20+ story buildings there by right….no, it’s not just about preserving the cutesy brownstones, nice as that is), expand housing voucher programs and provide things like community benefits agreements, housing vouchers, and public labor agreements. The first two are supply-side approaches to allowing more housing at the low end, the third is a demand-side approach that allows choice and punishes bad management in low-end housing, and the last listing provide some short-term local opportunities for people in the area to be engaged in the redevelopment activities. Not perfect justice, but some consideration to the changing affordability of the neighborhood as it undergoes changes.

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