On property rights and gentrification–a reaction to a comment

Commenter Walden writes in response to an entry from last week on richsplaining gentrification.

I am confused as to what element of our property rights system gives those who have resided in a neighborhood for a period of time the right to infringe upon the rights of other property owners in that same neighborhood because the latter group is changing something in a way that makes the former feel “excluded”.


Where to begin? First, there is nothing in property rights thinking that is useful in explaining neighborhood change other than that, when markets function, things change, and…well, the rest of the comment is hard to respond to because there really is no evidence that anybody in the gentrification discussion is *really* preventing anybody else from using their property rights. Have I missed a growth in anti-gentrification laws that have passed recently? The police evicting the fancy cheese store owner from her business so that a crackhouse can move in? The way rent control laws have spread like wildfire all over American cities? Because none of those things have happened as far as I know.

The only policy response that has had any traction has been community land trusts. And that’s a property approach.

Urban spaces always, inevitably, mix economic/property goals and use values/democratic preferences in one place. You can pretend that the economic and property parts of the city don’t exist in your arguments, or you can pretend the social and democratic use values don’t exist–and doing so makes for very clean theory. It’s practically an academic industry to pick a perspective–either the bare-knuckles property rights or the touchy-feely community rights one will do–and then bang on that drum your whole career.

But that won’t wash when dealing with everyday life and practice. No, unfortunately, we have both property rights and all those messy feels and attachments, and well, I prefer to live in a world where all those things get thought about. YMMV.

Since there’s no real policy change in place to thwart gentrification, what actually has people’s feathers ruffed on the “gentrification isn’t so bad” side is simply–and talk about frustrated entitlement–the fact that they want uninterrupted praise for “bringing back the city” and “bringing back the neighborhood.”

Gentrification complaints interrupt the triumphantalist narrative about saving the environment, serving social justice, etc etc that urban infill is, supposedly, all about. Gentrification complaints bring the dialogue back to uncomfortable discussions about winners and losers. One can wrap all this up in utilitarian arguments about how “we’re all better off” with less sprawl, urban redevelopment, etc etc but one won’t find a uniformly credulous and accepting audience for assertions of the social good in contemporary, pluralist cities.

The “gentrification doesn’t matter” chorus exemplifies a common approach in winner-loser development politics with mass audiences: try to convince the losers that they aren’t losing, and try to convince the spectators that the losers aren’t losing by shouting louder than the losers about how swell it all is. This generally works pretty well because losers lose because they aren’t economically and politically powerful to begin with.

IOW, the problem with gentrification lamenters’  myths is that they threaten the urbanists’ own myths. Yeah, I wasn’t going to go into this, but I also had a problem with the way that the original article used “myth” so dismissively. We’re still reading Homer and Hesiod 2000 years later. Narrative and symbol are often way more important than reality, particularly in politics.

“Gentrification” cannot be so flagrantly conflated with development. Nostalgia for the past is wonderful but the current strategy of lamenting change in neighborhoods is not going to get anywhere. The problem of why certain individuals or races or communities can afford the new market price as dictated over others, now that is the issue at hand and for our society. And as it so happens what we can do about that now is push for affordable housing that can mitigate this trend in the short term while we strive for true equality elsewhere.

No, “Gentrification” can’t be equated with development, but if we have learned anything, it’s that perceptions of gentrification are very, very likely with infill. So you can tell me not to conflate the two, but in a world where greenfield development is discouraged, gentrification and infill do run together once there is no more slack in the local market, and pretending they don’t track closely when housing is undersupplied strikes me as not terribly realistic. Remember that my original argument was the gentrification was simply a manifestation of affordability problems, inseparable from them, so trying to slice them into neat, distinct little packages where one is problem and the other isn’t won’t hold. Either they are both a thing and we have an affordability problem, or neither is a thing.

I tend not to like the term gentrification because I prefer “neighborhood change.” It’s a more general term.

As to the comment that ” Nostalgia for the past is wonderful but the current strategy of lamenting change in neighborhoods is not going to get anywhere.”

Lamenting is not a strategy. People who lament do not necessarily plan on “getting anywhere.” Just like cities mix up business/econ and home/family/love/attachment, it’s also possible for a person to grieve for loss without necessarily being on-board with broader policy agendas that prescribe one thing or another.

Lamenting is a thing that people do when they experience a loss. The western, modernist tendency to say either “GET OVER IT; SUCK UP AND DEAL” or “Don’t whine/fight for change” are dysfunctional to the degree that people who feel things feel those things whether you approve of them or not, or whether those feelings translate into a progressive notion of change or not. Sometimes people feel bad about things, and they want to talk about it. Is that really so wrong?

It’s even entirely possible to feel bad about a change you know has to happen.

As to exhorting the losers here to organize, by all means. But the winners could be a lot more believable as champions of affordability if they were lobbying for up-zoning on their own historic blocks, too.

Finally, people buy and sell and appropriate nostalgia all the time. Emotion and identity reside at the center of consumer preference. Nostalgia isn’t some useless thing that old people indulge in. It’s got value, and that value gets gobbled up in the land development machine right speedily. The memories and images that get made by one group of residents readily gets bought and sold among new and old residents alike. Brownstones aren’t objectively wonderful. They have a social meaning right along with their accessibility value, and that social meaning comes from their retro/vintage value.

A personal note:

I miss the old Pete’s in DTLA. Pete’s was of the first restaurants to go back to downtown LA. You could get good stuff, like burgers and waffles. It had lovely comfy seats. And dinner for two could cost around $50, even if one of you had a drink. It was a good, local joint. It even had the dreaded ‘brunch.’ We ate there 3 times a week when we lived downtown, and Andy and I used to go back once a week or so when we moved to West Adams.

Last year, the owners I believe decided to sell it to a guy who, indeed, transformed it into a variant of the rest of the “Ever-So-Clever-Name” places that he has developed, like a whole bunch of foodie places that have descended upon downtown LA and seem to be flourishing with their hard chairs embedded with rail spikes to make sure you don’t sit for a nanosecond longer than it takes you to eat the $35-a-plate plate of imported pigeon foam garnished with pork belly thought up by fame-seeking chefs.

It is now called Ledlow Swan. Ledlow Swan. (I’m sorry, but it sounds like a brand of bath salts my gran would like.)

I understand why the owners did so. It was their business, and running a restaurant is hard. They have other things to do than worry about me and what I want. I genuinely wish all of them well, even the guy who thinks it’s ok to charge $14 for brussels sprouts with an egg. Hey. I was trained by Chicago school economists. Land rents, you know, and WTP rule the world.

But I seldom go downtown anymore, and neither do my dollars. Because all that? It’s not for me. It’s for other people. And I miss what was. I’m sure plenty of people think the whole thing has improved; their dollars will keep it all going just fine without me, no doubt. I’m not keeping Mr.Superchef and all his adoring fans on Yelp from anything with my lament.

But I do miss it. That’s reality. And I don’t owe anybody any apologies for my memories or feelings about place. They matter. What is there now may be wonderful–I’m obviously not sold–but it may for all I know. But what was there was special, too; it was a part of me.

That’s how place works. The only way to avoid that feeling when things change is to never attach. And that is not what we want with places or cities, regardless of whether you own something or not.

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