|Late '80s in East Village. Were you there? Seems like yesterday...|
I've been doing my best to learn about the mechanics of gentrification. The Big G may look like a conspiracy, but in some ways it's the fault of neighboring neighborhoods' own NIMBYism, which made the next neighborhood so appealing. And while it's tempting to meet NIMBY with NIMBY, the problems just get kicked down the road to other neighborhoods even less able to sustain some moderate growth. Sometimes it's worth remembering that we are a City, not a collection of warring territories.
Strange bedfellows emerge in times like these. Anti-gentrification forces have curried favor with (in my view) much more salient and convincing political movements like Black Lives Matter, grassroots tenant organizing and calls for corporate come-uppance. That is, the kind of activism that actually aims to hold law enforcement, landlords and the Oligarchy accountable for racist and reactionary behavior. Anti-Gentrification is not the same kind of issue; it's more of a lament. Because try as you might, it is near impossible to legislate away gentrification. The big G has been happening for decades and nothing has proven resilient to capital, except, of course, city housing. Which, btw, has single-handedly kept some modicum of diversity alive in Manhattan. The only things that would stop or slow gentrification are economic downturn or a radical reassessment of a town's desirability (read: terrorism, seismic events, climate change, toxins). Or maybe even a radical dismantling of rent controls entirely (might just work). Massive downturn was what happened after 2007, when housing prices dropped and development ground to a halt, and no one could get a mortgage anyway. THEN, prices truly stabilized or even decreased! Wealthier whiter folks stopped moving to Lefferts, actually to all sorts of "developing" neighborhoods. I (you) witnessed it first hand. There were a few newly constructed buildings that sat vacant or couldn't find tenants. One (on Caton) actually took housing vouchers when they'd expected to hit the jackpot at market rate. That Fedders building at Bedford/Flatbush wanted $800K for each mock-townhouse, but ended up cutting them up to apartments and begging for renters, recent grads by the look of it. So if you want to slow gentrification, maybe an act of terrorism should be on the table?
The fact is, developers would happily build, build, build in tonier neighborhoods, but there's not a lot of legal rights left to tap. Some nabes have already downzoned or landmarked to the point where you can't build much that's profitable. Land values have become prohibitive anyhow. And guess what. That's exactly what happens when you restrict development so tightly. If your goal is to prevent gentrification, you're actually causing the opposite. Folks have less housing to choose from, and bid up the prices. Downzone too much, and its on to the next 'hood, and the pace only quickens on down the line.
Some common sense from Market Urbanism:
Whether you are a class warrior or market urbanist, here are some tips to more effectively fight gentrification:
- The battlefield is not in the gentrifying neighborhoods. It is in the more wealthy neighborhoods where empowered residents fight to keep new people out.
- The enemy is not the gentrifiers or developers trying to serve them. It is the rich people who use their influence to thwart development in their neighborhoods. The more they fight to depopulate desirable neighborhoods, the more people are left seeking alternative neighborhoods.
- The mechanism of gentrification is not development. It is zoning, and other regulations that thwart development in currently desirable areas.
- The solution is not to fight development in currently gentrifying areas. It’s to call for radical liberalization of zoning in already wealthy areas, and to stand up to neighborhood groups who try to abuse zoning to prevent that.
- The reason people gentrify is not to disrupt ethnic or economically-challenged neighborhoods. It is most often because they have been priced out of the neighborhood they desire.
I would argue that the conservative NIMBYists currently winning the day in the neighborhood's dialogue about the future, are actually ACCELERATING gentrification with a stubborn unwillingness to create affordable housing alongside the already breakneck pace of market rate. And most important, they are at best imploring the city to pass us over, while the NEXT neighborhood on the gentrification list gets the brunt of whatever we don't achieve to build. The arguments about precious light and air? Had no one challenged such notions we wouldn't have a glorious neighborhood to "protect." Healthy cities grow, and when they have limited land, they grow up. Do it sensibly, and you'll barely notice the difference. Are we really going to equate MY views with YOUR need for a place to live?
Sure it gets my goat that people don't see that MTOPP Inc.'s real goal is not anti-gentrification at all. Alicia Boyd, a very smart con artist, was until quite recently praising the neighborhood's gentrifying aspects online in her Airbnb ads. And most confounding of all, she continues to claim that Lefferts Gardens was until very recently an "all black" neighborhood. Neither the census nor anecdote attest to this fact, particularly in the Historic District. Actually, it irks a lot of longtime white residents quite a lot, since many of them resisted the pervading wisdom to "get out" during the '60s - '90s. If Ms. Boyd and company truly cared about the loss of low income tenants (of all races and groups one would hope) they would be pushing for more, not less, housing for the lower strata, including lots of affordable homes on Dump Empire.
Put it this way. Would she welcome the City buying up Empire Blvd and putting up low income housing? City housing? You know, the kind that we build as tax payers because we believe in egalitarianism and equal opportunity for all, and because we think homelessness in a City of plenty is morally offensive?
When faced with the possibility of an influx of low-income residents, true colors would undoubtedly emerge. Funny, but almost no one talks about building true low-income housing anymore, subsidized to the hilt. Isn't it about time we pivot?