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.Read More »