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Solimar Research

The Opposite of Gentrification

Josh Stephens on
Jan 14, 2018

Any planner with an ounce of awareness should support social justice and fight for anyone who feels excluded from the bounties of global capitalist urbanism. I try to count myself among those ranks.

And yet, as I reflect on the gentrification debates of 2017, I grow increasingly anxious for what the future holds. For at least the last two years, we have been running a race between the adoption of municipal and statewide policies to promote responsible housing development and the reactionary frustration of marginalized stakeholders and left-wing activists.

In places like Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights and San Francisco’s Mission, those frustrations have already erupted, into a combination of protests and combative – if not necessarily productive – political organizing. Even less productive: the indifference of many residents in static, wealthy neighborhoods.

I’ve issued my share of criticism of the current wave of anti-gentrification protests and rhetoric. They rightfully express anger, but they often misdirect it. They demonize market-rate development and consider anything new — even something as benign as a coffee house — to be a symptom of cultural erasure and capitalist exploitation. (Case in point: the passionately written but intellectually bankrupt book How to Kill a City.)

Most interestingly, these groups tend to protest the one thing that can solve a housing crisis: more housing. Housing in amounts that, barring a major and unlikely transformation of the industry, can be provided only by for-profit developers. They include the Los Angeles Tenants Union, Defend Boyle Heights, the Coalition to Preserve L.A., Our Mission No Eviction and many smaller groups.

Many of these groups and their supporters recently amassed at Los Angeles’s first ever “Resist Gentrification Action Summit.” I could not attend, and I’m sure the organizers were not crushed. They didn’t exactly send me a gold-leaf invitation. 

The upshot of the event, and many of these protests, is that new development must serve local populations and that the only good development is nonprofit development (or some related form of cooperative or subsidized development.) They often claim that market-rate development equals displacement or that new development raises housing costs community-wide. But that’s only true a) if new development replaces existing housing; and b) if nearby housing isn’t rent-controlled. 

They’re basically saying that they’ll reflexively support anyone who currently lives in a rent-controlled unit but everyone else who seeks housing — no matter how wealthy or poor they might be — should just move along. 

To a great extent, these communities deserve their grievances and their own solutions. Many disadvantaged communities in the United States, including plenty in California, were created by the segregationist policies of the 20th century. They were designed to be disenfranchised, separated from decent schools, decent jobs, and political power. I’m willing to give a degree of deference to residents who feel, accurately or not, that they’ve been exploited for generations. 

And yet, Los Angeles still has a housing shortage. Like all housing shortages, it victimizes the poor more so than anyone else. And, like all crises, solving this one requires everyone’s participation — lest the rich further marginalize the poor. That’s not so much a moral position as it is an Archemedian reality. Human beings take up space. If they can’t take up space in one place, they will take it up in another place. And if space is scarce, wealthy humans will pay for the space they need.

If these communities are going to, at the same time, decry the invasion of newcomers and oppose most development, then they face but one option: they must promote development elsewhere.

If gentrification is evil, then let’s do the opposite. I challenge leaders in disadvantaged communities — and everyone else who believes in equity — to stop decrying the invasion of those communities and start promoting the development of other communities. Since they are, essentially, trying to keep capitalism out of their neighborhoods, they might as well go whole-hog and explain why other neighborhoods, where people have done very well by capitalism, should accept it. That strategy might sound hypocritical — because it is — but that doesn’t make it unjust. 

What if activists brought their passions and arguments to advantaged communities? They should speak to Neighborhood Councils and homeowners associations. They should lobby planners and elected officials. They should explain why their livelihood depends on development in places that might be five or even ten miles away from their own homes.

In Los Angeles, I’m thinking of places like West L.A., Hancock Park, Miracle Mile, Westwood. These are all neighborhoods that do just fine for themselves and that frequently oppose new development. They need to hear from outside voices. They need to understand the pain that their choices are causing. 

Naturally, stakeholders in Hancock Park or Westwood will ask why they should support more housing and new residents when their counterparts in Boyle Heights or Leimert Park are not. The answer is that what appears to be unfair in the short term is actually entirely fair in the long term. The poor neighborhoods of urban America have been kept poor for a very long time, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes insidiously. Segregation has been imposed on them. These attitudes may seem like just another version of segregation — and perhaps they are — but it would be on their own terms. 

 Likewise, activists in these communities might wonder why they have to be the ones to take action, spend time, and raise their voices against spatial injustice. I have no satisfying answer for them, other than this: if they don't do it, no one else will. 

If the critics of gentrification simply want to fight, I cannot help them. Cities are where people congregate, mingle, and help each other be the best they can be. If they are willing to see themselves as citizens, they can walk proudly into unfamiliar - not enemy — territory and help their fellow citizens understand their concerns and work towards solutions. 

That’s a meeting I will gladly attend, no gold leaf necessary.