Gentrification can mean a variety of things to a variety of different people. One thing that is consistent among most definitions is the exclusion of marginalized populations. This exclusion happens in many levels from political representation by local governments and federal governments, equal access to free markets, exclusion of affordable housing, exclusion of property and tenant rights, and the exclusion of the right to continue raising your family and living in your culture in the neighborhood you grew up in. To many marginalized communities gentrification can seem like a continuation of the systemic and spatial racism they are dealing with everyday.
Gentrification isn’t synonymous with development and urban restoration but when these developments occur unintentionally and without being inclusive with the communities already living there, gentrification will almost undoubtedly occur.
The impacts of gentrification is often compounded when there’s a lack of affordable housing. Unfortunately the US is currently experiencing an affordable housing crisis, with more than half the amount of housing priced for very low-income families disappearing in the last decade.
Below are different perspectives about gentrification and its impacts.
“Gentrification: The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents ” Webster
“The lesson of the city: No community should fight for improvements without simultaneously fighting for community control and permanency (against displacement). It plays into the hands of developers and the government officials doing their bidding. New stores will come, new sidewalks and trails, etc – they will celebrate the “improvement” and not mind one bit if the people who championed improving their communities are no longer around to enjoy it.” Parisa Bonita Norouzi (Empower DC)
“Gentrification displays the spatial expression of economic inequality.” Tom Slater, professor at the University of Edinburgh
“Gentrification and colonialism are the same processes largely because they share the same goals — dislocation, expropriation and the pursuit of profit.” Lacino Hamilton, Truthout
“Gentrification is not a trend for the ‘woke wide web’ or for the detached subculture of the left to consume,” they continued. “It is a vicious, protracted attack on poor and working-class people. And we are engaging in class warfare that leaves our friends, families, and neighbors, homeless, devastated, deported or dead” Defend Boyle Heights
“Ultimately, the fight over gentrification is what the fight over income inequality in America looks like up close today: a clash between the economic forces transforming our cities and a young, diverse, debt-saddled generation that is losing faith in capitalism itself.” Andrew Romano and Garance Franke-Ruta
“I have seen a neighborhood eat itself for dinner
look at its vibrant culture and call it a meal
when the food ran out
they opened a starbucks and called it community transformation
repeated the process until property prices popped
suddenly every face on the block looked like it belonged in a Even Stevens episode
When years ago they were afraid to walk it
So here we are
The long awaited sequel to white flight
Table of Contents
What is Gentrification?
What we don’t understand about gentrification | Stacey Sutton | TEDxNewYork
“…while higher income families are moving to these neighborhoods or investing their money there, it’s not out of the goodness of their heart and it ultimately has negative consequences on the communities that have lived and put down roots there over the past few decades. Sutton (Stacey Sutton, a respected professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago) explains that higher income families invest their time and money into these neighborhoods to capitalize on the relatively low costs of housing and business opportunities. By doing this, property values become inflated due to the influx of new money, thereby displacing lower income families and disrupting the cultural integrity of the community as a whole.
Sutton touches on the aspect of racial inequality that plays into this equation, by citing Tom Slater, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Slater asserts that gentrification displays “the spatial expression of economic inequality.” Black and brown people have often been and still are, at a social and economic disadvantage in this country. Because these lower income neighborhoods are filled with minorities, minorities are being displaced at a disproportionate rate.
In contrast, Sutton refers to revitalization as the rebuilding of a community from the bottom up, in which the community still remains affordable for low-income families. Gentrification, either purposefully or accidentally, inflates the cost of living and drives a disproportionate amount of minorities from their homes…
…Systemic racism, which has thrived, for as long as we can remember has continued to play in large part in determining the distribution of wealth. These low-income neighborhoods have been perpetually pushed down and relegated to remaining low-income neighborhoods until such a point that high-income families see fit to gentrify these neighborhoods and run people from their homes.
Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification
New Republic: How to Stop Gentrification
“In September 2005, the New Orleans real-estate developer Finis Shelnutt told a German newspaper of the opportunities Hurricane Katrina had created for his business. “The storm destroyed a great deal,” he said, just weeks after Katrina had killed more than one thousand people and expelled tens of thousands more from the city. “And there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money.” Moreover, he added, “the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.”
Shelnutt’s uniquely forthright comments distilled the essence of gentrification, as Peter Moskowitz explains it in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Gentrification, in this account, is not just about twenty-something white dudes with beards riding their fixed-gear bikes into unfamiliar neighborhoods, nor filament-bulb-lit craft beer bars opening up alongside bodegas. It is not really a cultural phenomenon, as it is so often depicted, nor one driven by individuals with a little more disposable income than their new neighbors. It is about profit and power, racism and violence on a massive scale. It is, in Moskowitz’s words, “the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”
How to Kill a City is one of several new books that seek to deepen our understanding of this widely used but little understood term and the upheaval it describes. The most recent additions to this collection—Gentrifier, by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City by Brandon Harris—share Moskowitz’s goal of probing the structural, socioeconomic forces that drive gentrification. Like Moskowitz, who was raised in the West Village and wrote How to Kill a City in Brooklyn, each of these authors grapples with their own paradoxical position in the process: that of being both gentrifier and gentrified. The authors of Gentrifier even write themselves into their definition of the term:
We are gentrifiers. That is to say, we are middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, thereby exerting economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community.
These authors scoff at the “everyone but me” attitude that so often characterizes conversations about gentrification: “Gentrifier,” much like “hipster,” is almost always a term reserved for someone else. Instead of trying to avoid guilt, they examine how the places we live and socialize reproduce and exacerbate inequalities. What role do individual residents play in shaping the process of gentrification, and what responsibility do more affluent new residents bear toward those displaced? Who, ultimately, pulls the levers? And what the hell do we do about it?
Moskowitz does not dwell long on the personal stakes. Instead, How to Kill a City sets out to expose the forces that are pulling the rich back into America’s cities and pushing everyone else further and further out. Drawing on earlier urban scholars, Moskowitz breaks the process down into four basic steps. First, individuals seeking cheap rents begin moving to a disinvested neighborhood, sometimes forming their own sub-communities: artists, radicals, and so on. Before long, more middle-class people follow, and real-estate interests catch on. Soon enough, the new middle-class residents take their place in the neighborhood’s institutions and begin reshaping power dynamics, attracting more amenities (and, notably, police), as well as bigger-money developers. By the time “managerial-class professionals” find their way to the neighborhood, the original gentrifiers can no longer afford it and get pushed out, starting the process over again in another neighborhood.
To these four steps, first laid out by MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay in 1979, Moskowitz adds two more. The culmination of the process, Moskowitz writes, is when global capital so defines a neighborhood that it serves more as an investment portfolio than a place to live: Midtown’s “billionaire’s row” and its empty condos, worth tens of millions of dollars each, are the quintessential example. One developer summed up this phenomenon neatly when he described today’s luxury buildings as safe-deposit boxes for the global elite.
At the other end of the process, Moskowitz adds “stage zero”: a crisis that opens the door to sudden change. In New Orleans, Moskowitz argues, it was Hurricane Katrina; in Detroit, it was the 2013 municipal bankruptcy that allowed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to install an unelected emergency manager with powers over the city government. While the “stage zero” chronology doesn’t always hold up (many Detroit gentrifiers, from the aspiring urban farmers to Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, set their sights on the city long before it officially went bankrupt), Moskowitz makes a strong case for the broader logic: Gentrification, at its most elemental, is a form of disaster capitalism, and its widely bemoaned cultural flourishes mostly just add insult to debilitating injury.
The New Orleans case is perhaps the most extreme. Half of the city was still underwater when developers, politicians, and pundits alike began celebrating the unique opportunity Katrina provided. Nearly half of the city’s population—some 250,000 people—was displaced as a result of the storm, and columnists like David Brooks encouraged them to stay out while the city lured in more “ambitious and organized” people to take their place. Federal agencies, consciously or not, fulfilled Brooks’s prescription: FEMA vouchers offered one-way tickets out, sending people to Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, even as far as Utah and Minnesota rather than sponsoring their return home. The displaced were overwhelmingly black, and tens of thousands of them never came back. As of 2015, New Orleans has some 100,000 fewer black residents than it did in 2000.
This wholesale displacement of one-fifth of the city’s population created the kind of opening that real-estate developers and their political allies could only dream of in other cities. Property values were at a low, and the potential for remaking the city unprecedented. What Marxist geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap”—the difference between the current value of a property and its potential value—was at an all-time high across much of the city. Little surprise, then, that the city’s demographics shifted, as developers courted wealthier, whiter residents who could stomach the higher rents. Today, with some 35 percent of New Orleanians devoting at least half of their income to rent, the city has become the second-least affordable city to live in nationwide…
…The authors of Gentrifier are skeptical that a definition of gentrification that includes Katrina-level disasters is a useful one at all. And it’s true: The shock-doctrine template doesn’t quite transfer to cities like San Francisco, which was doing just fine economically before it became a Silicon Valley playground.
Yet they largely agree with Moskowitz on the set of factors that have driven today’s gentrification crisis. The most important is the segregation that resulted from a combination of suburbanization and urban renewal programs around the midcentury. Both suburbanization and urban renewal were backed by copious federal spending: Mortgage subsidies and highways encouraged an ascendant white middle class to escape the city, while redlining and redevelopment schemes kept the mostly black urban poor in. White areas were neatly demarcated from the black ones that didn’t. This set the stage for widespread disinvestment from urban cores. To secure a federal loan, one Detroit developer in the late 1930s built a literal wall separating his new homes from an adjacent black neighborhood. Direct federal construction played a role too: As Richard Rothstein documents in his landmark new book The Color of Law, the years leading up to and during the Second World War saw a spate of aggressively segregated public housing construction, which homogenized even previously integrated neighborhoods.
After the war, cities began to deindustrialize as factories followed whites to the suburbs, leaving the urban poor increasingly stranded in ghettos with diminishing job prospects. Neoliberal spending cuts, beginning in the late 1970s, compounded their plight, further starving the inner cities of amenities and services. Sometimes the neglect was targeted: In 1976 alone, the city of New York shut down thirty-four fire stations in poor, largely black and Latino neighborhoods; by the end of the decade, seven Bronx census tracts had lost virtually all of their buildings, and another forty-four tracts had lost more than half.
Economic isolation and the fraying of the social safety net contributed to record levels of crime in inner cities, with public housing complexes hit particularly hard. Policy elites’ response was to blame the buildings themselves and, wherever they could, tear them down. Between 1990 and 2008, some 220,000 units of public housing were razed nationwide—about half of them under Bill Clinton’s signature “redevelopment” program, Hope VI, which provided for only 60,000 mixed-income units to replace them.
Federal, state, and city governments did not feed this vicious cycle out of pure malice, transparently racist as officials’ motives often were. Rather, their decisions corresponded to the interests of business: those of the realtors who lobbied to demolish slums but not to replace them, for example, or of the builders who lobbied for new housing towers but no funds to maintain them. Where necessary, realtors also took matters into their own hands. The notorious blockbusting schemes of the postwar period provide just one example of how real estate has actively courted racial tension in the service of profit.
The path from the rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization beginning in the late 1970s—the explosion of the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors and their increasingly arcane methods of packaging debt—to the housing market crash of 2008 is by now well documented. So is the decimation of black wealth in the ensuing mortgage meltdown: In 2007, the average black family had a net worth of one-tenth the average white-family’s; by 2011, that number had dropped to one-sixteenth, or roughly six cents in black wealth to the average white family’s dollar. Wall Street, as ever, found innovative ways to profit off the collapse: hedge funds, large investment firms, and private equity companies snapped up foreclosed homes and converted them into rentals, making them some of America’s biggest landlords. “The reach of global capital down to the local neighborhood scale,” as Neil Smith puts it, has reached a new extreme. And with it, Moskowitz writes, has come the “destruction of black urban life … the canvas on which gentrifiers now paint.”
Landlords, developers, financiers, and the arms of the state that they twist to their advantage: these, all three books agree, are the real gentrifiers, “the true authors of this blood-sodden land’s next evolution,” in Harris’s words. The forces of gentrification, in short, are the same ones driving inequality at large. The squatters and punks who battled cops at Tompkins Square Park in 1988 summed it up neatly: “Gentrification is class war.””
Everyday Feminism: Don’t Fall for These 3 Excuses for Gentrification – They’re Excusing Colonization, Too
“This is always where I get annoyed and frustrated. I have to pause and think, is it actually something that cannot be stopped? Is it one of those things like racism – just seen as “a sign of the times,” or explained away with “this is how it’s always been?” Just something that will go away if we stop talking about it?
The idea that gentrification can’t be stopped is tiring and frustrating, but it comes from the fact that it’s such an overwhelming and rapidly expanding issue. It comes from the fact that gentrification benefits the most powerful and privileged. It comes from the fact that it stems from oppressive systems of capitalism and colonization. And it came from the age-old belief that people should own land at any and all costs, including that of human life.
We hear that gentrification is inevitable, that it’s progress, that it makes cities safer, and that it happens because the primarily low-income and people of color communities that lived there before could not take care of it. These arguments, in many ways, are history repeating itself. Below are three ways that gentrification mirrors colonization.
1. Gentrification Is Progress = Manifest Destiny
The same belief system that claims that gentrification is just part of change often sees the changes in neighborhoods as positive: “There was nothing in this neighborhood before, but now there’s a Whole Foods and tapas bars!”
Gentrification is seen as progress – it puts more housing and businesses in cities and generates revenue, makes cities safer, and so on. The shifting of neighborhood populations is economic and racial progress.
As was the cleansing of land and the attempted genocide of Native people. In the 19th century, “Manifest Destiny” was the belief that white colonizers and pioneers were called upon the Divine to expand across the nation, building the New World and “civilizing” the original inhabitants of the land. This was progress at any and all costs – including ethnic cleansing and violent takeover of indigenous land across the Americas. Land once populated by native tribes was reduced to next-to-nothing in the quest to expand.
No, modern-day gentrification and European colonization are not literally one and the same. To be clear, there are no horrors that can directly compare to the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and attempted cultural eradication experienced by Native peoples.
But because the US was founded upon principles of violence, greed, and forced land ownership, similar strategies and practices have new faces and consequences today:
- the forceful and violent evictions of families who have lived in their homes for decades
- the rapid closing of POC-owned businesses in major cities
- increased police presence and brutality in efforts to make neighborhoods “safer” for those who are taking it over
- the rapid expansion of condominiums and apartments that only newcomers can afford
What appears to outsiders as “progress” is actually harming the people and rich cultures that once existed before. For example, there is a recycling center in West Oakland where dozens of homeless and poor folks bring bottles and cardboard for cash – sometimes their only source of income. And because mostly newer residents have complained about the noise the center causes, it is closing – cutting jobs that folks have depended upon, and removing an important source of income for hundreds of others.
Houses and condos on this same block are going for upwards of a million dollars in a neighborhood that historically has a median family income of $35,000. The mainstream narrative will continue painting a picture of “lazy and irresponsible” communities of color who couldn’t take care of their neighborhoods, while praising gentrification as the force that will save these cities and make them live up to their potential.
Being priced out of homes in your own neighborhood is not progress, it is violence. Increased police presence and fatal shootings is not progress, it is violence.
Gentrification, when explained only as progress, ignores the violence inflicted upon the mostly low-income communities of color that used to make up vibrant and diverse neighborhoods. And it makes me ask (though, I already know the answer), “Progress for whom?”
2. Pre-Gentrified Neighborhoods Are Blank Canvases = Land to Be Shaped in Our Image
Growing up half of my life in Lansing, MI and half in the Bay Area, CA, I’ve heard my fair share of warnings and misgivings about certain areas and even entire cities – the same ones that gentrifiers are now flocking to. As a young kid, it was Detroit. Kids at my school who’d moved from Detroit were plagued with suspicions and questions. I was told that it was a place I didn’t wanna visit because it wasn’t safe, because “no one cared about it.”
And as a thirteen-year-old in Berkeley, I was told to avoid Oakland and Richmond at all costs. I distinctly remember asking, “Which parts?” as I flew in over the Bay to start a new home, only to be told, “All of it.” There are definitely parts of these cities I’m more mindful of and don’t venture into. Because I don’t belong there or understand them.
But recently, many of the places I’d been warned about growing up are new ground for emerging fusion restaurants and bars and tech startups owned by people of all backgrounds Newcomers – many of them white and under thirty – either complain about how there’s “nothing,” and see these neighborhoods as a “blank canvas” or an opportunity to start anew.
This mentality is rooted in colonialism as well. European colonizers were much more interested in shaping the land in their image than in creating a world where land was inhabitable and shared by all. However, the land was not a blank canvas; they made it so by doing all they could to violently eradicate whatever or whomever was there before. Gentrification at its worst doesn’t care about the people and culture that existed before.
Many newcomers are invested only in what they can get out of where the live, not in what they can give to the already existing culture and community. And as painful as it may be, I include myself and many well-intentioned activists in these statements. In our decrying of gentrification, we often declare what the people of such-and-such neighborhood want and need, sometimes without being in conversation with the people most directly impacted by the new colonialism.
While pushing back against the harmful changes that are hurting those we’re in solidarity with is important, we need to be careful not to use their stories as political platforms. We need to remember those that came before us and understand the differences between a “blank canvas” and canvases that have been wiped clean by colonialism.
3. Gentrification Makes Cities Safer = Neutralizes the Savage
The same folks who warned me against venturing into certain inner cities would probably now say that it’s “getting better” and “safer” by the day. And actually, I can’t directly deny that these areas are safer in some ways – especially for those of us who are moving in. For me, the complexity and frustration of gentrification is that arguments supporting it aren’t entirely untrue – it’s that they are incomplete.
It’s that the “truth” of land ownership is built on centuries of violence, enslavement, and control. European nations that suppressed and oppressed entire continents of people often saw their work as noble – and even God’s work. They were “saving the souls” of the native savages, and at the same time, making the land inhabitable for their own future generations.
Today’s land developers and city politicians also claim to be creating a better, safer community through their work. To them, gentrification decreases the violence and crime rates and creates new opportunity – and shouldn’t the people who live there be grateful for these changes? But gentrification doesn’t eliminate violence and crime. It pushes the issues elsewhere, into places that only have value when the powers that be see fit.
And the “safety” that it creates usually doesn’t benefit anyone but those who just arrived, or who can afford to stay and face the skyrocketing housing costs.
Folks claiming to be invested in removing violence from communities do so in order to make places more livable to gentrifiers. They are not invested in healing the people in those communities. Healing doesn’t generate revenue.
This sends the message that only white folks or those with money are deserving of safety, resources, and community investment. Again, the question is: Gentrification makes cities safer for whom – and what? One of the main reasons that gentrification is accepted as inevitable is because it is rooted in systems that we’ve been trained to normalize and see as commonplace.
The stories that colonization and gentrification tell us are that land is property, and that low-income communities of color cannot care for the neighborhoods they’ve historically made up. And although these oppressive narratives are large, powerful, and seem impossible to overcome, it hasn’t stopped communities from pushing back against displacement and recreating the story.
In Oakland, multiple groups of activists prevented the city from selling a piece of public land to develop high-rise condos rated at $3,500 a month. Drummers who’ve played at Lake Merritt for decades are rallying against racial profiling and noise complains from newer neighbors. Public forums are popping up across cities in efforts to preserve the arts and culture of neighborhoods.
And as newcomers, we need to be aware of how histories of colonialism and land ownership are harmful to the new places we claim as “our” homes. As inevitable as gentrification may be described as, the fight for communities to preserve the best parts of their cities will continue – perhaps until we realize that land should have never been a commodity”
Gentrification Is Not Inevitable: Care and Resistance | Winifred Curran
Washington Post: Lawsuit: D.C. policies to attract affluent millennials discriminated against blacks
For more than a decade, D.C. officials have celebrated the city’s economic renaissance, touting reinvigorated neighborhoods and glittering new attractions as evidence of Washington’s emergence as a world-class metropolis.
But a new federal lawsuit alleges that the policies that officials initiated to attract younger, more affluent professionals discriminated against poor and working-class African Americans who have lived here for generations.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by lawyer Aristotle Theresa on behalf of several African American residents, claims that the residential buildings springing up throughout the city — many of them with studio and one-bedroom apartments — catered to what urban theorist Richard Florida famously identified as the “creative class” and ignored the needs of poor and working-class families.
The lawsuit says the “New Communities” program initiated by the District to turn aging public housing complexes into mixed-income developments was meant to “lighten” African American neighborhoods and break up long-established communities.
D.C. policies that were intended to “economically integrate” neighborhoods, Theresa argues in the lawsuit, “are classist, racist and ageist” and “lead to widespread gentrification and displacement.”
“Every city planning agency . . . conspired to make D.C. very welcoming for preferred residents and sought to displace residents inimical to the creative economy,” Theresa wrote in the 82-page complaint.
The plaintiffs — Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller of Southeast Washington and Shanifinne Ball of Northeast — are seeking in excess of $1 billion in damages.
Robert Marus, a spokesman for the District’s Office of the Attorney General, said the city would not comment on the lawsuit until it files its response, which is due June 25. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is approaching the end of her first term, has focused on growing the city’s stock of affordable housing while celebrating the opening of new attractions such as the Wharf, a $2.5 billion mix of luxury housing, hotels and fine dining along the Southwest Waterfront.
As the District gentrified over the past two decades, income and wealth disparities between whites and blacks deepened. But Derek Hyra, an American University professor who has written about gentrification in Washington, said Theresa would have to produce evidence that D.C. officials were targeting a certain race to prove discrimination.
“Developers are looking at areas in the city where they can buy low and sell high,” Hyra said, pointing to traditionally working-class black neighborhoods such as Shaw and Petworth, which have drawn more affluent residents in recent years. “Developers want to maximize their return. This is not a conspiracy. This is capitalism.”
At the same time, he said, the D.C. government encouraged development, sometimes providing subsidies, “to maximize value and bring in greater revenue.” Even if the District hasn’t explicitly favored anyone, the development has “had a different impact” on whites and blacks, he said.
Theresa, an Anacostia-based civil rights attorney, has in recent years represented a number of community groups opposing massive redevelopment projects in neighborhoods such as Union Market in Northeast and the McMillan reservoir in Northwest, as well as at the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast.
In 14 cases, he has asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn city approvals of projects, twice successfully. The rulings forced D.C. officials to review the projects, causing costly delays and widespread consternation among developers who worry that their projects will be slowed by legal challenges.
As a result of appeals filed by Theresa and others, the Bowser administration has proposed changes to the city’s land-use policies to block avenues for what it considers nuisance lawsuits.
Theresa, in an interview, said the federal lawsuit was an outgrowth of the work he has done representing communities fighting development projects. To accommodate more affluent newcomers, Theresa said, D.C. officials and developers over the past decade identified working-class black “communities that aren’t that sophisticated about the zoning process or politics. They slapped it on these communities and took advantage of people.”
He traces the District’s initiatives to the early 2000s, when, as the Internet proliferated and the technology sector flourished nationwide, Florida popularized the idea that cities could become newly prosperous by appealing to a “creative class,” an amalgam of entrepreneurs, tech specialists, artists and other purveyors of creativity.
In the District, according to Theresa’s complaint, which was filed April 13, it was the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) that embraced Florida’s view as it set out to broaden the city’s identity from government town to a magnet for technology entrepreneurs and others who were part of the “creative economy.”
From Shaw to Bloomingdale to the H Street corridor, developers and business owners descended on neighborhoods, constructing apartment towers, renovating rowhouses and opening restaurants, coffeehouses and bars that catered to new Washingtonians, younger and more affluent than previous generations.
To Theresa, the Fenty administration’s promotion of a “Creative Action Agenda” in 2007 represented a “paradigm shift” for D.C. government. Instead of prioritizing what was best for the land, it was focusing “on the predilections of a certain class of individual,” he says.
Fenty’s successor, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), also championed the creative economy by changing zoning regulations to “increase affordable space for creative businesses,” Theresa says. By targeting businesses that “produce innovative goods” or “use innovative processes,” the District offered tax breaks and other incentives that favored a “discrete class” and discriminated against more traditional modes of business, according to the lawsuit.
“District government has a clear preference for millennial creatives, making it somewhat harder for those residents that aren’t notable assets,” Theresa says in the lawsuit.
That focus on millennials had a greater impact on African Americans, he adds, because “they were disproportionately missing from the identified class D.C. was seeking to grow.”
As evidence, Theresa cites census statistics for several gentrifying neighborhoods, including Bloomingdale, which adjoins North Capitol Street, where the overall population grew by 1,000 from 2009 to 2016 but the number of African Americans fell. The population along the U Street corridor grew from 6,700 to 9,400 over a decade, as the number of whites increased by 1,300 and the African American population declined by nearly 400, the lawsuit claims.
Theresa also cites the neighborhood around the Navy Yard, which has exploded with growth over the past decade. As its population soared from 625 to 4,664, the percentage of whites — once 22 percent — rose to 66 percent. At the same time, the percentage of African Americans fell from 73 percent to 22 percent.
For projects larger than what the District’s zoning code allows, developers must seek approval from the Zoning Commission, which Theresa says has sought to “head off any dissent” by refusing to grant party status to neighbors opposing the projects at hearings. He also argues that D.C. officials have routinely failed to produce required reports that analyze whether proposed projects would drive gentrification.
“Such disregard for current residents’ concerns was calculated to re-segregate black communities into white upper class and creative class communities,” he writes in the complaint.
Theresa concludes his complaint by focusing on Anacostia, which he describes as “the newest close-knit black community slated for destruction.”
A number of residential and commercial developments are planned for the area, including the opening of a Busboys and Poets restaurant and a Starbucks franchise. Theresa characterizes the projects as delivering “housing that is for singles in an area that has a great need for family housing not kept in slum conditions.”
“Such development,” Theresa predicts, “will also bring retail out of step with the vast majority of local residents, displacing local, non-creative businesses.”
“A D.C. lawyer has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city on behalf of three native Washingtonians and CARE, a community group with over 20 members. The suit claims that the city’s housing and urban renewal policies have discriminated against some of the District’s longest-standing residents in favor of attracting millennial renters. The suit is seeking more than $1 billion in damages.
So, what exactly does it allege?
The complaint points specifically to city policies like the Adrian Fenty Administration’s Creative Action Agenda and Vincent Gray’s Creative Economy Strategy, which are specifically geared toward remaking D.C. as a city for “creative” workers. According to Aristotle Theresa, the lawyer who filed the suit, the city’s successful attempts to attract these kinds of workers have come at the cost of D.C.’s low and middle-income African American families, who have been pushed out of the city by skyrocketing housing prices.
“The city is intentionally trying to lighten black neighborhoods, and the way they have primarily been doing it is through construction of high density, luxury buildings, that primarily only offer studios and one bedrooms,” the suit reads.
Many of D.C.’s policies—like the policies of large cities across the country in the mid-aughts—were based on the work of Richard Florida, an influential urban theorist who wrote the seminal text on the “creative class.” His 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class describes a specific kind of worker, often young and working in fields like technology, science, art and journalism. According to his theory, the key to a successful city economy lies in the hands of these workers, who have very particular ideas about where and how they want to live.
“Creatives prefer indigenous street level culture—a teeming blend of cafes and sidewalk musicians and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators,” Florida once wrote.
According to the complaint, former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration set about creating such an environment to attract these workers, and the two administrations since have kept it going. Theresa says these policies have been directly discriminatory on the basis of age and source of income, as well as having a disparate impact on the city’s African-American communities.
“D.C. residents’ access to rental property [is] predicated at least in part on membership in an invented discrete class which directly discriminates on source of income,” he writes in the complaint.
The suit names several defendants, including the Office of Planning, the Zoning Commission, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Mayor Muriel Bowser and former Mayor Adrian Fenty.
What does the city say?
Nothing so far. A response to the suit is due by June 25. The Attorney General’s Office told the Washington Post that it won’t comment on pending litigation. The Zoning Commission and the mayor’s office told DCist the same thing.
Who’s filing the suit?
Aristotle Theresa is a D.C. civil rights lawyer who lives in Anacostia. He’s represented several D.C. residents and community groups in cases fighting big redevelopment projects in gentrifying neighborhoods. He was most recently involved in the Barry Farm case, in which residents of the public housing complex successfully sued the D.C. Housing Authority for the way it was handling redevelopment. The area is being razed and rebuilt with many new (and more expensive) units, meant to economically integrate the area. Residents have been afraid of they would end up getting evicted from the complex and left without housing.
Theresa is filing the suit on behalf of three African American women who say they’re fearful of getting pushed out of the city due to redevelopment and climbing housing costs. He is also filing on behalf of a community group of more than 20 members. Theresa says they are seeking class certification for the lawsuit.
Does this stand a chance in court?
It’s hard to tell. Several times in the complaint, Theresa says that the city is “intentionally” discriminating against people based on age and source of income. This intentionality may be difficult to prove in court. Anthony Cook, a professor at Georgetown Law, says that discrimination based on source of income generally refers to landlords refusing to rent to people who use housing vouchers. The issue of whether one is in the creative class as a basis for discrimination likely won’t have a leg to stand on in court, he says.
However, Cook adds that Theresa might be able to make an argument about disparate impact—that is, the idea that city policies have had negative outcomes for certain populations, even if the city did not directly intend to discriminate.
“You can sustain a claim with regard to disparate impact under the law. It’s not just about whether the city intends to discriminate,” Cook says.
Any other context?
It’s common knowledge by now that the District has rapidly gentrified since the early 2000s. According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, 52 percent of D.C.’s census tracts are categorized as “gentrifying” since that time. The city has been bleeding black residents in that process. The lawsuit arises from that context—Theresa says that since he was a child growing up in D.C., he has believed the city is actively trying to get rid of its African American residents.
“I think [gentrification] is problematic because it strips away the heart and soul of the city,” Theresa says. “D.C. is unrecognizable. It’s a staging ground for people at a certain point in their career. It’s a pitstop, and they come and they go and they don’t offer much,” he says.
This story has been updated to reflect that the suit was filed on behalf of three people and a community group of more than 20 members.
The Atlantic: The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods
Areas that are changing economically often draw more police—creating conditions for more surveillance and more potential misconduct.
“In the early hours of Labor Day, Brooklynites woke up to the sound of steel-pan bands drumming along Flatbush Avenue, as hundreds of thousands of people gathered to celebrate J’ouvert, a roisterous Caribbean festival that commemorates emancipation from slavery. But having been marred by gang violence in recent years, this J’ouvert was markedly different, as The New York Times described. The event, which derives its name from a Creole term for “daybreak,” was heavily staffed by the New York City Police Department. Floodlights and security checkpoints were scattered along the parade route, and many revelers were piqued by what they saw as excessive police presence—an overwhelming show of force in response to a comparatively small number of bad actors.
“There’s a criminalization of our neighborhood,” Imani Henry, the president of the police-accountability group Equality for Flatbush, told me recently. After the NYPD declined Henry’s public-information request about security ahead of and during the festival, citing safety concerns, his group decided to sue for it. (The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.)
Henry believes the stepped-up law enforcement at J’ouvert is part of a larger pattern of increased police surveillance in gentrifying areas. The lawsuit—which has since made its way to the New York Supreme Court—argues that the NYPD recently increased “broken windows”-style arrests in Flatbush and East Flatbush, and claims that these “police actions have coincided with increased gentrification.”
That claim is not just speculative. Over the past two decades, gentrification has become a norm in major American cities. The typical example is a formerly low-income neighborhood where longtime residents and businesses are displaced by white-collar workers and overpriced coffeehouses. But the conventional wisdom that image reflects—that gentrification is a result of an economic restructuring—often leaves out a critical side effect that disproportionately affects communities of color: criminalization.
When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.
“There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson told me. And “that makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police,” he added.
By degrees, long-term residents begin to find themselves tangled up in the criminal-justice system for so-called “quality of life” crimes as 311 and 911 calls draw police to neighborhoods where they didn’t necessarily enforce nuisance laws before. As Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., describes it, misdemeanor arrests are more reflective of police presence than the total number of infractions committed in an area. “It’s not a question of how many people are committing the crime—it’s a question of where the police are directing their law-enforcement resources,” Butler said. “Because wherever they direct the resources, they can find the crime.”
In 2013, the city of San Francisco launched Open311, a mobile app that allows residents to easily report public disorder like loitering, dirty sidewalks, or vandalism by snapping a photo and sending their location. The app can feel altruistic; residents, for example, are able to report the whereabouts of homeless people who seem to be in need of assistance. But some worry that the dispatches can result in unnecessary citations or harassment. And while broken-windows policing remains controversial, a 2015 poll suggested that it’s still largely accepted by the general public, so when people see something, they’re likely to say something. After the app launched, 311 calls increased throughout the city, and one study showed that gentrifying neighborhoods saw a disproportionate spike.
Butler, who recently wrote the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, believes that this is a result of newcomers refusing to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms. “Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization,” he said. “The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement.
Butler’s home of Washington, where he’s a law professor at Georgetown University, provides an illustrative example. On most Sunday afternoons, a performance group hosts a drum circle in Malcolm X Park, whose official name is Meridian Hill. The tradition dates back to 1965—shortly after Malcolm X was assassinated—and was intended to celebrate black liberation. While the drumbeats can still be heard today, the ritual was called into question when the surrounding neighborhood began to change in the late 1990s. New arrivals living in the blocks surrounding the park repeatedly complained about the noise until the police imposed and enforced a curfew on the drummers.
But increased police presence in gentrifying neighborhoods is not merely the result of new residents calling for service; police departments sometimes proactively deploy officers in areas that see bars and other alcohol-serving outlets pop up, as they tend to do in gentrifying neighborhoods. After conducting an analysis on economic development in 2013, for example, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department established its nightlife unit, which deploys officers to areas with budding or resuscitated nightlife scenes. “If you’re bringing in more bars, there’s going to be drunk people congregating in the street, so you need police to tamp that down,” Sampson said. “But that may lead to potential confrontations.” Officers can find themselves in altercations with both bar goers and longtime residents of the area.
Cathy Lanier, who was the police chief in Washington from 2007 to 2016, told me that when a neighborhood’s population and economy begin to change, certain problems are bound to arise. “You’re going to have traffic issues, you’re going to have parking issues, and you’re going to have everything that comes along with a rapidly developing community,” she said. “So you want to have that police presence there, and establish community engagement long before the change so you can work with long-term residents to help them through the transition.” Zero-tolerance enforcement, she said, can be avoided if the police are proactive in creating a safe and orderly environment in advance of any major economic disruptions.
Still, residents can feel overwhelmed by a sudden increase in security, which is not always confined to public law enforcement. Sampson said private security and third-party police contribute to a sense of over-surveillance. “In a kind of rough neighborhood that’s about to flip, there may be demand on the part of new residents for safety that goes beyond what the police can provide, which means more eyes on the street on the part of private police,” he said.
While low-income and minority neighborhoods are often subject to heavy police patrol regardless of their development status, gentrification and aggressive policing are two sides of the same coin and tend to reinforce one another. “The concern when there are misdemeanor offenses is that neighborhoods seem unsafe or disorderly and that decreases their attractiveness for gentrification,” Butler said. “So in a number of cities, people have observed that enforcement of low-level offenses against black and brown people increases when neighborhoods are prime for gentrification.”
A top concern in communities of color is that greater police presence amplifies the risk of police misconduct and violence. In 2014, when San Francisco native Alejandro Nieto was fatally shot by four police officers responding to a 911 call, many residents believed the incident wouldn’t have occurred had his neighborhood not gentrified. Nieto was accused of behaving suspiciously in a place where he’d lived his entire life, and it was a new resident who’d made the 911 call. After he had a brief altercation with a neighborhood dog, Nieto, who worked as a bouncer, was anxiously pacing with his hand on his Taser, according to the passerby who reported him. Police said that when they arrived, he pointed his Taser at them, which they mistook for a gun.
Gentrification and police violence don’t necessarily have a causal relationship. But stepped-up law enforcement does create conditions for more potential misconduct. That’d be true in any neighborhood that suddenly saw an influx of police—it’s a simple matter of numbers. “If you’re ticketing more people or patrolling more often, you’re stopping more people to ask questions on the street,” Sampson said. “Now, that’s different than pulling a gun and shooting someone, or beating someone up, but the more stop-and-frisks and the more interactions you have, then probabilistically, you’re increasing the risk for police brutality. So it’s sort of a sequence or cycle.”
Butler offered the example of Eric Garner, who first drew police officers’ attention because he was selling loosies, or individual cigarettes, in Tompkinsville Park on Staten Island, a widespread practice since New York City began to sharply raise taxes on tobacco products in 2006. The surrounding neighborhoods had experienced some economic development, and calls reporting misdemeanor offenses were increasing. After a landlord made a 311 complaint regarding illegal drug and cigarette sales taking place outside his apartment building, officers began to closely monitor the area. Several months later, when Garner was confronted by police as he attempted to break up a street fight, an officer moved to arrest him for having previously sold loosies. The arrest went awry—and subsequently drew national attention—when Garner died after an officer put him in a chokehold.
“Before there was this effort to gentrify the neighborhood around the [Staten Island] ferry, I think it’s fair to say that it hadn’t received much attention from the police,” Butler said. “And you can imagine that of all the crimes police have to worry about, selling loosie cigarettes shouldn’t be a priority.”
Gentrification also has long-lasting impacts on the criminal-justice system that go far beyond police surveillance. As cities become whiter, so do juries. In Washington, for example, it’s not unusual to have a predominantly white, if not all-white, jury in a predominantly black city. “Jurors often have different life experiences based on their race. And so if the defense is ‘the police lied’ or ‘the police planted evidence,’ that’s something that an African American or a Latino juror might well believe or find credible,” Butler said. “A white person might find that hard to believe based on that person’s experience with the police.”
The public debate over how to best deal with gentrification often brushes over these tensions, focusing solely on the economic impacts. There are some who argue gentrification is a natural part of urban development, while others say local governments should do more to regulate housing markets. But there’s one question cities haven’t really reckoned with as they evaluate changing neighborhoods: Are they prepared to decriminalize them?
Affordable Housing Crisis
Affordable Housing Online: What is affordable housing?
“We as a country have generally agreed that housing expenses shouldn’t be more than 30% of what you earn, leaving 70% of your income for food, clothing, transportation and other necessities. If you spend more than 30% of your income on housing expenses, you are considered “overburdened”.
A broader definition of the term “affordable housing” describes an entire industry centered around the provision of this type of housing. There are dozens of programs designed to make housing more affordable.
Many of these programs you think of immediately like the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Other programs that make housing more affordable are very common but people don’t think of them as “government programs”.
One such “affordable housing program” is the mortgage interest deduction. In fact, this is the largest of all housing subsidy programs. More than 34 million homeowners claim the deduction each year claiming more than $68 billion in housing subsidies. Unfortunately, the way the MID is structured, more than 34% of those benefits go to families earning more than $200,000. So in this case, an “affordable housing” program is subsidizing large, luxury homes for the wealthy making those homes “more affordable”.
Affordable housing can refer to both for sale and rental housing. There are many homeownership programs (in addition to the MID) that help lower income persons and first time home buyers purchase modest homes at reasonable rates. Many Americans have relied on these homeownership programs to help them get started in their first home.
Rental housing is made affordable by many Federal and state programs. More than 80,000 apartment communities across the country are assisted with one form or another of government assistance. These apartment communities make renting an apartment affordable for millions of Americans.”
Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification
Wikipedia: Affordable Housing
“The federal government in the U.S. provides subsidies to make housing more affordable. Financial assistance is provided for homeowners through the mortgage interest tax deduction and for lower income households through housing subsidy programs. In the 1970s the federal government spent similar amounts on tax reductions for homeowners as it did on subsidies for low-income housing. However, by 2005, tax reductions had risen to $120 billion per year, representing nearly 80 percent of all federal housing assistance. The Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform for President Bush proposed reducing the home mortgage interest deduction in a 2005 report.
Housing assistance from the federal government for lower income households can be divided into three parts:
- “Tenant based” subsidies given to an individual household, known as the Section 8 program
- “Project based” subsidies given to the owner of housing units that must be rented to lower income households at affordable rates, and
- Public Housing, which is usually owned and operated by the government. (Some public housing projects are managed by subcontracted private agencies.)”
The Nation: 151 Years of America’s Housing History
From the first tenement regulation to work requirements for public-housing residents, these are key moments in housing policy.
1867: The first tenement-law regulation in America is enacted in New York City to ban the construction of rooms without ventilators and apartments without fire escapes.
1923: Under Mayor Daniel Hoan of the Socialist Party, Milwaukee completes construction of the country’s first public-housing project.
1926: New York State passes the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, the first significant effort in the country to offer any kind of subsidy for affordable housing.
1934: The National Housing Act establishes the Federal Housing Administration, which insures mortgages for small, owner-occupied suburban homes as well as private multi-family housing.
1937: Congress passes the Housing Act of 1937. Originally intended to create public housing for poor and middle-income families, it is whittled down to apply only to low-income people.
1942: The Emergency Price Control Act establishes federal rent control for the first time. By January 1945, Scranton, Pennsylvania, is the only city of more than 100,000 residents with unregulated rents.
1944: The GI Bill provides mortgage-loan guarantees for home purchases by veterans.
1955: New York State introduces the Mitchell-Lama program, which subsidizes the construction of over 105,000 apartments for moderate- and middle-income residents.
1965: Congress establishes the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a largely symbolic move to bring housing and slum-clearance programs
to the cabinet level.
1968: Congress passes the Fair Housing Act, which outlaws discrimination in housing and in mortgage lending.
1973: The Nixon administration issues a moratorium on almost all subsidized-housing programs.
1974: The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 establishes Section 8 housing programs as a replacement for public housing.
1976: The Supreme Court rules, in Hills v. Gautreaux, that the Chicago Housing Authority contributed to racial segregation in Chicago through discriminatory practices. HUD begins offering vouchers in the city to address poverty and segregation.
1982: Under Ronald Reagan, HUD’s budget is slashed to under $40 billion, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 1976, when it was $83.6 billion.
1986: Reagan introduces the low-income housing tax credit, which remains the primary source of federal funding for low-cost housing today.
1992: Congress authorizes the HOPE VI urban-revitalization demonstration program to provide grants to support low-rise, mixed-income housing rather than high-rise public housing to address a severe lack of funding for repairs. Atlanta uses its funds to clear slums and construct mostly private housing, an approach copied by cities across the country.
1996: Bill Clinton announces the “one strike and you’re out” initiative to evict public-housing tenants who have criminal convictions.
2005: HUD conducts its first official point-in-time count of homeless people in the country.
2007: The housing market crashes. Nearly 3 million homes are foreclosed on in both 2009 and 2010.
2012: The Obama administration creates the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which authorizes the transformation of public housing into private-sector Section 8 housing.
2012: The Section 8 waiting lists stretch so long that nearly half of them are simply closed.
2018: HUD Secretary Ben Carson proposes raising the rent for tenants in subsidized housing as well as enabling public-housing authorities to impose work requirements.
“The number of apartments deemed affordable for very low-income families across the United States fell by more than 60 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to a new report by Freddie Mac.
The report by the government-backed mortgage financier is the first to compare rent increases in specific units over time. It examined loans that the corporation had financed twice between 2010 and 2016, allowing a comparison of the exact same rental units and how their affordability changed.
At first financing, 11 percent of nearly 100,000 rental units nationwide were deemed affordable for very low-income households. By the second financing, when the units were refinanced or sold, rents had increased so much that just 4 percent of the same units were categorized as affordable.
“We have a rapidly diminishing supply of affordable housing, with rent growth outstripping income growth in most major metro areas,” said David Brickman, executive vice president and head of Freddie Mac Multifamily. “This doesn’t just reflect a change in the housing stock.”
Rather, he said, affordable housing without a government subsidy is becoming extinct. More renters flooded the market after people lost their homes in the housing crisis. The apartment vacancy rate was 8 percent in 2009, compared to 4 percent in 2017. That trend, coupled with a stagnant supply of apartments, resulted in increased rents.
Freddie Mac buys mortgage loans from a network of primary market lenders, and issues mortgage-related securities. This helps lenders provide loans to developers and owners for the purchase, refinancing, rehabilitation and construction of multifamily properties.
The study defined “very low income” as households making less than 50 percent of the area median income, and “affordable” rent as costing less than 30 percent of household income. The report found a significant drop in the percentage of affordable units in seven of the nine states where Freddie Mac financed the most rental units…
…Most new construction of multifamily housing generally serves high-income renters, according to Freddie Mac. The corporation — along with Fannie Mae, another government-sponsored enterprise with a similar mission — significantly reduced its role in financing multifamily housing after the Great Recession.
Together, they had financed about 70 percent of all original loans for multifamily properties in 2008 and 2009 as private capital pulled back, said Karan Kaul, a research associate at the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. By the end of 2014, their market presence declined to 30 percent.
“The affordability issues are becoming more severe at the lower end of the market,” said Kaul, a former researcher at Freddie Mac. “Absent some kind of government intervention or subsidy, there is just not going to be any investments made at that lower end of the market.”
“The recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing, illustrates why President Trump’s budget proposal (Proposed 2018 budget) is so shortsighted and cruel. The report’s key findings—there is no state, city or country where a minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment—affirms that rent is out of reach for not only minimum-wage workers but also for average renters earning $4.83 below the national Housing Wage.
Affordable to Who?
“The federal government calculates the affordability of housing across the country, using what’s known as area median income, or AMI. Even though the official terminology can be different at the local or state level versus the federal level, the concept is broadly the same: Housing should cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s monthly take-home pay.
The newly updated AMI Cheat Sheet from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York City maps out the bottom line: for a family of four, what’s defined as affordable rent, the associated income with that rent, and the percentage of NYC population that lives within each income band.
If you are a math nerd, you may notice quickly that the numbers don’t make sense. The median, mathematically, is supposed to be the midpoint of the entire distribution. Half the population should be making more than the median income, and half should be making less. But as the cheat sheet lays out, 64.1 percent of NYC’s population lives at or below that number. Why is more than half of the city’s population earning at or less than what’s considered median household income?
Despite what you might expect, the answer is surprisingly simple: Because in its official calculations of NYC’s median income, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development includes three wealthier, suburban counties north of the city. Adding those counties into the calculation for median income skews the official figure toward a wealthier population.
That skew, which is not the fault of any one developer or council member, is the reason why developers and council members are often finding themselves in the hot seat at meetings around NYC, as well as in other cities around the country. They are touting affordable housing projects on paper that don’t meet the real affordability needs of the city. Many of those projects are also getting support from city subsidies or below-market-rate loans from the city, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 10-year plan to build 80,000 new units of affordable housing.
The members of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision penciled out one example looking at an area of the South Bronx where the city plans to rezone the neighborhood to build more housing, some of it affordable. With the help of a loan/subsidy package from the city, 75 percent of the new units built would not be affordable for the current neighborhood residents. In what is technically the best-case scenario using current programs, 10 percent of the units built would be regulated for households earning no more than 30 percent AMI — but 52 percent of the existing residents in the neighborhood live at 30 percent AMI or below.
Hence the question: Affordable for whom?
Often the response from city officials and developers alike is that there’s unmet demand for housing all across the income spectrum. While that may be true, it doesn’t quite answer the question of whether housing can be truly called “affordable” if it’s not affordable for the people who currently live in the neighborhoods where the city is subsidizing private developers to build it.”
But Republicans want to funnel savings to the rich—not renters, who could use the help.
“The news, at first, seemed welcome: In their quest to reduce the myriad deductions that Americans can use to lower what they owe at tax time, House Republicans proposed capping the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000 and getting rid of it entirely for second homes.
The deduction has long been sacrosanct, surviving decades of reform attempts thanks to powerful lobbying groups. But given that the deduction helps those who need assistance the least, it’s ripe for change.
Of the $190 billion that the government spent on housing in 2015, about 60 percent went to households earning more than $100,000. A household earning $200,000 or more received, on average, four times the amount of assistance as one making $20,000 or below. That’s mainly because the mortgage-interest deduction, which allows homeowners to write off some of their loan payments, overwhelmingly benefits the rich. It will cost us $68.1 billion this year, representing one of the largest expenditures in our tax code. But more than 72 percent of that benefit is captured by the richest fifth of the country, while the bottom two-fifths see less than 2 percent. And, of course, the deduction offers no benefit at all to those who can’t afford to buy a home and must rent instead.
Yet it’s the latter group that is in the most dire need of assistance. Rents are rising faster than inflation, so incomes can’t keep up. Just about half of rental households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, above what’s considered affordable; about a quarter are spending at least half of their income on rent.
It wouldn’t cost a whole lot to change this picture. Only one out of every four low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it. Yet it would take just $22.5 billion a year to end homelessness by extending assistance to every needy and vulnerable family in the country.
The deduction wouldn’t even have to be eliminated completely to offer meaningful help to low-income families. The Tax Foundation estimates that capping it so that it applies only to the first $500,000 of existing and future mortgages would raise $319 billion over a decade, mostly by taking away benefits from the richest fifth. Converting it to a credit, which would open up the benefit to lower-income families (who don’t typically itemize their deductions), would raise another $105 billion.
So reforming the deduction would be a more-than-welcome change in tax policy. And, at first, it looked like Republicans had finally gotten on board with the idea. But they’re already botching it. When Senate Republicans unveiled their tax plan, the deduction was left as is. The same was true in President Trump’s own proposal, despite early indications that he would cap it. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that many Republicans have now balked at touching the deduction; when the House unveiled its own bill, the powerful National Association of Home Builders quickly blasted it.
But even if Republicans were to stick to their guns and reform the deduction, they aren’t proposing to use the recouped tax revenue to assist poor families. Instead, the savings would be used to keep down the overall cost of the GOP’s tax plan, which is mostly a giveaway to those who are already wealthy. By 2027, the wealthiest 0.1 percent of the country will get a quarter of the benefits, which translates into an extra $278,370 in their pockets. Meanwhile, the poorest fifth gets just 0.3 percent, or a mere $10 extra. Other analyses have found that many low- to moderate-income families would wind up with a tax increase.
There’s a glimmer of hope to be found in the fact that years of staunch opposition—in both parties—to reforming the mortgage-interest deduction may have finally cracked. But while this regressive tax benefit desperately needs to be changed, it only makes sense if the federal assistance offered to rich families is funneled toward those struggling to make rent. Instead, many Republicans want to get rid of it to hand yet more money to the rich. That would utterly squander a chance at meaningful reform.
An enormous entitlement in the tax code props up home prices — and overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and the upper middle class.
“The son of a minister, Ohene Asare grew up poor. His family immigrated from Ghana when he was 8 and settled down in West Bridgewater, Mass., a town 30 miles south of Boston, where he was one of the few black students at the local public school. “It was us and this Jewish family,” Asare remembered. “It was a field day.” His white classmates bullied him, sometimes using racial slurs. His father transferred Asare when he was 14 to Milton Academy, which awarded Asare a scholarship that covered tuition and board. His parents still had to take out loans worth about $20,000 for his living expenses. But the academy set Asare up for future success. He and his wife, Régine Jean-Charles, whom he got to know at Milton, are in their late 30s. She is a tenured professor of romance languages and literature at Boston College, and Asare is a founder of Aesara, a consulting and technology company.
Two years ago, the couple bought a new home. Set on a half-acre lot that backs up to conservation land in Milton, Mass., the 2,350-square-foot split-level has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, an open-concept kitchen and dining area, a finished basement, hardwood floors and beautiful touches throughout, like the Tennessee marble fireplace and hearth. It cost $665,000. “This is the nicest house I’ve ever lived in,” Asare told me.
Asare and Jean-Charles have four children and earn roughly $290,000 a year, which puts them in the top 5 percent of household incomes in the country. After renting for the first years of their marriage, they participated in a home buyers’ program administered by the nonprofit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America. The program allowed Asare and Jean-Charles to purchase their first home in 2009 for $360,000 with a 10 percent down payment, half of what is typically required. In 2015, they sold it for $430,000. There is a reason so many Americans choose to develop their net worth through homeownership: It is a proven wealth builder and savings compeller. The average homeowner boasts a net worth ($195,400) that is 36 times that of the average renter ($5,400).
Asare serves on the advisory board for HomeStart, a nonprofit focused on ending and preventing homelessness. Like most organizations, HomeStart is made up of people at various rungs on the economic ladder. Asare sits near the top; his salary exceeds that of anyone on staff at the nonprofit he helps advise. When Crisaliz Diaz was a staff member at HomeStart, she was at the other end of the ladder. She earned $38,000 a year, putting her near the bottom third of American household incomes. A 26-year-old Latina with thick-rimmed glasses, Diaz rents a small two-bedroom apartment in Braintree, Mass., an outer suburb of Boston. Her two sons, Xzayvior and Mayson — Zay and May, she calls them — share a room plastered with Lego posters and Mickey Mouse stickers. Her apartment is spare and clean, with ceiling tiles you can push up and views of the parking lot and busy street.
When Diaz moved in four years ago, the rent was $1,195 a month, heat included, but her landlord has since raised the rent to $1,385 a month, which takes 44 percent of her paycheck. Even with child-support payments and side jobs, she still doesn’t bring in enough to pay her regular bills. She goes without a savings account and regularly relies on credit cards to buy toilet paper and soap. “There’s no stop to it,” she told me. “It’s just a consistent thing.”
Diaz receives no housing assistance. She has applied to several programs, but nothing has come through. The last time Boston accepted new applications for rental-assistance Section 8 vouchers was nine years ago, when for a few precious weeks you were allowed to place your name on a very long waiting list. Boston is not atypical in that way. In Los Angeles, the estimated wait time for a Section 8 voucher is 11 years. In Washington, the waiting list for housing vouchers is closed indefinitely, and over 40,000 people have applied for public housing alone. While many Americans assume that most poor families live in subsidized housing, the opposite is true; nationwide, only one in four households that qualifies for rental assistance receives it. Most are like Diaz, struggling without government help in the private rental market, where housing costs claim larger and larger chunks of their income.
Almost a decade removed from the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008, the nation is facing one of the worst affordable-housing shortages in generations. The standard of “affordable” housing is that which costs roughly 30 percent or less of a family’s income. Because of rising housing costs and stagnant wages, slightly more than half of all poor renting families in the country spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs, and at least one in four spends more than 70 percent. Yet America’s national housing policy gives affluent homeowners large benefits; middle-class homeowners, smaller benefits; and most renters, who are disproportionately poor, nothing. It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality in such a sweeping fashion.
Consider Asare and Diaz. As a homeowner, Asare benefits from tax breaks that Diaz does not, the biggest being the mortgage-interest deduction — or MID, in wonk-speak. All homeowners in America may deduct mortgage interest on their first and second homes. In 2015, Asare and Jean-Charles claimed $21,686 in home interest and other real estate deductions, which saved them $470 a month. That’s roughly 15 percent of Diaz’s monthly income. That same year, the federal government dedicated nearly $134 billion to homeowner subsidies. The MID accounted for the biggest chunk of the total, $71 billion, with real estate tax deductions, capital gains exclusions and other expenditures accounting for the rest. That number, $134 billion, was larger than the entire budgets of the Departments of Education, Justice and Energy combined for that year. It is a figure that exceeds half the entire gross domestic product of countries like Chile, New Zealand and Portugal.
Recently, Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser to President Trump, heralded his boss’s first tax plan as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something really big.” And indeed, Trump’s plan represents a radical transformation in how we will fund the government, with its biggest winners being corporations and wealthy families. But no one in his administration, and only a small (albeit growing) group of people in either party, is pushing to reform what may very well be the most regressive piece of social policy in America. Perhaps that’s because the mortgage-interest deduction overwhelmingly benefits the sorts of upper-middle-class voters who make up the donor base of both parties and who generally fail to acknowledge themselves to be beneficiaries of federal largess. “Today, as in the past,” writes the historian Molly Michelmore in her book “Tax and Spend,” “most of the recipients of federal aid are not the suspect ‘welfare queens’ of the popular imagination but rather middle-class homeowners, salaried professionals and retirees.” A 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way. It is only by recognizing this fact that we can begin to understand why there is so much poverty in the United States today.
When we think of entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare immediately come to mind. But by any fair standard, the holy trinity of United States social policy should also include the mortgage-interest deduction — an enormous benefit that has also become politically untouchable.
The MID came into being in 1913, not to spur homeownership but simply as part of a general policy allowing businesses to deduct interest payments from loans. At that time, most Americans didn’t own their homes and only the rich paid income tax, so the effects of the mortgage deduction on the nation’s tax proceeds were fairly trivial. That began to change in the second half of the 20th century, though, because of two huge transformations in American life. First, income tax was converted from an elite tax to a mass tax: In 1932, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (precursor to the I.R.S.) processed fewer than two million individual tax returns, but 11 years later, it processed over 40 million. At the same time, the federal government began subsidizing homeownership through large-scale initiatives like the G.I. Bill and mortgage insurance. Homeownership grew rapidly in the postwar period, and so did the MID.
By the time policy makers realized how extravagant the MID had become, it was too late to do much about it without facing significant backlash. Millions of voters had begun to count on getting that money back. Even President Ronald Reagan, who oversaw drastic cuts to housing programs benefiting low-income Americans, let the MID be. Subsequent politicians followed suit, often eager to discuss reforms to Social Security and Medicare but reluctant to touch the MID, even as the program continued to grow more costly: By 2019, MID expenditures are expected to exceed $96 billion.
“Once we’re in a world with a MID,” says Todd Sinai, a professor of real estate and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “it is very hard to get to a world without the MID.” That’s in part because the benefit helps to prop up home values. It’s impossible to say how much, but a widely cited 1996 study estimated that eliminating the MID and property-tax deductions would result in a 13 to 17 percent reduction in housing prices nationwide, though that estimate varies widely by region and more recent analyses have found smaller effects. The MID allows home buyers to collect more after-tax savings if they take on more mortgage debt, which incentivizes them to pay more for properties than they could have otherwise. By inflating home values, the MID benefits Americans who already own homes — and makes joining their ranks harder.
The owner-renter divide is as salient as any other in this nation, and this divide is a historical result of statecraft designed to protect and promote inequality. Ours was not always a nation of homeowners; the New Deal fashioned it so, particularly through the G.I. Bill of Rights. The G.I. Bill was enormous, consuming 15 percent of the federal budget in 1948, and remains unmatched by any other single social policy in the scope and depth of its provisions, which included things like college tuition benefits and small-business loans. The G.I. Bill brought a rollout of veterans’ mortgages, padded with modest interest rates and down payments waived for loans up to 30 years. Returning soldiers lined up and bought new homes by the millions. In the years immediately following World War II, veterans’ mortgages accounted for over 40 percent of all home loans.
But both in its design and its application, the G.I. Bill excluded a large number of citizens. To get the New Deal through Congress, Franklin Roosevelt needed to appease the Southern arm of the Democratic Party. So he acquiesced when Congress blocked many nonwhites, particularly African-Americans, from accessing his newly created ladders of opportunity. Farm work, housekeeping and other jobs disproportionately staffed by African-Americans were omitted from programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance. Local Veterans Affairs centers and other entities loyal to Jim Crow did their parts as well, systematically denying nonwhite veterans access to the G.I. Bill. If those veterans got past the V.A., they still had to contend with the banks, which denied loan applications in nonwhite neighborhoods because the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages there. From 1934 to 1968, the official F.H.A. policy of redlining made homeownership virtually impossible in black communities. “The consequences proved profound,” writes the historian Ira Katznelson in his perfectly titled book, “When Affirmative Action Was White.” “By 1984, when G.I. Bill mortgages had mainly matured, the median white household had a net worth of $39,135; the comparable figure for black households was only $3,397, or just 9 percent of white holdings. Most of this difference was accounted for by the absence of homeownership.”
This legacy has been passed down to subsequent generations. Today a majority of first-time home buyers get down-payment help from their parents; many of those parents pitch in by refinancing their own homes. As black homeowners, Asare and Jean-Charles are exceptions to the national trend: While most white families own a home, a majority of black and Latino families do not. Differences in homeownership rates remain the prime driver of the nation’s racial wealth gap. In 2011, the median white household had a net worth of $111,146, compared with $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Hispanic household. If black and Hispanic families owned homes at rates similar to whites, the racial wealth gap would be reduced by almost a third.
Racial exclusion was Roosevelt’s first concession to pass the New Deal; his second, to avoid a tax revolt, was to rely on regressive and largely hidden payroll taxes to fund generous social-welfare programs. A result, the historian Michelmore observes, is that we “never asked ordinary taxpayers to pay for the economic security many soon came to expect as a matter of right.” In providing millions of middle-class families stealth benefits, the American government rendered itself invisible to those families, who soon came to see their success as wholly self-made. We forgot because we were not meant to remember.
Proponents of the mortgage-interest deduction often claim that the benefit is a big help to middle-class homeowners. Vincent Wisniewski Jr. is one of them. Wisniewski, 35 and white, with brown hair down to his shoulders, worked with Diaz at HomeStart, but as a program manager. He and his wife, Kelly Kristof, an emergency-room technician, make about $79,000 a year, roughly the median household income for families in the Boston metro area. They live with their 9-month-old son in a 985-square-foot condominium that Wisniewski bought three years ago for $190,000.
Set on a quiet street in Winthrop, a community hemmed in by Logan Airport on one side and the Atlantic on the other, the condo features two bedrooms, a square kitchen with white cupboards, a television room and “the quiet room,” with hanging plants, guitars mounted on the wall and a large bay window. From the small back patio, the ocean is close enough to smell. The mortgage and property-tax bills are about $915 a month, and the monthly condo fee is $368, which includes expensive flood insurance. Even counting utilities, Wisniewski and Kristof spend about 22 percent of their combined income on housing costs. With what’s left over, they buy items for their son, take vacations and enjoy local restaurants. “We definitely feel comfortable,” Wisniewski told me.
Before moving into his condo, Wisniewski rented an apartment in urban Somerville for $1,500 a month, splitting it with a roommate. If he had continued to rent, Wisniewski would have had steeper monthly payments that would have only accelerated in subsequent years; and none of that money would have contributed to his young family’s nest egg.
In 2015, Wisniewski deducted $4,789 of mortgage interest, which means he saved $39 a month. (He didn’t take the deduction for 2016 because once he was married, the standard deduction was larger.) That’s a pittance compared with what Asare and Jean-Charles saved, for an obvious reason: They claim a bigger deduction because they have a bigger mortgage. And they could get a bigger mortgage because they have a bigger income. This is one reason taxpayers on the coasts, where incomes and property costs are higher, typically benefit much more from the MID. The per capita MID claim for residents of Maryland and the District of Columbia, for example, is three times what it is for families living in West Virginia and Mississippi.
There is another reason most MID benefits accrue to the top, even among homeowners: You have to itemize your deductions to claim it. Most taxpayers don’t bother because they don’t make enough money to justify the hassle. In 2014, 1.5 million households earning between $40,000 and $50,000 a year claimed the MID, receiving an average benefit of $14 a month. That same year, 6.5 million households with earnings above $200,000 claimed the MID and enjoyed an average benefit of $391 a month. What this means in aggregate is that households with at least six-figure incomes receive more than four-fifths of the total value of mortgage interest and property-tax deductions.
Wisniewski benefits from the MID, but it didn’t help him buy his condo. The biggest barrier to buying a first home is saving enough for a down payment, a problem the MID does not solve. Wisniewski’s parents pitched in $5,000, and he secured additional financing through ONE Mortgage, a program offered by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership for first-time home buyers. Wisniewski didn’t really consider homeowner tax breaks when shopping for his home. Defenders of the MID began arguing that it encouraged homeownership after the benefit was popularized, but numerous studies have found no support for this claim. For example, a 2002 paper by the economists Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro showed that while the value of the deduction had fluctuated significantly with inflation since 1960, homeownership rates had remained more or less unchanged. “The home mortgage interest deduction,” the authors write, “is a particularly poor instrument for encouraging homeownership since it is targeted at the wealthy, who are almost always homeowners.” Glaeser later confirmed unequivocally that these patterns hold true today.
So why do we keep this “poor instrument” around, if the overarching goal of American federal housing policy is to create a nation of homeowners? Perhaps because the MID enjoys entrenched, unyielding support from a powerful real estate lobby. We often discuss the influence of the gun and pharmaceutical lobbies, but the real estate lobby has spent much more than either group. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Association of Realtors spent $64.8 million in lobbying efforts in 2016, making it second only to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in terms of dollars spent. And to 1.2 million Realtors, the mortgage-interest deduction is nonnegotiable. The association calls it a “remarkably effective tool that facilitates homeownership.” Jerry Howard, the chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders, refers to the MID as “one of the cornerstones of American housing policy.” Of course, industry groups have a responsibility to their members, who enjoy profiting from a government subsidy that increases the prices of homes they build and sell.
William Brown, the president of the Realtor association, said his members “aren’t shy about making their voices heard” to preserve the status quo. No, they are not — and Washington has listened. After the Republican-led Ways and Means Committee proposed modifications to the MID in a draft of the Tax Reform Act of 2014, the association issued a statement saying it was “extremely disappointed.” The act did not propose to eliminate the MID but simply to cap the amount of deductible mortgage debt at $500,000, as opposed to the current cap of $1 million. (Second mortgages are capped at $100,000.) The only reason the MID is capped at all is because of the “immaculate conception provision” in the 1987 budget reconciliation bill, so named because the initiator of this provision, probably out of a desire stay gainfully employed in government, never took credit for it. It was the only time in its 104-year history that the MID has been altered.
Today as in years past, MID reform is generally considered a lost cause. There have been gestures at reform — Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, keeps reintroducing a bill that would replace the MID with a 15 percent tax credit on interest paid up to $500,000 — but they have gone nowhere. Five months ago, before being confirmed as Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin announced that the new administration hoped to “cap the mortgage interest.” But when Trump released his tax plan last month, the MID was untouched. Trump did propose to double the standard deduction (to $24,000 from $12,600 for married couples, for example) which would make the MID irrelevant for a vast majority of homeowners, whose mortgage interest would be less than the increased exemption, giving them almost no reason to itemize. But wealthy families living in expensive homes would still cash in. If anything, doubling the standard deduction simply exposes the MID for what it really is: a generous public-housing program for the rich. Diane Yentel, the president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, believes that in the long run this will make the MID “untenable to retain.”
Yentel’s coalition supports the idea of lowering the size of deductible mortgage debt to $500,000 and reallocating the savings to housing assistance for low-income families. “The solution is so obvious,” Yentel says. “There are a number of programs that have proven success in ending homelessness and ending housing insecurity.” The problem is not in the policies’ prescriptions but in their dosage: We severely underfund programs that work. By one estimate, capping the MID at $500,000 would save $87 billion over 10 years, even though less than 6 percent of mortgages nationwide exceed half a million dollars. That savings would allow 1.2 million additional families to benefit from housing vouchers.
Of course, reforming the MID is one thing. Redirecting the savings to low-income families is quite another. “The much bigger hurdle,” Yentel says, “is making sure that dollars are reaching affordable-housing programs.” On this point, real estate lobbyists and affordable-housing advocates agree. “They want to cap it and put the savings in rental housing,” says Joe Ventrone, the Realtor association’s vice president for regulatory affairs. “Crazy, because the Congress does not operate that way. It goes in to build a battleship.”
Capping the MID at $500,000 would have virtually no effect on homeownership rates. And according to the economist Glaeser, it would have only “modest effects on home prices” in supply-constrained cities like San Francisco and virtually no effect in cities with plenty of available land, like Houston. “Most homeowners wouldn’t even feel it,” Glaeser says, pointing out further that encouraging homeownership typically means moving people from multifamily buildings to single-family homes, which increases traffic congestion and pollution. But capping the MID at half a million dollars could cause properties in the $625,000 to $1.25 million range to drop in value.
Would we be O.K. with that? Would we support reform that provided desperately needed housing relief to millions of low-income Americans if it meant that the net worth of those who owned expensive homes took a hit? The answer is almost certainly no, at least for owners of houses valued north of $500,000. Wealth granted by a bizarre government subsidy is still wealth, and once people have it, they’d prefer to keep it. When it comes to public housing for the rich, it becomes hard to break the cycle of welfare dependency. It’s why some Democratic leaders who represent districts with high housing prices, like Representative Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) and Senator Chuck Schumer (New York), have been outspoken critics of MID reform, even if they are consistent backers of other equality-promoting initiatives.
We tend to speak about the poor as if they didn’t live in the same society, as if our gains and their losses weren’t intertwined. Conservatives explain poverty by pointing to “individual factors,” like bad decisions or the rise of single-parent families; liberals refer to “structural causes,” like the decline of manufacturing or the historical legacies of racial discrimination. Usually pitted against each other, each perspective serves a similar function: letting us off the hook by asserting that there is a deep-rooted, troubling problem — more than one in six Americans does not make enough to afford basic necessities — that most of us bear no responsibility for.
It’s around this point that the conversation gets snagged in the weeds with questions about home prices, political ramifications or the administrative hurdles of reform — escape routes that allow us to lose sight of people like Cris Diaz, low-income renters who are not entitled to any housing assistance and who are giving most of their income to landlords and utility companies. To drive down poverty and promote economic mobility, the United States will need to make a major investment in affordable housing. You don’t need to reform the MID to pay for that — there are plenty of other ways to raise revenue — but you have to pay for it somehow. Whatever our position on homeowner tax benefits, we should have an answer for people like Diaz.
Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget includes a 13.2 percent reduction to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the elimination of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, cuts that will almost certainly result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of housing vouchers and leave more families rent-burdened and homeless. President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal estimated that it would take $1 billion a year over the next 10 years to eliminate family homelessness in America — not decrease it or slice it in half, but end it. That’s less than 1 percent of what we currently spend on homeowner subsidies. And yet a bill designed to provide every child in America with a home was pronounced dead on arrival in Congress. Up to this point, bills proposing modest reforms to the mortgage-interest deduction have met the same fate.
Poverty and homelessness are political creations. Their amelioration is within our grasp and budget. But those of us most likely to vote and contribute to political campaigns are least likely to support MID reform — either because it wouldn’t affect our lives or because it would, by asking us to take less so that millions of Americans could be given the opportunity to climb out of poverty. It’s just that we usually don’t dial our elected officials when our less-fortunate neighbors are hurting, because we are not.
And yet over the course of our history, there have been times when Americans embraced a politics of sacrifice. During World War II, families volunteered to pay more taxes, ration food and give blood to serve a higher purpose. And even today, in what can feel like an age of insecurity and self-preservation, some Americans have shown a willingness to take a personal financial hit to promote social mobility and equality. Take the people of Seattle: For 36 years, they have agreed to be taxed more to raise revenue for affordable-housing programs. Last August, 70 percent of Seattle voters agreed to the largest housing levy yet, one expected to raise $290 million over the next seven years. Contributions to the levy are based on home values; a family living in a $480,000 home (the city’s median value in 2015) pays an additional $122 a year in taxes. With that money, Seattle will fund emergency rental assistance, loans to first-time home buyers and the construction of housing units that must remain affordable for at least 50 years. Previous housing levies have generated over 13,000 affordable apartment units and enabled 900 low-income families to buy homes. The 2016 Housing Levy will do more because the residents of Seattle decided to invest in economic diversity and residential stability, sacrificing a pinch to help those in need.
Asare and Jean-Charles would welcome MID reform, even if it meant that they would have less in the bank at the end of the year. “There are people who sacrificed for me to be here,” Asare told me. One of them was a boy named Chris Jackson, whom Asare met during his tormented years in the West Bridgewater school system. When Asare wouldn’t fight back, Jackson, a fellow black student, would stick up for him. “I watched him fight and fight, get into trouble,” Asare remembers. “And I’d be like, ‘No, stop.’ But he wouldn’t, because what was right was right.” Asare paused to collect himself, a hand fingering the space above his freshly shaved head. “That kind of compassion, that kind of brotherhood, is what I would ask of people: that we don’t give according to what people are willing to receive; we give according to the standard for what they should have.”
In February, Diaz’s landlord increased her rent by $65 a month, to $1,450. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Diaz had recently taken a new job as a leasing consultant at a small property management firm. The pay wasn’t better, but she had reduced her commute to 30 minutes from two hours. “I get to see my kids before it gets dark,” she said. But transitioning between the jobs caused her to go without income for a couple of weeks. With no savings to fall back on, she couldn’t pay the increased rent and was summoned to eviction court. A month later, Diaz walked through the metal detector at the Quincy District Courthouse. “Where do you go for evictions?” she asked a clerk, who pointed to a crowd of tenants shuffling toward the same room. Some wore heavy-heeled work boots and worn jeans; some leaned on canes and walkers; some bounced babies. Diaz took a seat on a long wooden bench and looked at the clock. She had had to use her lunch break to make court and only had 45 minutes.
Once a rarity in America, eviction has become commonplace in our cities, disrupting families, schools and entire neighborhoods. Forty people a day are evicted in Milwaukee; each day in New York City brings 60 marshal evictions. An eviction could plunge Diaz and her boys into homelessness and poverty. Studies have found that evicted families lose not only their homes but their jobs, possessions and neighbors too; they relocate to substandard housing in distressed communities; they have higher rates of depression and suicide. Even if poor families avoid eviction, they still suffer, because so much of their money goes to housing costs, forcing them to buy fewer school supplies, clothes, books — and food.
In some markets, there are virtually no affordable units left. The median annual rent for a two-bedroom apartment is currently $39,600 in Boston, $49,200 in New York City and $54,720 in San Francisco. Families priced out of large cities have moved to smaller ones, and now those cities are experiencing some of the steepest rent increases in the nation. The poor used to live on the other side of the tracks. Now they live in different towns and counties entirely.
And yet we continue to give the most help to those who least need it — affluent homeowners — while providing nothing to most rent-burdened tenants. If this is our design, our social contract, then we should at least own up to it; we should at least stand up and profess, “Yes, this is the kind of nation we want.” Before us, there are two honest choices: We can endorse this inequality-maximizing arrangement, or we can reject it. What we cannot do is look a mother like Diaz in the face and say, “We’d love to help you, but we just can’t afford to.” Because that is, quite simply, a lie.
After her name was called, Diaz stepped outside the courtroom to talk with her landlord’s attorney, a white man in wire glasses. She had secured emergency assistance from the state. It wasn’t enough. But the lawyer told Diaz that if she “zeroed out” by next month, paying all her back rent and April’s rent in full, he would dismiss the case. Diaz wrote out a check for $583 — a start, and what amounted to $357 less than what Asare and Jean-Charles receive from the MID in two months — and raced back to work. In April, she was let go.
Thinking about the long, hard road ahead for Diaz, I remembered a conversation I had with her six months earlier. Around her small dining table, Diaz and I had calculated her monthly budget, which left her with -$221 after all the bills were paid. The process seemed to reduce her to a sadder, emptied-out version of herself. “Eventually I’m going to have to figure something out,” she said softly, “whether it’s a second job or a third job. I don’t know.”
I looked down at my empty plate, smeared with tomato sauce from the meatball sub Diaz had made me. “Do you know what the mortgage-interest deduction is?” I asked.
“I don’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
After I explained what it is, she asked, “Why don’t they spend it on lower-income housing?” I shrugged. After a moment, I asked, “What would you do if you only had to pay 30 percent of your income on rent?”
Diaz looked around. Her eyes paused on one of Zay’s homework assignments stuck to the refrigerator. Titled “Someone Special,” its words wiggled forward in a child’s handwriting: “My mom is special because she helps me figure out addition and subtraction. We always cook together. We cook some spaghetti.” On the other side of the fridge, held up by a clown-fish magnet, was a bill from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
“That would be life,” she said.”
“The national numbers are scandalous. On any given night, more than half a million homeless men, women, and children sleep on the streets or in shelters. In 2016 alone, according to research by the scholar Matthew Desmond, roughly 900,000 households were subject to eviction judgments. The same year, more than 11 million households spent at least 50 percent of their income, and another 9.8 million spent more than 30 percent, on rent. Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households, then, live with the crushing weight of excessive housing costs.”
Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” Exhibit at the Building Muesum
Eviction Crisis Info Below from “Evicted” Exhibit
The eviction crisis is relatively new. It stems from three fundamental problems that have surfaced in the past 20-30 years. Incomes for poor, renting families have fallen or stagnated, while housing costs – including both utilities and rent- have risen. Meanwhile, the federal government has failed to fill the gap.
This nationwide problem threatens more than 11 million Americans. These extremely low-income renters work but do not make enough money to pay rent in most markets; they qualify for government housing aid but do not receive it.
Each year more than 2.3 million Americans (a rate of four every minute), most of them low-income renters, face eviction. While it used to be rare even in the poorest neighborhoods, forcible removal has become ordinary, with families facing eviction from the most squalid, barely inhabitable apartments. This phenomenon exposes not only income inequality in America, but also the growing separation between the built environments of the rich and the poor.
Eviction occurs when renters are forcibly removed from their home by court order. Evictions and the threat of removal are disproportionately experienced by African American single mothers in many cities, but affect people of all backgrounds. An eviction record can mean that a family is now ineligible for other subsidies such as public housing. It can make job-hunting more difficult, if not nearly impossible. Finding a new place to live becomes almost a full-time job, especially in a sprawling metropolitan area without a car.
Housing instability threatens all aspects of family life: health, jobs, school, and personal relationships. Landlords hesitate to rent to those with eviction records, or charge them extra money, causing a devastating negative feedback loop. Children switch schools too often to make friends or be noticed and helped by teachers; neighbors cannot develop bonds; personal belongings are left in storage or out on the street. Americans often take home for granted—homes forms the building blocks of community life—and this stability is under attack when eviction looms.”
Causes of Eviction Crisis
- Incomes have stagnated
- Rent keeps rising
- Government programs do not fill the gap
Women Evicted by Race
- 4 of 60 white women
- 5 of 60 Hispanic women
- 12 of 60 black women
Eviction is more common for African American single mothers than for all other groups. In fact, poor single mothers of all races are particularly at risk. Children often expose families to eviction instead of protecting them, as landlords often see youth as disruptive.
“Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary” Matthew Desmond
“Poor black men are locked up; poor black women are locked out.” Matthew Desmond
In 2016, 37% of homes were sold to buyers who did not occupy the property. Landlords are playing a new and significant role in the housing markets. In many metropolitan areas, such as Washington DC, the majority of landlords are not individuals, but rather large companies with portfolios of several thousand units.
Landlords in poor neighborhoods can often make more money than they could in more upscale markets. Sometimes they will raise rents in anticipation of incurring losses. They may also save by foregoing upkeep and maintenance.
“Slumlord” is a derogatory term used to describe a landlord who does not provide basic repairs and services to an apartment, while still demanding regular rent payment. These landlords know their tenants have few options and may not complain about housing quality for fear of risking evictions.
In 1937, the National Housing Act established the role of the federal government in subsidizing housing. Special programs assist families with children, the elderly, and the disabled. Approximately 4.8 million households receive poverty-related housing assistance through programs of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Today the majority of government spending on housing goes not to poor people, however, but to homeowners and high-income households,through the mortgage interest deduction, capital gains exclusions ,and other real estate write-offs. The mortgage interest deduction alone cost the federal government $71 billion in 2015, more than double the $29.9 billion spent on Section 8, which provides housing vouchers for low-income renters.
Current federal and state commitment to housing assistance does not begin to cover the millions of low-income Americans who need help paying for a place to live. And an eviction record can disqualify a family from receiving aid. For some, these programs are necessary and life-saving: for millions of Americans, they are simply out of reach.
Spending too much on rent
Federal guidelines have indicated for more than 80 years that households should not spend more than 30% of their income on rent. This is increasingly impossible. Without government assistance, extremely low-income families end up paying far too much for their income on housing.
Today, because of rising housing costs, the majority of poor families spend more than 50% of their income on rent – some even more. This presents major problems for families who then have little funds left for school field trips, medicine, food, clothing, or emergencies.
Affordable housing shortage
The eviction crisis has revealed a stunning lack of sufficient and affordable hosing across the entire country. In 2017, a full-time worker earning minimum wage could afford a one-bedroom apaartment in only twelve US counties. In other words, low-income Americans do not- cannot- earn enough money to pay rent in the vast majority of jurisdictions across the country.
On a small income, there are very few options. Even if rents are similar in different areas, the upfront costs, utilities, and security deposits, as well as rules about previous eviction recordes, can keep low-income renters out of most apartments and communities. Often, after a long frustrating search, families are forced into increasingly dilapidated housing in neighborhoods far from work and opportunity. But even this insufficient, crowded housing, often without reliable hot water and heat, comes at a high costs.
Housing court, also known as rent court or landlord-tenant court, is a processing factory. Judges gavel through cases over and over again all day with little time to consider individual circumstances. In most jursdictions across the country, court-ordered evictions happen every working day.
The court system can be complicated. Most landlords are represented by counsel, while most tenants are not. Landlords, who have paid for attorneys and gone through a sometimes arduous process to gather paperwork and wait the requested amount of time, almost always have the upper hand. In fact, tenants often do not even show up to court- whether because they cannot get the time off work or because they see no benefit to their appearance. An eviction is often issued by default judgement.
- 90% of landlords have representation
- 10% of tenants have representation
Even in so-called “tenant-friendly” housing markets – where legislative safeguards such as court orders and waiting periods are required to evict – tenants are at a severe disadvantage. Navigating the legal process is expensive, time consuming, and overwhelming.
Right to Counsel
Right to counsel is a movement that can make housing court work better for both parties. With both sides represented, outcomes can be better for both tenants (who may be able to stay in their homes) and for landlords (who only collect rent if a tenant stays put) In most cases, there are alternatives to eviction – payment plans, forced property improvement, debt assistance – that can help all involved.
In New York City, for example, an independent firm discovered that the city would save $320 million by paying for attorneys instead of shelters an other homeless-related expenditures. In the fall of 2017, New York City become the first major city to invoke a right to counsel for tenants in housing court.
“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Unless you’re losing your home. There is no state that guarantees a right to counsel for a litigant in cases involving housing.” National Coalition for a Civil Right Counsel
Successful Advocacy Campaigns
- The Great Rent Wars, New York City, 1919
- Rent control laws help curb skyrocketing rents in many cities. In New York, the origin of these laws dates back as far as the post-World War I housing shortage – which led to profiteering- with rents rising by 100% overnight. Tenant fought back using tactics later seen during the Great Depression. Neighbors worked together to break down doors and re-house a family’s possessions after an eviction, or even poured water from upstairs apartments over the movers as they worked. Activism during the 1920s eventually led to rent control legislation, which is now common throughout the country. Landlords are restricted in how much they can raise the rent during a given time period.
- Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union Arkansas, 1930s
- During the Depression, families all over the country faced eviction. From Toledo, Ohio to the Bronx, tenants tried to fight back against landlords who demanded high rents during hard times. In the South, tenant farmers and sharecroppers worked together, organized by the Socialist party, to fight back and campaign for additional federal assistance. Organized farm strikes and other techniques helped the union achieve goals such as a new government agency, the Farm Security Organization, which granted subsidies to farm workers. Though its influence waned in the 1940s, the STFU demonstrated the power of workers joining together to demand help.
- Foreclosure Moratorium North Dakota, 1933
- Moratoriums on foreclosure and eviction raced through state legislatures and city councils in the 1930s. Facing unprecedented levels of forced moves, the nation’s populist elected officials worked to keep people on their farms and in their homes. Farm activism was especially strong throughout the Midwest and South during the Depression, and forced eviction was high on the list of priorities. William Langer, governor of North Dakota, saw forced farm sales peaking in 1933. He helped make North Dakota one of several states to issue an eviction moratorium to help residents stay home.
- Young Lords – Chicago, 1960s
- Is the 1960s, a group of Puerto Rican youth formed the Young Lords to fight back against forced eviction caused by rising rents in gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods, Puerto Ricans, who had arrived in Chicago decades earlier, increasingly found themselves priced out of neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and began using methods of active resistance and defiance. The Young Lords fought social justice battles, joined with other groups such as the Black Panthers, and expanded to other cities. but their early focus was fighting unfair eviction. As a community activist group, the young adults demanded attention to an issue facing their families and friends, and helped spur Chicago into setting aside money for affordable housing.
- Battle for the I-Hotel San Francisco, 1977
- At 3am on August 4, 1977, a forced eviction ended a nine-year battle to save a residential hotel occupied by elderly Filipino immigrants. 3000 activist circled the International Hotel, but the 400 riot police led a raid with axes and destroyed the residents’ possessions and homes. The eviction-though it was a violent reminder of the power of the state over vulnerable tenants – did help coalesce a community of activist. In later years, citizens rallied to prioritized affordable housing as well as the preservation of Chinatown as development increased and housing costs rose abruptly in Sn Francisco. the I-Hotel, finally rebuilt 40 years later as subsidized elderly housing, become a national rallying cry against forced eviction.
- Homestart Boston, 1990s
- Founded in response to a severe homelessness crisis in 1980s Boston, this organization offers services that help evicted and homeless families find stable housing. In 2014, 94% of those receiving stabilization services from HomeStart Boston remain housed one year later.
- Midtown Plaza Apartments – Houston, Texas, 2012
- US military veterans make up about 7% of the population but 13% of the homeless population. To help solve this problem, Houston joined other cities such as New Orleans, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City in vowing to end veteran homelessness by increasing and improving services as well as offering affordable housing. With new construction and renovation. Houston opened Midows Plaza and Travis Street apartments. These complexes offer “service-enriched” housing to veterans, many them disabled, including job training and case management services.
- #notanuisance – Surprise, Arizona, 2016
- When Nancy M’s violent ex-boyfriend repeatedly returned to her apartment, she called 911. When her landlord subsequently evicted her for calling the police, she fought back. The nuisance ordinance in her town empowered police to pressure landlords to file for eviction, thereby silencing victims of domestic violence and other crimes. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nancy fought the city on its 2010 law, and won. The nuisance ordinance was repealed. A new campaign promise to help change the law across the country.
- Yes on Question 3 – Lawrence, Kansas, 2017
- A wide coalition of supporters led the charge for a bill to triple the amount of public funding for affordable housing in Lawrence, Kansas. This city with a population of about 100,000 people and home to the University of Kansas suffers from a major shortage of affordable housing for its 13,000 low-income residents. Led by the local faith-based group Justice Matters, advocate for raising the tax spent three years researching and organizing before the successful vote. The tax adds only 50 cents per $1,000 spent per family. and will be distributed to projects by the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
- #Ourhomesourvoices, DC, 2018
- This national campaign builds on many years of work by activists and aims to convince Congress to reserve more funds for housing subsidies for low-income renters. The organization also wants to provide incentives for developers to build more truly affordable housing. Rallies and protests are one way for tenants and their advocates to get the attention of law makers, as they build support for housing rights in local jurisdictions.
“RICHMOND, Va. — Before the first hearings on the morning docket, the line starts to clog the lobby of the John Marshall Courthouse. No cellphones are allowed inside, but many of the people who’ve been summoned don’t learn that until they arrive. “Put it in your car,” the sheriff’s deputies suggest at the metal detector. That advice is no help to renters who have come by bus. To make it inside, some tuck their phones in the bushes nearby.
This courthouse handles every eviction in Richmond, a city with one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to new data covering dozens of states and compiled by a team led by the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.
Two years ago, Mr. Desmond turned eviction into a national topic of conversation with “Evicted,” a book that chronicled how poor families who lost their homes in Milwaukee sank ever deeper into poverty. It became a favorite among civic groups and on college campuses, some here in Richmond. Bill Gates and former President Obama named it among the best books they had read in 2017, and it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
But for all the attention the problem began to draw, even Mr. Desmond could not say how widespread it was. Surveys of renters have tried to gauge displacement, but there is no government data tracking all eviction cases in America. Now that Mr. Desmond has been mining court records across the country to build a database of millions of evictions, it’s clear even in his incomplete national picture that they are more rampant in many places than what he saw in Milwaukee.
Mr. Desmond’s team found records for nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in 2016, meaning landlords were given the legal right to remove at least one in 50 renter households in the communities covered by this data. That figure was one in 25 in Milwaukee and one in nine in Richmond. And one in five renter households in Richmond were threatened with eviction in 2016. Their landlords began legal proceedings, even if those cases didn’t end with a lasting mark on a tenant’s record.
For landlords, these numbers represent a financial drain of unpaid rent; for tenants, a looming risk of losing their homes.
In Richmond, most of those evicted never made it to a courtroom. They didn’t appear because the process seemed inscrutable, or because they didn’t have lawyers to navigate it, or because they believed there is not much to say when you simply don’t have the money. The median amount owed was $686.
Inside the courtroom, cases sometimes brought in bulk by property managers are settled in minutes when defendants aren’t present.
“The whole system works on default judgments and people not showing up,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Imagine if every person asked for a trial. The system would bog down in a couple of months.”
The consequences of what happens here then spread across the city. The Richmond public school system reroutes buses to follow children from apartments to homeless shelters to pay-by-the-week motels. City social workers coach residents on how to fill out job applications when they have no answer for the address line. Families lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.
“An eviction isn’t one problem,” said Amy Woolard, a lawyer and the policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town. “It’s like 12 problems.”
The new data, assembled from about 83 million court records going back to 2000, suggest that the most pervasive problems aren’t necessarily in the most expensive regions. Evictions are accumulating across Michigan and Indiana. And several factors build on one another in Richmond: It’s in the Southeast, where the poverty rates are high and the minimum wage is low; it’s in Virginia, which lacks some tenant rights available in other states; and it’s a city where many poor African-Americans live in low-quality housing with limited means of escaping it.
“This isn’t by happenstance — this is quite intentional,” said Levar Stoney, Richmond’s mayor. A quarter of households here are poor, leaving many people a car repair or a hospital visit away from missing the rent check. But that poverty collides with a legal structure that responds to such moments swiftly.
Cities in the data with the highest
rate of eviction judgments in 2016
|City||Eviction filing rate||Eviction judgment rate|
|1||North Charleston, S.C.||35.6%||16.5%|
|4||Newport News, Va.||34.1%||10.2%|
This is a state, Mr. Stoney and others say, that favors property owners, as it has since plantation days. And aid to the poor has been limited.
Mr. Desmond’s eviction calculations are probably conservative: They include only households that touched the legal process, not those in which people moved with an informal warning. The data undercount places where eviction records can be sealed or are harder to collect. In his eviction rates, Mr. Desmond counts the moment when a court delivers a judgment, not when the sheriff shows up. Tenants have often left by that point.
In Richmond, property managers say that filing an eviction is their only recourse when tenants have not paid, and that they allow many to stay even after court judgments if they pay in full before the sheriff arrives. This means the court process also functions as a cumbersome rent-collection system, one that attaches attorney fees and court costs to rent checks, and one that saddles even tenants who don’t lose their homes with lasting eviction records.
Candace Williams experienced the threat, the judgment and the sheriff’s visit when she fell behind on her rent in 2016. She was making $178 a week at a convenience store, a job she could reach without a car. Some of that money went to the space heaters and foam insulation she needed for the holes in the walls on the cheapest home she could find for her family.
She brought photos of the neglected repairs on her phone to court. When she learned she couldn’t bring in the phone, she hid it under a trash can outside. When she arrived, late, to the courtroom, a default judgment had already been entered against her.
“I definitely understand my fault in it,” Ms. Williams, 43, said. “But they don’t allow you any opportunity to make a mistake.”
The process is meant to be efficient, said Chip Dicks, a lawyer in Richmond who works on property management issues and has written provisions in the state’s landlord-tenant law. Efficiency is good public policy, he argues: Neither the landlord nor the tenant benefits from a drawn-out process that would burden renters with even more unpaid rent, late fees and attorney costs. And landlords can’t provide housing if they can’t pay their mortgages, he added.
“The landlords are the victims because they’re the ones not being paid when they’re supposed to be paid,” Mr. Dicks said. “What happens when you don’t pay your car payment? They come and take your car. What happens when you don’t pay your mortgage payment? They come and foreclose on your house.”
Poor tenants here, however, are not ensured access to legal aid or shielded from steep rent increases, as in some cities. And they have no right, as tenants in some states do, to deduct their own repair costs from the rent.
Laura Lafayette, the chief executive of the regional realtors’ association, which has been supportive of more tenant protections, fears that this system can become a “churning machine” that fails to distinguish between the tenant who made one mistake and the tenant who habitually flouts the lease. Today, both walk away from court with the same consequences.
Matt Eich for The New York Times
After Whitney Gulley was evicted in 2014, she and her three children passed through many of the places people go when they carry an eviction on their record. They doubled up with family. They stayed in a long-term motel. They moved into a homeless shelter. They finally found an apartment willing to risk an evicted family — with a two-month deposit up front.
Ms. Gulley was evicted over $569, her share of the rent on a home that was subsidized by a housing voucher. Her landlord said she did not receive the check, and Ms. Gulley did not go to court because she said she believed she could not bring her children with her.
Before that disputed $569, Ms. Gulley was in recovery from an addiction to pain pills. She got her G.E.D., her driver’s license and a car while in that home, one she remembers happily. After the eviction, she said, she relapsed.
“I felt stripped down,” she said. In the eviction she lost the writing journals she used as therapy. “It was like the only power and inspiration and the motivation had been taken out of me.”
The sum still nags at her: All this over $569. It has taken years for the family to stabilize, and it will take several more before the eviction recedes from her record.
Matt Eich for The New York Times
This part of the process — what happens after the eviction — isn’t efficient for anyone. Landlords, too, have to turn over vacant apartments, and they face a rental pool full of potentially disqualified tenants. The public housing authority in town, which was responsible for about 9 percent of the eviction judgments citywide in 2016, spends on average 50 days turning over apartments, costing the agency more in lost rent than unpaid rent cases are often worth. The median amount owed on a public housing eviction here, according to Mr. Desmond’s data, was $328.
The agency provides housing of last resort. But it is also a property manager. “I don’t think you ever eliminate that tension,” said Orlando Artze, the interim C.E.O. of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
That tension is built into public housing, just as it is embedded in a school system that struggles to serve transient children while producing well-educated ones, or in a court system that tries to offer due process but in mass quantity.
“A lot of people get caught up in: ‘Oh, is it the tenant’s fault? Oh, is it the landlord’s fault?’ ” said Elora Raymond, an assistant professor at Clemson University who has studied eviction in Atlanta, where many of these same forces converge. “I think it really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because this doesn’t work. As a societal way of renting housing, this doesn’t work.”
Eviction rates for Alaska, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota are not yet available.
The researchers caution that the eviction rates are underestimated in parts of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. Data for incomplete states is available at The Eviction Lab.
Eviction counts are based on court records collected by The Eviction Lab in 13 states and other records purchased from LexisNexis Risk Solutions and American Information Research Services Inc. Estimates of the number of renter households are based on census and Esri Business Analyst data.”
The Eviction Epidemic: Matthew Desmond from The Eviction Lab
“White landowners in the South evicted thousands of African American sharecroppers who engaged in activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Most sharecroppers lived and farmed on white-owned land. Dependent on high-interest loans to buy seed and equipment at the season’s start, they lived in a cycle of debt that eliminated their profit and prevented them from saving to buy land of their own. 94
Sharecropping dates back to the late 1860s, when newly-emancipated black people were coerced through violence, deception, and desperation to farm under terms that resembled enslavement.
Generations later, sharecropping largely defined agricultural labor in the Deep South, where many black people remained trapped in poverty. 95 An evicted sharecropper typically had nowhere to go, and white landowners knew their black tenants were especially vulnerable to economic retaliation for supporting civil rights. 96
“I been living on this farm [in Lowndes County, Alabama] since January 2, 1931,” Mrs. Armanda Glover said in 1966. “And then two days before Christmas the landlord . . . said we [my husband and five children] had to move.” 97 That same year, in nearby Dallas County, 57-year-old Arthur Brown received notice that he and his nine children were being evicted from the Minter plantation, where he had lived since he was two years old. 98
In 1960, 1400 African Americans registered to vote in Fayette County, Tennessee, and about 700 were evicted. 99 Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scores of families were evicted from plantations throughout Mississippi. 100 White landowners in Greene County, Alabama, evicted at least 75 black families in 1960, 101 and more than 40 black families were evicted in Lowndes County, Alabama, in December 1965 alone. 102
Evictions were part of a systematic plan to thwart civil rights activism and prevent black people from voting. Black men and women who registered to vote were required to provide the names of their employers, who could then be notified. 103 Newspapers printed the names of black people who attempted to register, 104 and White Citizens’ Councils distributed voter lists to white merchants, who denied basic necessities and employment to African Americans who registered — or tried to register — to vote. 105
On August 31, 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer and other black residents of the Mississippi Delta traveled to Indianola to register to vote. Soon after, she and her husband were evicted from the Marlowe plantation where they had been sharecroppers for 18 years. Homeless and denied work, the Hamers moved into temporary housing in nearby Ruleville, where white shooters targeted their home less than two weeks later. Undeterred, Mrs. Hamer returned to register to vote that December, and told the circuit clerk: “You can’t have me fired anymore ‘cause I’m already fired, [and] I won’t have to move now, because I’m not living in a white man’s house.” 106 In 1963, Mrs. Hamer was brutally beaten by police for her continued activism, but went on to lead a movement demanding political representation for black people in the South. 107
Many evicted families were forced to live in tent cities that sprang up throughout the South. 108 In communities that most closely resembled refugee camps, entire families sheltered in fabric tents that froze in the winter, 109 with no running water 110 and one outhouse for dozens of people. 111
Mary Williams, a black woman evicted from her home in Tennessee, remembered that “the ground was frozen real hard, and you could not get rest. We got cardboard boxes, split those boxes open, spread them on the grass. . . . But after we closed up for the night . . . the ground began to thaw and that made water come through the cardboard.” 112
White segregationist “night riders” terrorized the camps, firing guns into the tent cities in the middle of the night. “Tent City was like a shooting gallery,” recalled SNCC field secretary C.J. Jones. “They used to come by there three or four times a week and shoot into Tent City, and you have to remember there were women and children [there].” 113 Law enforcement did nothing to protect black people from this terrorism. 114
During this era, many African Americans were made to choose between exercising their rights and protecting their families from homelessness and violence. The threat of eviction and other forms of economic retaliation forced countless black men and women to stay on the sidelines in the struggle for equality. “It’s a very frightening thing to have to accept the cold reality,” observed SNCC field secretary George Green, “that in order to exercise their rights, to get what they could get in this great Democracy in America, here in 1966, people were living in tents.” “115
“For many poor families in America, eviction is a real and ongoing threat. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute.
“Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty,” Desmond says. “Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability.”
Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His latest project is The Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to amassing the nation’s first-ever database of eviction. To date, the Lab had collected 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia.
“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities,” Desmond says. “Our hope is that we can take this problem that’s been in the dark and bring it into the light.”
Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent, adjusting for inflation. So there’s a shrinking gap between what families are bringing [in] and what they have to pay for basic shelter.
And then we might ask ourselves: Wait a minute, where’s public housing here? Where’s housing vouchers? Doesn’t the government help? And the answer is, it does help, but only for a small percentage of families. Only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get anything. So when we picture the typical low income American today, we shouldn’t think of them living in public housing or getting any kind [of] housing assistance for the government, we should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That’s our typical case today.
On the effects of eviction
Eviction comes with a mark that goes on your record, and that can bar you from moving into a good house in a safe neighborhood, but could also prevent you from moving into public housing, because we often count that as a mark against your application. So we push families who get evicted into slum housing and dangerous neighborhoods.
We have studies that show that eviction is linked to job loss. … It’s such a consuming, stressful event, it causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there, and then there’s just the trauma of it — the effect that eviction has on your dignity and your mental health and your physical health. We have a study for example that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later.
On how landlords go about evicting tenants
It varies a lot from city to city. In some places you can evict someone for being a penny short and a day late and the process is very efficient and quick. In other cities it’s a lot longer and laborious and it’s much more work. We’re only also talking about formal evictions, too. These are evictions that go through the court and there are 101 ways for landlords to get a family out. Sometimes landlords pay a family to leave. Sometimes they change their locks or take their door off, as I witnessed one time in Milwaukee. So those evictions aren’t even captured in these numbers that we have — which means the estimates that we have are stunning, but they’re also too low.
On the benefits of stabilizing families and decreasing evictions
The more I think about this issue, the more I think that we’ve really had a failure of our imagination — and maybe it’s linked to a failure of our compassion. … When we ask, What can be done if a tenant doesn’t pay rent? Doesn’t that tenant have to be evicted? A thousand things can be done. There’s so much better ways of dealing with this issue than we currently do. …
Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn’t lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to root down and get to understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness. And for all of us, I think [we] have to recognize that we’re paying the cost of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. …
We know that neighborhoods that have more evictions have higher violent crime rates the following year. You can understand why — it rips apart the fabric of a community. We pay for that. The top 5 percent of hospital users consume 50 percent of the health care costs. Guess who those people are? They’re the homeless and unstably housed. And so I think we can spend smart or we can spend stupid, and so I think addressing the affordable housing crisis is a win for families, for landlords and for the taxpayer.”
Washington Post: In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich — but rise for the poor
“U.S. cities struggling with soaring housing costs have found some success in lowering rents this year, but that relief has not reached the renters most at risk of losing their housing.
Nationally, the pace of rent increases is beginning to slow down, with the average rent in at least six cities falling since last summer, according to Zillow data.
But the decline is being driven primarily by decreasing prices for high-end rentals. People in low-end housing, the apartments and other units that house working-class residents, are still paying more than ever.
Since last summer, rents have fallen for the highest earners while increasing for the poorest in San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh, Washington and Portland, Ore., among other cities. In several other metro areas — including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and Miami — rents have risen for the poor and the rich alike.
The ongoing increase in prices for low-end renters poses a challenge for city officials who have vowed to lower housing costs for working-class residents already struggling with tepid wage growth in the U.S. economy.
City officials have said a boom in luxury housing construction would cause rents to fall for everyone else, arguing that creating new units for those at the top would ease competition for cheaper properties.
In part based on that theory, cities have approved thousands of new luxury units over the past several years, hoping to check high rents that have led more than 20 million American renters to be classified as “cost burdened,” defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing.
But although some advocates say the dividends could still pay off for low-income renters, others say more direct government action is needed to prevent poor residents from being forced out of their cities or into homelessness. They have called for the federal government to help construct more affordable units, or offer greater rental assistance for poor families.
“For-profit developers have predominantly built for the luxury and higher end of the market, leaving a glut of overpriced apartments in some cities,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group. “Some decision-makers believed this would ‘filter down’ to the lowest income people, but it clearly will not meet their needs.”
Poorer city residents have experienced significant rent increases over the past several years. In Portland, average rents for the poor have risen from about $1,100 to $1,600 — or by more than 40 percent — since 2011.
In San Francisco, the average rent at the bottom of the market has soared from $1,700 to $2,600, a nearly 50 percent increase. Seattle’s poor have also had their rents rise by close to 40 percent. Nationwide, rents for those at the bottom have increased by 18 percent.
Rising rents for the poor threaten to add to the nation’s homeless population, and put an additional severe strain on tens of millions of families, often forcing them to forgo other basic needs to avoid losing their housing.
Construction in most U.S. cities came to a standstill during the Great Recession, amid a broader collapse in the housing market. As the economic recovery took off, its gains were disproportionately concentrated in a handful of cities, leading renters to move in droves to already densely populated urban areas.
There was not enough housing there to greet them. By the early 2010s, rents in major cities were beginning to increase by more than 10 percent annually. Several cities declared emergencies over their rising homeless populations.
In the following years, protracted battles have occurred in city halls nationwide over the size and makeup of urban communities, often pitting longtime homeowners trying to preserve the value of their properties against developers seeking to profit from the high demand.
Mayors have been caught in the middle, aiming to accommodate an influx of new residents who help boost the local economy without displacing those who have lived in their cities for decades. They have also faced intense pressure from influential developers and business groups that have pressed for the ability to develop new homes, as well as from landlords who enjoy high rents and fear seeing those values diluted.
The result has been a range of policy measures, including reforming zoning codes to encourage more development, creating new tools to finance affordable housing projects and rules mandating that developers include affordable units in their properties.
These measures have shown some signs of reducing rents, for both the rich and, to a lesser extent, the middle class.
For renters in the middle third of the income distribution, average rental prices have remained virtually unchanged since last summer, according to the Zillow data. Rents over the past year have also fallen slightly for the middle class of renters in Portland, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.
The lack of affordable housing can be particularly pronounced in smaller cities such as Portland, which has struggled to accommodate about 40,000 new residents since 2010.
From 2010 to 2014, the city built only a few hundred affordable housing units, according to a city report. Since 2014, more than 95 percent of private construction in the city has been in “the luxury end of the market,” said Nick Fish, a city commissioner.
Private housing construction has exploded in Portland’s downtown area, along its south waterfront and in its historically black northeast community. But even as the city’s population has ballooned, its black population has decreased since 2014 by an average of 800 people every year, probably pushed out by gentrification, according to a study by Portland State University researchers.
In an email, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) pointed to 948 affordable rental units expected to open in 2018 and an additional 978 units scheduled for 2019. “We are actively creating housing options at every income level in every area of the city,” he said, adding that 10,000 more units are coming soon. “Our efforts are beginning to pay off: This will be the largest number of affordable units ever produced by the City of Portland in a single year in modern history.”
But for Rakhelya Levitskaya, a 66-year-old home-care aide who works with the elderly and disabled, little help appears to be on the way. A Ukrainian immigrant who has lived in the same Portland housing complex for 18 years, Levitskaya received notice of an approximately 10 percent rent increase this summer that she fears will push her into homelessness.
“I’m afraid of living out on the streets, without a house,” she said in an interview. “I’m very worried.””
Washington Post: Rent strikes grow in popularity among tenants as gentrification drives up rents in cities like D.C.
“By the time nine residents of this Brightwood Park apartment had decided to stop paying their rent, several of their neighbors had fled — from water that soaked through the first and second floors, fire that burned walls from the inside out and a boiler pipe that tore through two apartments in an overnight explosion.
For those who remained, the disasters were a wake-up call: If conditions did not change, their homes might be next.
Residents of the brick apartment building at 5320 Eighth St. NW in the Washington neighborhood of Brightwood Park said they have lived in unhealthy and unsafe conditions for years.
On top of the water and fire damage, there were bedbugs, rats and roaches, crumbling structures, mold, faulty electricity, and unreliable heat and hot water. Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer at the Children’s Law Center who is representing several former tenants, said the problems were among the worst she had seen.
In April, several residents gathered outside the building to announce their intent to withhold rent until changes were made.
A rent strike was born.
Often viewed as a last resort by tenant-rights groups, rent strikes have in recent years become increasingly common in the District and other gentrifying cities around the country, including Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Experts say the trend is a sign of tenant desperation amid rising housing costs in urban areas — and an attempt to fight back.
“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” said Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in housing issues. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”
The strike in Brightwood Park is being coordinated by the Latino Economic Development Center, a D.C. organization that advocates for renters’ rights and often helps organize tenants associations.
Though the group has historically stayed away from facilitating rent strikes, frustration with the slow pace of legal battles and rapidly rising rents in the District prompted organizers to guide residents through the process of striking.
Instead of writing monthly rent checks to the property owner, EADS LLC, the tenants now hand their rent to tenant organizers, who help them stow the cash away in escrow.
As of this week, nine tenants were participating in the strike.
Property manager Delores Johnson said the building has 26 occupied units, though advocates with LEDC said they think the number is smaller.
If the strike is successful, the group may begin to deploy rent strikes more liberally in buildings facing similar struggles, LEDC tenant organizer Rob Wohl said.
It could take years to reach a conclusion.
Rent strikes date to the Second Industrial Revolution, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and have seen spikes in popularity over the past century and a half that tend to coincide with “periods of extreme inequality,” Anderson said.
“In the early 20th century, we not only had organized strikes in industrial factories, but they started showing up in apartment buildings where people felt they were paying too much money for too little quality,” she said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, cities like D.C. were really, for quite a number of years, subject to disinvestment. So the buildings were deteriorating and there was this rising consciousness of poverty and race. . . . That period saw this kind of tenant organizing as well, as a means to draw attention to habitability and intense economic insecurity.”
The present day, she said, seems to be settling into a similar pattern.
“Eventually, [tenants] get pushed to the point where they’re willing to take some risks and do something different,” Anderson said. “That’s when we start to see these strikes.”
Areas facing gentrification are the most likely to experience such strikes, Anderson added, because their residents are keenly aware of the risk of being displaced.
Such is the case in Los Angeles, where more than 90 tenants in a complex in the Westlake neighborhood are leading what the L.A. Tenants Union has said is the biggest rent strike in that city’s history.
Residents are demanding improvements to the buildings, which, tenant organizer Trinidad Ruiz said, have been beset with roaches, rats, bedbugs, security problems, mold, plumbing problems including sewage leaks, and more. But tenants are also protesting rent increases, which, according to the L.A. Tenants Union, have inflated rents by about 30 percent since the start of 2017, forcing tenants to pay as much as 70 percent of their income for housing.
“There is a desperation in these situations like in L.A., which is a huge, sprawling city, but it’s seeing gentrification on a citywide scale. If these people get pushed out of their community, there isn’t a community in L.A. they can move to instead,” Ruiz said. “They’re stuck. They can’t move anywhere else because they can’t afford it. So, because they have nothing to lose, they start to fight back. And because they’re not left with many tools, they use what they have — their rent checks.”
One of the last high-profile rent strikes in the District involved nearly 10 times as many tenants as the number striking in Brightwood Park: 100 renters in the 672-unit Marbury Plaza in Southeast Washington launched a rent strike in 2008 over poor building conditions that came to light after the deaths of a toddler and her mother in a 2005 laundry-room explosion.
After nearly two years of residents locking their rent away in escrow, the owner settled, ultimately agreeing to $5 million in building repairs.
“These kinds of organized rent strikes are still extremely rare,” said Wohl, who is spearheading the Brightwood Park effort. “Usually, what we see are more- informal strikes where a tenant or a group of tenants will be fed up with conditions and just stop paying their rent. It’s not usually so coordinated.”
In cities with few tenant protections, landlords can use the strike to push tenants out over nonpayment of rent.
That is why, Anderson said, it is important that renters go about striking the “right way,” which includes being “scrupulous” about putting the exact amount owed monthly into an escrow account.
Since the strike began in April, EADS has sued several of its tenants, who are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants, for not paying their rent.
Johnson said the striking tenants are troublemakers who have stirred up problems in the building before, including inviting too many adults to live in their apartments, changing the locks on their doors, failing to buy tenants insurance and barring maintenance workers or exterminators from entering their units for scheduled work.
“This really isn’t a rent strike,” Johnson said. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”
She said EADS will renovate the building’s hallways and 13 apartments in coming months as part of an effort to repair damage from a boiler explosion in January and a fire in December.
On Dec. 14, 2017, a blaze ignited inside a wall between two units on the top floor of the building. The fire destroyed the homes of six families, all of which have left the building.
To put out the flames, the fire department cut into the wall and doused the building. Water damage rendered six units uninhabitable.
Lawyers suing EADS on behalf of the former tenants allege that years of neglect contributed to the fire that tenants say was sparked by “defective wiring in the wall.”
EADS has denied their allegations.
The families that occupied those units lived for weeks afterward in hotels typically used as emergency shelters. Five have found permanent housing with the help of the District’s Department for Housing Services.
One family — a husband, wife and one child — remains homeless, Zeisel said.
Reina Flores, 48, did not think the fire would affect her basement unit two floors down from where the blaze began. Then, one day in December, she said, pieces of her ceiling collapsed on top of her youngest daughter.
The child’s older sister pulled her from under the debris, Flores said.
Weeks later, in the early hours of Jan. 1, the building’s boiler burst. A water pipe erupted, tearing through Flores’s kitchen wall.
“It’s not safe here,” Flores said in Spanish during a visit to her wrecked apartment in May. “Everything that came out of the wall was so hot. We’re lucky no one was here in the kitchen.”
Johnson said EADS gave Flores and her children the option to move into a vacant unit in the same building, an accommodation Johnson said the owners extended to any families affected. But Flores declined.
“I want to be happy here in my home,” said Flores, who is staying at her older daughter’s place nearby. “They need to change everything.”
“In places like California, New York, Denver, Chicago, and beyond, residents and organizers are pushing for a slew of interventions like rent control and “just cause” eviction protections that will offer immediate relief to tenants. Such policies, they say, will alter the power balance between landlords and renters and offer tenants stronger tools to build their movement. In fighting for them, they hope to haul the housing crisis to the very top of the national political agenda.
This organizing, though, goes well beyond rent regulation—it aspires to the truly radical. Movement leaders and thinkers are strategizing for a future in which the private market is diminished and noncommercial, community-controlled housing plays a central role in American life. In this alternative reality, public housing is massively expanded and cooperatives, mutual-housing associations, and other nonmarket ownership models take root in cities large and small. Social housing, in all its varieties, thrives.
Such a future, of course, feels like a distant dream—but in places like Rochester, people are already reaching for it.
The revolt began last january, when residents at the horseshoe-shaped apartment complex in Rochester united to resist the slum conditions in which they were living. They began deliberately, strategically, knocking on neighbors’ doors and cultivating a sense of camaraderie. Before long, they had formed a tenants’ union and were filing official complaints with housing inspectors, speaking out at City Council meetings, and lobbying the local media to cover their struggle. By March 1, they had decided to take combative action: They stopped paying their landlord. They went on a rent strike.
“We knew that that was the best thing—to withhold that rent money, get ‘em where it really hurts,” says Mary Brown, a warm and stylish black woman in her 60s who serves as the union’s leader. She says the residents will withhold their rent until adequate repairs are made or the city exercises its legal authority of receivership and takes control of the property. “We just want to live well, and we should be able to live well,” Brown says. “Everybody should.”
The Rochester strike is a radical break from the recent past. Organizers there say it’s the first such strike in decades. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum; it is intimately tied to a national movement for renters’ rights that is sweeping the country like a summer storm.
Consider California, where a robust tenants’ movement has electrified local politics in recent years. In 2016, the Bay Area city of Richmond passed an ordinance that enacted into law both rent control and just-cause eviction protections. No longer can landlords in the city raise rents willy-nilly, or evict renters on a whim.
“It was enormous that rent control passed in Richmond in 2016, because that hadn’t happened for 30 years in California or anywhere, really,” said Aimee Inglis, the associate director of the California-based renters’ group Tenants Together, speaking to The Nation earlier this year. “People didn’t think it was possible.”
Now the possibilities are plentiful. In at least a half-dozen California cities and counties, including San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Pasadena, housing organizers are working to put rent-control initiatives on the local ballot this year. And across the state, a network of political organizations is advocating a ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act, a law that prohibits rent control in buildings constructed after February 1995.
But the rent-control ferment isn’t confined to the far side of the Sierra Nevada. Organizing drives are also bubbling up in cities like Chicago, where a coalition called Lift the Ban is pushing to repeal Illinois’s longtime prohibition on rent control, as well as in Seattle, Minneapolis, Providence, Nashville, and other places where tenants sense the political ripeness of the moment.
Many of the new renters’ groups are affiliated with a national housing-justice campaign called Homes for All. Launched in 2013 by the Right to the City Alliance, a network of progressive political organizations, the campaign is assembling a federation of tenant activists across the country to press their demands at the local, state, and federal levels.
The housing agitation in Rochester offers a fitting example of the movement’s aims and methods. Last winter, organizers there launched a citywide tenants’ union that includes a half-dozen unions in private developments, including Mary Brown’s building, as well as a homeless union and a union of senior citizens in subsidized housing. The group grew out of militant anti-eviction organizing in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when Rochester activists regularly erected foreclosure blockades to prevent homeowners like Liz McGriff from being forced onto the street.
One of the union’s meeting places is a mural-covered Catholic Worker house known as St. Joe’s. During the day, organizers decamp from the house to recruit new tenants to their cause, knocking on doors and teaching renters about their rights. At night, the crew hits the streets to conduct outreach at Rochester’s homeless encampments.
Ryan David Acuff, a bearded white activist in big winter boots and a beanie, is a St. Joe’s resident and an organizer with the citywide tenants’ union. Armed with a sharp anti- capitalist analysis of the housing sector, Acuff can tick off details about local building codes, eviction statistics, and the legislation that the citywide tenants’ union is advocating in Albany.
“There are two major stages to this movement,” the 35-year-old says over coffee and eggs at a humble neighborhood cafe. “The first is building a mass movement and consolidating our forces around some of these really immediate anti-displacement needs, including the need for universal rent control and [just]-cause eviction protections.
To that end, the citywide tenants’ union recently joined a new formation of New York community groups called the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. Sensing an opportunity in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary fight, the alliance is pressing Governor Andrew Cuomo to take progressive action on housing issues. Among other things, they want Cuomo to establish just-cause eviction protections for all New York tenants—a cause his challenger, Cynthia Nixon, has already endorsed. They’re also gearing up to push for the expansion of New York City’s rent-regulation system to the entire state in 2019.
“Rent control is a major, major thing,” Acuff says between bites of breakfast. “Not only does it stop displacement, but it means housing is no longer completely governed by the market.” But, Acuff adds, even the rent-control fight “is sort of making preparations for a more transformative struggle. That’s the second stage of the movement: to move toward universal social housing.”
Indeed, nearly all of the activists and organizers interviewed for this story acknowledged that reforms like rent control and just-cause protections will not be enough to strike at the root of the housing crisis. To truly eradicate housing insecurity, to put an end to displacement, segregation, eviction, and homelessness—these goals demand radical solutions, the kind that don’t merely chip crumbs of affordability from the market-rate mega-developments sprouting up in our cities. These solutions have to be bold. They have to push back against a national housing policy that benefits monied homeowners while leaving most low-income renters to fend for themselves. Above all, they have to begin to promote models that exist outside the market.
Needless to say, that won’t be easy. But scratch the surface of US history, and you will find that this country is filled with ideals on which activists can build—and, in many places, already are.
Politicians of both parties have spent decades denigrating the egalitarian American institution that we call “public housing.” Relying on heavily racist tropes, they have portrayed it variously as a failed socialist experiment, a den of iniquity, and an ugly architectural blight—a place of squalor and violence that residents seek to escape as soon as possible.
Yet the actual story of public housing tells a far more nuanced tale—one of hopeful promise despite government defunding, and stubborn resilience despite serious structural flaws. “The United States has gone out of its way to undermine public housing,” says David Madden, a housing expert at the London School of Economics. “But at its core, public housing is a crucial lifeline for people structurally excluded from private-housing markets, as well as a living demonstration that alternative residential arrangements are possible.”
This vital role is evident in public housing’s enduring popularity—in spite of imperfections and popular misconceptions. In Washington, DC, the housing authority closed its waiting list, which contains 70,000 names, back in 2013. The New York City Housing Authority has a 1 percent vacancy rate and a waiting list of hundreds of thousands. Indeed, most of the roughly 3,000 housing authorities across the country have waiting lists.
That’s because many people appreciate their public-housing communities. They are places where residents spend 30 percent of their income on rent, making them consistently affordable. They often boast deep networks of mutual aid, where neighbors look after one another, have barbecues, and take care of the kids. And they aren’t necessarily stepping-stones to a “better” neighborhood or a house in the suburbs, because for many, they are home. That’s why public-housing residents so often come to the defense of their buildings when bureaucrats attempt to destroy them.
This is precisely the story that has been playing out at Barry Farm, a neighborhood of beige row houses and sloping green lawns in Washington, not far from the Anacostia River. After years of neglect and insufficient funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and DC’s local housing authority, the latter now wants to follow the neoliberal recipe du jour by demolishing all 432 units of Barry Farm and replacing them with a mixed-income complex that will be controlled in part by a private developer. The new development will provide 100 fewer public-housing units on the site.
Already, the local authority has removed hundreds of tenants as it prepares for the demolition, but some refuse to leave. They want to remain in their community, with its extremely low rents and lawns perfectly suited for family picnics, and they fear that the new development will exclude some current residents, forcing them to scramble for shelter in the nation’s overpriced capital.
“For them to want to kick us out like we are trash and bring in people from other places—I have a problem with that,” says Paulette Matthews, a slim black woman standing on the walkway of her home. “It’s inhumane.”
And so Matthews, along with a small but vocal group of other tenants, formed the Barry Farm Tenant and Allies Association and brought a lawsuit to block the destruction of the property. In late April, the highest court in the city sided with the tenants, halting the proposed demolition and sending the plan back to the zoning commission for reconsideration.
It was a small but crucial victory, helping to temporarily stem the hemorrhage of publicly owned units. Even so, public-housing advocates are itching to break out of the reactive mode in which they’ve been able to do little else besides beat back the constant attempts to privatize places like Barry Farm. “We’ve been in a defensive posture so long that we’ve just let the capitalist tide roll over us,” says Tara Raghuveer, housing-campaign director at People’s Action, a grassroots coalition that includes many housing-justice groups. “People are hungry for something more. We need to reinvest in public housing.”
To that end, People’s Action helped create the #NoCuts Coalition, joining with more than 100 other community organizations from around the country last spring to resist the Trump administration’s proposed $7 billion in cuts to HUD’s budget. They lobbied on Capitol Hill, got arrested in front of a HUD office, and organized rallies across the country. Ultimately, they prevailed: Not a dime was slashed from the department’s budget this year.
But these activists want more. This spring, they put together a new policy platform that calls on Congress to invest $200 billion to rehabilitate the country’s more than 1 million existing public-housing units. At the same time, they’re calling for an immediate moratorium on the sale of public housing and public land to private interests. And they’re pressing for reparations, in the form of affordable loans and down-payment assistance grants, for black and brown communities that have been subject to decades of red-lining and other racist policies.
These aren’t small demands, but that’s the point. “We need to use what we already have, which is public housing, to beat back the totally insane right wing that wants to privatize everything,” Raghuveer says. “That feels like it needs to be the first order of business.”
Public housing, then, is a crucial base from which to fight for real and enduring affordable housing. It’s part of the solution, but it doesn’t stand alone. History points to other possibilities.
For a brief time in the early 20th century, the United States engaged in an experiment that had the potential to radically reshape the country’s housing sector. It started in 1933, when the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt established a Housing Division within the Public Works Administration (PWA), a New Deal agency that put people to work building dams, bridges, and other large-scale infrastructure.
The PWA’s Housing Division emerged out of the exigencies of the Great Depression, but its path was also influenced by a cohort of left-wing labor unions and progressive urbanists who called on the federal government to follow the European example and engage in the direct construction of noncommercial housing for a broad American constituency. Among the most forceful of these advocates was Catherine Bauer. In 1934, she published Modern Housing, which sought to introduce alternative nonmarket housing models to US readers. Soon after, Bauer became the executive secretary of the union-backed Labor Housing Conference.
As the historian Gail Radford has written, Bauer’s vision was rooted in the idea that housing should be insulated from the cold logic of the capitalist market. Or as Bauer herself once wrote: “The premises underlying the most successful and forward-pointing housing developments are not the premises of capitalism.” And during its brief existence, the PWA Housing Division came to embody much of this ethos. It built or financed 58 public or otherwise noncommercial housing developments, containing 25,000 units, around the country. As important, the division’s work wasn’t focused solely on alleviating poverty, nor were its units completely means-tested, as public housing is today. With the help of leading architects, it built stylish, quality housing open to poor, working-class, and struggling middle-class people. Its work included the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, a complex of 20 four-story buildings designed by the modernist architect William Lescaze, as well as the Harlem River Houses, a 574-unit complex where residents enjoyed amenities like a community newspaper, a women’s club, and a nursery school.
These developments could not be bought or sold, nor could landlords raise the rents at will, so they remained consistently affordable. However, this made them a threat to the real-estate industry. David Walsh, a US senator at the time, complained that the PWA-constructed houses “in New York, Cleveland, and Boston and elsewhere are really in competition with private property.”
One of the Housing Division’s most grievous failures, it is essential to note, was its unwillingness to challenge racial segregation in American cities. In many cases, it even spread the sin by developing separate white-only and black-only developments. The legacy of this government-sanctioned segregation lives on in federal housing policy to the present day.
The PWA Housing Division was ultimately short-lived. It was abolished and replaced by the foundational but fundamentally flawed Housing Act of 1937. What emerged over the following decades was a two-tier approach to national housing policy. On the one hand, the federal government developed a public-housing program that was constrained by cost controls and served only the lowest- income people in the country, many of them politically marginalized people of color. On the other, it established massive incentive and insurance programs that fueled the commercial real-estate industry and bankrolled homeownership for middle-class (and mostly white) Americans. The universalist approach to noncommercial housing that Catherine Bauer imagined never materialized.
Now, however, bauer’s vision is being resurrected, embraced by a growing corps of thinkers and activists under the rubric of “social housing.”
Last month, the People’s Policy Project (3P), a socialist-leaning think tank founded by the writer and lawyer Matt Bruenig, released a report, “Social Housing in the United States,” which argued that the country’s market-oriented approach to affordable-housing development is woefully inadequate. Programs like Section 8 vouchers, the low-income housing tax credit, and inclusionary zoning use a variety of incentives and subsidies to encourage private developers to build or maintain affordable housing across the nation. While these are important tools in the current political context, they are too small, too timid, and rely too heavily on private interests to truly meet the needs of desperate renters. They simply haven’t provided enough affordable housing.
In place of such market schemes, 3P offers the radical solution of mass social housing in the United States. Social housing, as a recent exhibit at New York City’s Center for Architecture describes it, is defined by “a mix of public projects led by city authorities, philanthropic schemes led by charities and collective schemes led by residents. Common to them all…is the idea that there are alternatives to a purely market-oriented system of housing provision.”
With this concept as context, the People’s Policy Project put forward its proposal: The American people should endeavor to develop 10 million units of “large-scale municipal housing, built and owned by the state,” over the next 10 years (the country currently faces a shortfall of an estimated 7 million so-called deeply affordable units). Such a program, the 3P researchers contend, could model itself on the social-housing developments that thrive across the Atlantic. They point to Sweden, where municipal governments built 1 million social-housing units over the course of a decade beginning in the 1960s. They point as well to Vienna, where three in five residents live in housing built, owned, or managed by the municipal government. This housing provides not just for the poor or working class, but “serves the middle class as well…and has thus avoided the stigma of being either vertical ghettos or housing of last resort,” as the urban-policy scholar Peter Dreier has written.
Social housing in the United States, the 3P report argues, should be based on universalist principles, with the aim of moving toward a housing model with no means-testing. Such developments “should be mixed-income, adequately served by public transport, and have easy access to amenities and shops.” They should be regulated in a manner that prohibits discrimination and provides for the disabled and other marginalized populations, and should be largely self-financing, with tenants paying rents on a sliding scale.
How could we fund such an ambitious program? The report notes that a simple repeal of the Republican tax plan could generate enough revenue to build 10 million houses, at an average cost of $150,000 to $220,000 per unit. But the true solution is a massive expansion of federal support for municipal housing. Among other proposals, the 3P report’s authors call on the federal government to institute a revenue-neutral low-interest loan program to fund urban housing authorities across the country. They also call for a suite of federal capital-grant programs, including one that would provide financing to municipal housing authorities equal in value to what the private sector receives under the low-income housing tax credit. And if federal funding fails to materialize in the near term, they call on municipalities to start building right away with financing from the bond market and other available capital sources. As for where to site these developments, the 3P authors believe that cities should turn first to unused public land.
A social-housing program of this sort would be different from traditional public housing in many respects, but one of the most essential ways is this: By developing homes for a broad range of Americans, such a program would quickly generate a powerful constituency capable of resisting the sort of political attacks that have plagued public housing for decades. It would also create an enormous number of jobs.
Plus there’s a precedent for it—many, in fact. “Americans are used to national parks, state parks, fire departments, police departments, public schools, public-utility companies, water utilities—they are used to public ownership of essential services, but somehow they don’t think of housing in the same way,” Dreier says. The challenge will be to change their minds.
To do that demands a movement—a movement capable of reshaping popular narratives and overcoming a gargantuan real-estate lobby that has spent untold sums to safeguard the speculative housing market. That movement will need to reach beyond the traditional borders of housing advocacy and include unions, environmentalists, racial-justice advocates, feminists, and, yes, politicians. It will require, as Catherine Bauer once wrote, an army of people “who need better houses to live in and workers who need work building those houses.”
Tara Raghuveer of People’s Action agrees—and believes the current political atmosphere is ripe. “We’re in an incredibly urgent moment that requires a movement response,” she says. “Housing is the biggest tent issue there is.” It’s an issue that should be at the top of the left’s political agenda and on the tip of every progressive politician’s tongue.
Back in Rochester, tenants and organizers are anxious to undertake this necessary work. In 2016, they helped found Rochester’s first community land trust, a legal tool with roots in the civil-rights movement that enables community-controlled landownership. In January 2018, the City Roots CLT, as it’s known, finalized a deal with the bank that foreclosed on Liz McGriff’s home. The CLT purchased and will hold in perpetuity the land under her residence, while she regained title to the structure. She now lives there as an owner, without fear. “I am happy. I sleep better at night. I am putting things back together,” says McGriff, now a leader with the citywide tenants’ union.
On Thurston Road, meanwhile, the residents continue their rent strike. They’re pushing the city to invoke its receivership authority and take temporary control of the building. If they succeed, they hope to raise money and use their leverage to purchase the property from the owner at a reduced price. They say they’d like to place the land under the control of the CLT and convert the building into an affordable cooperative managed by the tenants themselves. “The landlord could sell the building to us,” says Mary Brown, “and we’ll get our own property manager and have it renovated and fixed up the way we want it fixed up.”
For Ryan David Acuff, cooperatives, CLTs, and other community-controlled housing are the building blocks for a truly democratic social-housing system. “The way I define social housing,” Acuff says, “is permanent affordability and resident control.”
Yet even as the Rochester tenants inch toward that ideal, they must respond to the bitter emergencies that define this country’s housing system. In late April, Spectrum moved to evict the homeless encampment near the Freddie-Sue Bridge. Under police supervision, company employees arrived in hazmat suits to tear down tents and confiscate possessions, to erase the inconvenient evidence of our housing crisis. But the citywide tenants’ union and its allies mobilized. They arrived en masse, in militant style, and physically blocked the eviction. There was one arrest, but the police and hazmat men soon retreated. For now, the tent city doggedly endures. “Forgive us our trespasses,” its occupants insist”
Impacts of Gentrification
Priced Out: Gentrification in Black Portland
Truth-Out: The Gentrification-to-Prison Pipeline
“By telling my own story — a story shared by the many working-class Detroit residents who were forcefully displaced through the brutal “redevelopment” of the city’s Cass Corridor area — I hope to shed some much-needed light on how the capitalist profit motives that drive gentrification are a core cause of mass incarceration in this country.
City Planners Wreak Disaster on the Cass Corridor in Detroit
I first learned about people, about cruelty, about forced sacrifices, about being a hard worker [to build a life for others], about who is and isn’t important, and about fair speech and diabolical actions during the 1980s and 1990s, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, under conditions of gentrification. I saw with my own eyes how economic and social development dismantled the downtown Cass Corridor area and created internal refugees of American citizens, many of whom join me in here, in prison.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cass Corridor was suffused with vibrancy, joy and a tolerance of others that was clearly connected with Detroiters’ self-esteem and a general sense of optimism about the future. When Detroiters elected their first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974, first-time home ownership was at an all-time high, and conflicts that plagued Detroit’s labor movement for over half a century appeared to be resolved. Then life changed.
I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests.
It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. Vehicles that swept city streets and removed trash could be seen broken down on the side of the road. The stench from mountains of trash was unbearable. Two of the three supermarkets that provided food to the 2,000 or so residents of the Cass Corridor were burned down, never to be rebuilt. The city shut off power lines needed to keep the street lights on, giving a whole new meaning to the word darkness. Then, many men in the neighborhood took to scrapping, and the power lines were the first to go. At night on some streets, it was impossible to see three feet in any direction. I don’t think anyone felt safe, including myself. Three of the area’s four schools — Burton Elementary, James Couzens Elementary and Jefferson Junior High — looked more like abandoned factories than places of learning. Disinvestment made it appear as if every essential service required for a decent and safe living had come under rocket fire.
The immediate objective seemed to be to create unlivable conditions. The longer-term objective seemed to be to force us out of the Cass Corridor so it could be “renewed,” the new phrase at the time meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. To accomplish these twin goals, city officials became the linchpin of a strategy that involved radically reducing municipal spending — including spending on health, education and welfare — combined with giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on imprisoning many of the casualties of renewal.
I knew we were being pushed out but was clueless about what to do to push back. I just accepted the fact that we were being uprooted. Families were being broken apart and social stability was being destroyed. I did not have much help, not even from my parents. Both were incapacitated: My mother was dependent on drugs and my father was in prison. I had to improvise and fell into a lot of desperate activity. I learned how to make do with whatever resources were around — wit, audacity, determination and the drug trade. It was a confusing time. A climate of heavy-handed abusive policing intensified as the police attempted to run us out of the Cass Corridor. Eventually, Detroit police arrested me and my decades of incarceration began.
Gentrification’s Human Costs
When Detroit mayors Coleman Young and Dave Bing began to publicly acknowledge the need for the city to both shrink and radically reinvent itself, they [were] committing to additional outcomes besides “economic and social development.” Where were we, the poor, working class, predominantly Black population, supposed to go after being pushed out? A few families relocated and found housing in other parts of Detroit. A few moved to other cities. A tiny fraction moved to other states. But the overwhelming majority of families could not just up ad relocate. Some were housed in shelters and others [in] emergency placements. Many became homeless, living in makeshift tents that were considered eyesores and nuisances, and ultimately targeted for forced removal.
Foreclosing on mortgages, canceling leases and raising rents to prices that longtime residents could not afford, and thus forcing them to relocate, in some case was not necessary. Removal didn’t exclusively mean physical displacement. There was also cultural displacement. For example, it was a different kind of forced removal that took place when my friends and I did not feel welcome in houses of worship and social clubs built primarily to cater to white dispositions and cultures, or when we did not feel welcome in restaurants and retail stores built to cater primarily to affluent tastes and lifestyles.
The Cass Corridor became the shining example of how urban renewal could supposedly benefit Detroit. But before the 1980s came to a close, the emptiness of that claim was clearly apparent. The Cass Corridor virtually became a ghost town. There were two basic factors to explain this: first, the absence of an income-generating strategy for the poor and working-class people who historically took up residency there, and second, the absence of a democratic system by which area residents could participate in decision-making about the neighborhood. We were cut out of decision-making about the future of the place where we lived, learned, worked, loved, dreamed, created and did our best to resolve conflicts surrounding our lives. Perhaps we should ask society: What did all this development really mean?
How does gentrification alter the experience of everyday life? How does it affect the concepts of social participation, community and self-worth? How does it change education, work, family life and leisure? What are the implications for the environment, human health and disease? How does it serve to homogenize subcultures, or on the contrary, does it promote diversity and inclusiveness? And considering that gentrification (capitalist-sponsored development) influences competition, who gains and who loses?
This does not mean that all “development” is undesirable — but rather that every plan to gentrify a neighborhood or section of a city will necessary have predetermined destructive effects. It also means that social planners, policy makers, bankers, venture capitalists, elected officials, corporations and others who partake in gentrification schemes are aware of the consequences of such development, but choose not to share these consequences with the public. These consequences are often hidden from investigative inquiry through the imprisonment of those who are displaced. I call this the gentrification-to-prison pipeline.
The Direct Line From Displacement to Incarceration
Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. I was either stopped, arrested and/or conveyed to the police station once or twice a month for the entire 10 years I lived in and frequented the Cass Corridor, supposedly for “identification purposes,” by regular beat police. Mind you, these same beat police worked the area for decades and were familiar with me, my friends and extended members of my family. I was told that if I did not like the treatment, I could always move.
A number of comprehensive studies admit that neighborhoods in Detroit, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Chicago, among other places that have undergone gentrification, created large populations of internal refugees and displaced and disappeared people. Unfortunately, these studies do not say to where they disappeared.
A much more nuanced understanding of the social role of “redevelopment” is required in order for society to give up the usual way of thinking about imprisonment being the inevitable consequences of crime. For many of my friends and neighbors and me, imprisonment did not result from inevitable “crime,” but rather imprisonment was linked to the agendas of social planners, politicians and real estate developers, and resulted due to the extraordinary powers given to the police and courts.
Years after I was imprisoned, local newspapers and television stations began reporting that according to the FBI’s uniform Crime Report for 1998, one in every 13 murder arrests in the United States was made by Detroit police. Several investigations were launched around what were called dragnet arrests. These involved mass roundups and lockups of any potential witnesses until they talked. And if they did not talk, many were beat[en] and charged with manufactured crimes, like I was.
On July 8, 1994, I regret not running when I saw the roundup vans coming. Normally I would have, not because I had done anything wrong, but at a minimum, I knew I would be harassed. I never imagined I would be locked up, beaten up and charged for a crime of which I had no knowledge. The state’s star and only witness was a jailhouse informant who testified in numerous cases claiming to have received uncoerced confessions. If that is not unbelievable and tragic enough, the same thing also happened to several dozen other Cass Corridor residents who disappeared around the time I did.
The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the “limits of development” did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to “social development” came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.
Social development, urban renewal and the like are just new words for what sociologists in the past called imperialism.
If we are willing to take seriously the consequences of a justice system that is the extension of money and power, it should not be difficult to reach the conclusion that enormous numbers of people are in prison simply because someone else’s vision for the future did not include them. We were sent to prison not so much because of the crime we may have indeed committed, but largely for the expropriation of land (i.e., gentrification), which requires getting rid of the people who live on the land. Social development, urban renewal and the like are just new words for what sociologists in the past called imperialism, and what we can loosely refer to as colonialism. Gentrification and colonialism are the same processes largely because they share the same goals — dislocation, expropriation and the pursuit of profit.
My community’s experiences suggest that gentrification can and often does have substantial impacts on citizens returning to the larger society. Almost 25 years later, many of those who were forced out of the Cass Corridor and relocated to Michigan prisons are now being released. Released not only to a world that has technologically left them behind (as prison offers little more than a GED), but to a Cass Corridor that has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to education, housing, recreation and social services for working-class and poor people, prison’s majority clientele. People are being released into a permanent undercaste: This is how gentrification succeeds in disappearing working-class and poor people to make way for a more affluent population.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander writes that “prisoners returning ‘home’ are typically the poorest of the poor, lacking the ability to pay for private housing and routinely denied public assistance.” In other words, those of us who are able to get out usually lack access to the type of assistance that could provide some much-needed stability in our lives. Alexander goes on to write that “for them ‘going home’ is more of a figure of speech than a realistic option.” Gentrification not only forces people out but also prevents them from coming back. In moving toward a more complete understanding of why imprisonment patterns have been so persistent, we cannot limit our attention to characteristics of individuals and families, to policies targeting individual poverty, or to macro-level forces leading to growing income inequality. We must also consider places. We must consider the various forces that affect neighborhoods, cities and the ways that the trajectories of people and places are connected over time.
The conditions and circumstances that influenced my imprisonment have helped me to think outside the conventional framework of prison abolition. I believe we will only rid society of prisons when we also find a way to abolish gentrification.
Prison abolition has to be seen in the context of the broader set of economic and political forces that have served to maintain imprisonment trends for the last several decades. Abolishing the gentrification-to-prison pipeline requires us to take on the founding of a new society.
“Like many other cities, D.C. saw an influx of young people starting in the 1990s, encouraged, among other things, by local efforts to revitalize the downtown area. This back-to-the-city movement ushered in a new era for the U Street-Shaw corridor…
…For Derek Hyra, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, the neighborhood is the perfect grounds to study dynamics between different groups in what looks like an integrated space, but is actually a contested one. In his new book, Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City, he lays out his findings:
In the book, you talk about how the black history of the neighborhood is being leveraged to advertise it to young urbanites. Could you talk about that?
In the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, if a neighborhood was branded black, it usually led to economic decline and white flight. And in the ‘90s and 2000s, you see low-income African-American neighborhoods being branded black and yet attracting whites. That is the unique dynamic of the Shaw-U Street area. Many of the developers are branding the buildings after iconic African Americans. There’s the Langston Lofts, there’s the Ellington Apartments. There’s Marvin’s, which is a restaurant that’s named after Marvin Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C. There’s Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s restaurant, named after Langston Hughes, which is very well-known in the D.C. area and also around the country. There’s also a historic walking trail, and you can see where Alain Locke, who wrote The New Negro—the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance—lived. There’s historic preservation related to this community’s black history that is appreciated by whites and some whites are moving to this area because it is a diverse area.
But I also write that some whites are moving to the area because they know it was once the former ghetto. They know 14th Street used to be an open air drug market in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And some white residents are looking for racial stereotypes. They’re looking for the iconic ghetto. They’ve seen shows like The Wire, and maybe New Jack City or Boyz N The Hood, and they have a connotation of what inner-city African-American areas that were once low-income look like. They’re actually moving here, in part, because they think that they’re moving to an area that they consider “authentic.” It’s not a homogenous affluent white area. It’s not in Georgetown. It’s not Foggy Bottom. It’s not Dupont Circle: It’s Shaw-U Street.
Elaborate on what’s positive and what’s problematic about this change, and with this perception of the neighborhood.
We have been so segregated in the United States and that now that whites are attracted and willing to move into what was formerly a low-income African-American neighborhood does symbolize some progress, in terms of race relations in the United States. That we have mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, I think, is a very positive thing.
But that diversity not necessarily benefiting the former residents. Most of the mechanisms by which low-income people would benefit from this change are related to social interaction—that low-, middle-, and upper-income people would start to talk to one another. They would problem solve with one another. They would all get involved civically together to bolster their political power. But what we’re really seeing is a micro-level segregation. You see diversity along race, class, sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions—the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops—most of them are segregated. So you’re not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income, mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they’re not.
And then also you’ve got some people in this community that I say in the book are “living The Wire”—looking for iconic ghetto stereotypes. Some newcomers thought it was hip and cool, that it actually brought them more credibility because they were living in a neighborhood that was edgy and rough. Crime and blackness is associated in the minds of some newcomers—and that’s really problematic. Low-income residents, on the other hand, think crime is detrimental to their kids’ opportunities and to their health.
Sociologist Robert Sampson writes a lot about collective efficacy: that controlling crime brings people together across difference, as a community. But in a place where crime is perceived differently by a long term and newcomer populations, that’s not going to happen.
So, for newcomers, the diversity is an aesthetic or a superficial feature. It attracts them to the neighborhood, at times, because they have stereotypical ideas about the culture of that neighborhood. And once they start living there, they often don’t engage with neighbors—especially across racial and class lines—in a meaningful way. At the same time, you note in your book, that older residents are also suspicious of newcomers. What’s the reason that different groups are reluctant to talk to each other?
Denver Coffee Shop Sign in a Gentrifying Neighborhood
Impact of Home Sharing Rental Platforms (Airbnb, etc)
HuffPost: A New Generation Of Anti-Gentrification Radicals Are On The March In Los Angeles – And Around The Country
“The rise of Airbnb, meanwhile, has transformed everyday homeowners and even tenants into bed-and-breakfast proprietors, ratcheting up rents in quickly gentrifying areas. According to a study by McGill University researchers, Airbnb has pushed up New York rents by as much 7 percent, with the biggest disparity in returns between white hosts and minority ones coming in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. Today, newcomers aren’t just moving in as families; they are moving in as cottage businesses.”
A new study funded by a hotel workers union finds that by taking some housing offline and increasing demand for long-term rentals, Airbnb has directly lead to an increase in the city’s median rent
“A new report claims that Airbnb has restricted New York’s number of long-term rentals, lead to increased median rent throughout the city, and promoted gentrification. The report, titled “The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City,” is authored by a research group from the McGill University School of Urban Planning but funded by the “politically influential” hotel workers union, according to Politico.
The report found that in the study period of September 2014 through August 2017 Airbnb has potentially removed between 7,000 and 13,500 units of housing from New York’s long-term rental market, putting extra pressure on a city already squeezed for housing.
Of those 13,500, the report found that 12,200 entire-house units (as opposed to, say, a room) were frequently rented in the last year of the study. In the study, “frequently rented” is defined as housing units available for 120 days and occupied for half of those days. That, researcher David Wachsmuth found, means the units “may also all have been removed from the long-term rental market; at minimum, they are at high risk of being removed” from the housing market.
Airbnb refutes this claim, stating that the study’s methodology is flawed because it relies on nights that a home is listed for rent, rather than nights it is actually rented. The study claims that the typical listing in New York is rented for just 47 nights, which is well below what Airbnb found to be the break-even point of 172 nights for it to make sense for an apartment to be taken off the long-term rental market.
The McGill University report also claims that by taking some housing offline and increasing demand for long-term rentals, Airbnb has directly lead to an increase in the city’s median rent. Researchers at McGill found that over the period of the study, the median rent has increased 1.4 percent owing to a diminished housing supply, bringing median rents up $380. In some Manhattan neighborhoods, the report says, that increase is as much as $700.
On the topic of gentrification, the study found that nearly 75 percent of the population in neighborhoods at the highest risk of “Airbnb-induced gentrification” across the city are predominantly non-white. The report goes on to say that white neighborhoods make systemically more money from Airbnb than non-white neighborhoods, and that traditionally non-white neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Harlem are the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods for Airbnb.
That finding backs up the March 2017 report by Inside Airbnb, a watchdog of the short-term stay site, that claims white hosts in predominantly black neighborhoods earn significantly more than black hosts. Inside Airbnb’s study also found that the neighborhood with the biggest disparity between the percentage of white hosts in comparison to its white population is Stuyvesant Heights, where 74.9 percent of hosts are white but just 7.4 percent of neighborhood residents are white.
” This report provides a comprehensive analysis of Airbnb activity in New York City and the surrounding region in the last three years (September 2014 – August 2017). Relying on new methodologies to analyze big data, we set out to answer four questions:
- Two Thirds of Revenue from Likely Illegal Listings: Entire-home/apartment listings account for 75% ($490 million) of total Airbnb revenue and represent 51% of total listings. 87% of entire-home reservations are illegal under New York State law, which means that 66% of revenue ($435 million) and 45% of all New York Airbnb reservations last year were illegal
- 13,500 Units of Lost Housing: Airbnb has removed between 7,000 and 13,500 units of housing from New York City’s long-term rental market, including 12,200 frequently rented entire-home listings that were available for rent 120 days or more and 5,600 entire-home listings available for rent 240 days or more
- $380 More in Rent: By reducing housing supply, Airbnb has increased the median long-term rent in New York City by 1.4% over the last three years, resulting in a $380 rent increase for the median New York tenant looking for an apartment this year. In some Manhattan neighborhoods the increase is more than $700.
- 4,700 Ghost Hotels: There are 4,700 private- room listings that are in fact “ghost hotels” comprising many rooms in a single apartment. These ghost hotels have removed 1,400 units of housing from the long-term rental market, and are a new tactic for commercial Airbnb operators to avoid regulatory scrutiny.
- 28% of Revenue: Commercial operators that control multiple entire-home/apartment listings or large portfolios of private rooms are only 12% of hosts but they earn more than 28% of revenue in New York City.
- Top 10% of Hosts: The top 10% of hosts earned a staggering 48% of all revenue last year, while the bottom 80% of hosts earned just 32%.
- 200% and $100K More: The median host of a frequently rented entire-home/apartment listing earned 55% more than the median long-term rent in its neighborhood last year. This disparity between short-term and long-term rents is driving Airbnb-induced housing loss and gentrification. Nearly 300 unique listings earned $100,000 or more last year.
- Racialized Revenue: White neighborhoods make systematically more money on Airbnb than non-white neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with high existing Airbnb revenue (generally in Midtown and Lower Manhattan) are disproportionately white. But the fastest-growing neighborhoods for Airbnb (particularly Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant) are disproportionately African American.
- 72% of the Population: Nearly three quarters of the population in neighborhoods at highest risk of Airbnb-induced gentrification across New York is non-white, as Airbnb continues to have a strongly racialized impact across the city
- “Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool”: In March 2017, InsideAirbnb.com released a report that categorized host photographs in all predominantly Black NYC neighborhoods. That report’s key findings have been cited in this new report:
- Across all 72 predominantly Black New York City neighborhoods, Airbnb hosts are 5 times more likely to be white. In those neighborhoods, the Airbnb host population is 74% white, while the white resident population is only 14%.
- White Airbnb hosts in Black neighborhoods earned an estimated $160 million, compared to only $48 million for Black hosts—a 530% disparity.
- The loss of housing and neighborhood disruption due to Airbnb is 6 times more likely to affect Black residents, based on their majority presence in Black neighborhoods, as residents in these neighborhoods are 14% white and 80% Black.”
“One Airbnb host renting out four residences and three private homes in Manhattan’s West Village took in $700,000 last year, while the median annual income for an Airbnb host was $5,200 — a glaring example of the disparate earnings among the short-term rental operators in New York City, according to a new study.
The report, funded by the politically influential hotel workers union, portrays Airbnb as an enterprise that exacerbates income inequality, benefits white hosts who own homes in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and renders thousands of apartments unavailable in a city starved for housing.
The 49-page analysis, titled “The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City,” concludes that Airbnb hosts are responsible for removing between 7,000 and 13,500 apartments from the city’s long-term rental market, driving up rents by contributing to a housing shortage and threatening to gentrify neighborhoods that have historically been affordable to non-white residents. The report is based on data from September of 2014 through last August.
Researcher David Wachsmuth, who conducted the study with a team at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning, based his conclusion on properties in frequent use on Airbnb, which he defined as those available for 120 days and occupied for 60 days. He said that threshold rules out summer rentals and owners putting their units on the market each weekend.
Wachsmuth found 12,200 entire homes listed on Airbnb were frequently rented in the last year of the study. Those homes “may also all have been removed from the long-term rental market; at minimum, they are at high risk of being removed,” according to the study. Airbnb officials disputed his methodology, saying a unit listed as available is not necessarily rented through Airbnb.
In fact, recent data show that in New York City, Airbnb properties rent for a median of 47 nights per year, a company representative said. “What that signals and what we believe is that most folks in New York are using it as an occasional source of supplemental income,” added the representative, who was speaking on background to discuss the study. “That unit is not being lost to the long-term rental market. It’s being used.”
The analysis found many of the apartments removed from permanent rental stock are in neighborhoods undergoing development waves. In East New York, Brooklyn, which Mayor Bill de Blasio rezoned in 2016 for more residential development, Airbnb’s prevalence increased by 275 percent from 2015 through 2017, based on “frequently rented entire home listings,” Wachsmuth found.
Another popular neighborhood for Airbnb is Bedford-Stuyvesant, which experienced a 94 percent increase in such listings. Both Brooklyn neighborhoods have long been occupied predominantly by black residents, but most of the revenue is being collected by white Airbnb hosts, according to the report. The finding is based in part on a 2017 study that used facial recognition technology to determine the racial makeup of Airbnb hosts.
In response, the company pointed out that a Harvard Kennedy School professor rebutted that study. Three-quarters of Airbnb hosts in Stuyvesant Heights, a section of Bed-Stuy, are white, compared with 7.4 percent of the neighborhood population. More than 60 percent of the Airbnb revenue generated in the area is collected by white hosts, according to the Wachsmuth study.
In East New York, white residents account for just 2.5 percent of the population but control 29 percent of the listings on Airbnb, which the study says is responsible for about a $46-per-month rent increase over three years. “Airbnb’s business model has been particularly controversial because it so clearly flouts existing housing and land-use regulations in many or even most of the cities in which it operates, and does so in a fashion which appears to undermine policies aimed at protecting the supply of affordable housing,” the report states.
The analysis is the latest to take aim at the $30 billion company, whose business model is anathema to both the hotel industry and affordable housing proponents, some of whom signed on to the findings. In New York, where the Hotel Trades Council is influential and affordable housing is a chief concern for voters, most Democratic politicians are unwilling to embrace the online company, which is pushing for changes in Albany.
“This report proves what we have known all along: Airbnb’s illegal business model steals affordable housing, drives up the rent for everyone and hastens gentrification,” said Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, in a prepared statement. “This report also proves that Airbnb has been lying all along, trying to convince us that illegal listings are rare as the dodo bird. In fact, a full three-quarters of all of Airbnb revenue is derived from illegal listings that hurt hardworking New Yorkers and drive up their rent.”
She was referring to another finding — that 75 percent of home and apartment listings accounting for $490 million are illegal under state law, which bars the short-term rental of unoccupied apartments in buildings with more than three units for fewer than 30 days. The law does not apply when a host is present or when the home has three or fewer units.
Rosenthal, meanwhile, is sponsoring a bill that would require Airbnb and similar companies to disclose addresses and other data. Airbnb said it has adopted a policy of allowing only one listing per host, to guard against those who use the system as a commercial enterprise.
“Although inconvenient for this author’s anti-home-sharing bias, Airbnb supports legislation that would restrict home sharing to one single home, which would finally allow enforcement to focus on illegal hotel operators while protecting regular New Yorkers who are trying to make some extra money to live in a city that gets more expensive by the year,” said Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy at Airbnb, in a prepared statement.
“The comprehensive legislation being considered in Albany would protect public safety and target bad actors operating illegal hotels, [while] allowing responsible hosts to continue to share their primary home,” he added.”
“WASHINGTON — A D.C. lawmaker is putting the final touches on legislation that would change how homes are rented when homeowners are on vacation. D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s Short-term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act of 2017 moves forward in September and aims to limit owners to only renting the home they live in as part of an effort to protect affordable housing in the city.
“The bill is not to prevent home sharing in the District. We’re trying to make sure commercial operators don’t overtake what’s left of affordable housing stock in the District,” said Valerie Ervin of Working Families, which supports the legislation. But it puts regulations in place that will limit residents, such as Dia Michaels, who is renting out a second property.
Back in the 1980s, Michaels and her husband bought a home near the Marine Barracks in Southeast and began renting it out to vacationers after they moved to a bigger house. “Five and a half years ago, my husband was being treated for cancer, and in the second week of the treatment … he had a massive stroke. And as you would imagine, everything changed,” Michaels said.
Calling it a “godsend,” their rental home became their main source of income. In reaction to McDuffie’s legislation, Michaels is a co-chair of the DC Short Term Rental Alliance, a group of concerned citizens who have a stake in the legislation’s outcome. Rental companies like HomeAway and VRBO are working to change the cap on properties per owner, but Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said that a housing constraint has been done before.
“We want to limit hosts to one home — just the home you rent. The basic premise is if a city has a housing constraint — [like] San Francisco and New York City — we want people to rent the homes they live in and not take units off the market,” Cheskey said to Fortune Magazine. Introduced in January, dozens of residents and interested parties attended the bill’s public hearing in April. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the 15-day rental limit in the legislation. McDuffie’s communications director Nolan Treadway said McDuffie is willing to negotiate on how long residents can rent their home.
“Our biggest concern is that it makes that whole home, that responsible renter, that traditional vacation community illegal here for the future of the city,” said Philip Minardi, director of policy communications for HomeAway. The average traveler is a 50-year-old female traveling with a family of four, according to Minardi, who wants the experience of renting a home to cook, bring her pet and share a space with family and friends.
“Traditional whole home vacation rentals make up .03 percent of the broader housing mix. So that means vacation rentals that have been here really don’t have a detrimental affect on housing stock or housing affordability,” Minardi said.
Ervin disagrees. “McDuffie’s bill is doing nothing more than codifying the law as it currently exists,” she said. In September, the councilmember’s office said, the bill will go to committee for a markup and is expected to get a first vote next month as well.
In a statement to WTOP, Councilmember McDuffie said: “We have received a lot of feedback since introduction and at the hearing on issues ranging from party houses, public health and safety, and the 15-day limit on home-sharing while the homeowner is away from their residence. I am open to revising the bill, including the 15-day number, as the bill makes its way through the legislative process, so that we can find the right balance for the District of Columbia.””
Ethical Ways to Use Home Sharing Rental Platforms
- Research each host
- Only rent from hosts that are
- Have only one listing for rent
- Their listing is their residence.
- Only rent from hosts that are
- Look for platforms that have higher ethical standards
There are a lot of actions to advocate for to reduce gentrification and increase affordable housing such as:
- Increase funds the
- Legislation that requires affordable housing to be more affordable
- Increase funds to decrease the AMI for affordable housing to at least 30% AMI
- Cooperative Housing Models
- Housing Trust Funds
- Create, preserve and increase:
- Housing Counsel and Home Ownership education
- More inclusion of the decision-making processes of development projects, development incentives and city planning with the communities impacted
- More Tenant Associations
- Protect legal action against unfair housing situations
- More community voices in the local budget planning cycles
Empower DC Slides from an Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification
Grounded Solutions Network created this toolkit to help communities understand their housing policy options and the approach that will work best for them. Community leaders and policymakers can start with local dynamics—their community’s housing situation and the outcomes they want to achieve—and determine which policy tools best suit their needs.
Right of Return Programs
“Two years ago, Dianne Causey’s landlord died and her rental house in Portland, Oregon, went up for sale. She was forced to move from the city’s historically black neighborhood where she’d lived since 1978, into an apartment further east, nearly an hour away by public transit. “The apartment was way out in the boondocks. I was miserable,” she said.
But in December, Causey, 66, was able to return to north Portland, when she bought her first home through the Portland housing bureau’s preference policy, or “Right to Return” as it’s been called, the first of its kind in the US.
The program gives down payment assistance to first-time homeowners who were displaced, or at risk of displacement, from the city’s north and north-east neighborhoods because of urban renewal; it falls under a city plan that delegates how $20m will be spent on affordable housing, in an effort to atone for the sins of gentrification.
Last fall, the housing bureau received some 1,100 applications for the policy. With enough funds to subsidize 65 households, the bureau has so far succeeded in moving five families, including Causey, into their new homes. Forty-eight applications are in the pipeline to becoming mortgage-ready. And in February, under the preference policy, hundreds applied for rent-subsidized apartments in two buildings in north-east Portland, slated to open this year.
“I love it, because it’s mine,” said Causey, who purchased her house with her son with support from the African American Alliance of Homeownership. “I feel like I’ve come back home.”
In order to qualify for “preference”, applicants score points through their previous or current address. The greater the urban renewal activity in your area, the higher the points. Top priority is given to those whose property was snatched by the city through eminent domain. Applicants can add additional points if they can prove that their parent, guardian or grandparent lived in these affected neighborhoods.
Sue Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, says policies like these are an attempt to retain, or bring back, communities of color that the city once marginalized. “There’s a lot of concern about what’s happening to [Portland] in a way that is similar to San Francisco,” said Popkin. “And a grave concern is losing the historic minority populations altogether.”
In Portland, redlining and other discriminatory housing policies restricted African Americans to the Albina district, in north-east Portland, such that by 1960, 80% of the city’s black community called the area home. Yet the years to follow would herald a storm of urban renewal projects, including a new highway and a hospital expansion, which razed the homes of nearly 200 families, predominantly black.
By the 2000s, both public and private-driven investment made the north and north-east regions of Portland desirable to people with means. White folks moved in, gentrification spread, and long-term residents – namely low-income and communities of color – moved out, according to Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI), a low-income housing program. Between 2000 and 2010, about 10,000 African Americans were displaced in north-east Portland, sinking its black population to 15% of the neighborhood. Citywide, only 6% of Portland’s population is black, based on census numbers.
“There’s no doubt that there was a significant number of communities of color who have historically lived in that area and who have been impacted by city actions over time,” said Martha Calhoon, the communications director of the Portland housing bureau. Over time, she added, those neighborhoods were some of the most diverse – meaning white, black, Latino and Asian households would all score high points of preference.
But not everyone is singing the policy’s praises. The application doesn’t include a box to identify race, a decision critics are calling cowardly. “The discrimination did not happen in a race-neutral way,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the president of the NAACP’s Portland branch. “So if you’re going to correct it, I don’t understand how you’d develop a policy that isn’t race-specific.”
“I’d like to see them pay reparations to the families who had suffered generations because of corrupt policy,” she said. “If you really are committed to undoing the damage, that’s the direct approach,” adding that affordable housing means little in an unaffordable neighborhood. Ultimately, she said, the policy is ineffective.
“We recognize it doesn’t make up for what was lost,” said Calhoon, adding that no one funding policy is going to rectify the past. Nevertheless, she said, “it’s a starting point for those who want to come back, and an opportunity for those to remain in their neighborhood.””
Community Land Trusts (CLT)
“About 15 years ago, the half-century flight from America’s cities came to an end. A growing number of cities began see a growing in-migration, often of people with higher incomes. Rising real estate prices spurred land speculation and new developments, threatening existing neighborhoods with displacement and reducing affordable housing.
Some cities have tried to do right by their long-term residents. But the strategies they’ve embraced look to bribe developers with tax breaks or higher densities than the zoning code allows in return for the developer including in their high rise condos a portion with a sales price set to households with less than the area’s median income. On the whole, these bribes have only marginally increased affordable housing, done little if anything to preserve existing neighborhoods and in the long run, are unsustainable.
In the 1960s activists proposed a new strategy: Community Land Trusts (CLT) The first incorporated land trust was established in 1969. New Communities was a 5,700-acre land trust and farm collective in southwestern Georgia owned and operated by approximately a dozen black farm farmers from 1969 to 1985.
In 1972 Robert Swann, one of the creators of New Communities, wrote Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model of Land Tenure in America, which among others things, explained in detail how a land trust differs from conventional ownership. A trust separates the ownership of the land from the ownership of the building. A nonprofit organization, with a board usually composted of representatives from tenants and the surrounding neighborhood, owns the land and leases it to the homeowner for a designated period, often 99 years. The homeowner has the right to sell the land at any time, but the return to the homeowner is limited.
Keeping the land out of the real estate market holds down housing prices, as does limiting the equity gains that accrue to the homeowner. The objective of the land trust is not to maximize profit, but to maximize community and diversity…
…Evaluations have demonstrated the viability and effectiveness of land trusts. They stabilize neighborhoods, revitalize communities, and keep housing costs affordable.
And they build equity for low-income households. The Urban Institute, found that 90 percent of low-income households remained homeowners five years after buying a shared equity, CLT home, far exceeding the 50 percent average home ownership retention rate among conventional market, low-income homeowners, as reported by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Reviewing the resale of 205 housing units in land trusts between l988 and 2008, analysts found that, on average, a CHT homeowner who resold her home after five and one half years, recovered her $2,300 down payment and earned an additional $12,000 net gain in equity…
…Despite the overwhelming evidence of their success, community land trusts are still on the margins of urban policy, a result of at least four factors.
First, banks continue to be wary of financing units where ownership is divided. Blumgart reports that the North Camden (New Jersey) Community Land Trust collapsed in 2007 because local banks would not allow it to refinance its loans after the Great Recession.
Second, many cities tax CLT property the same as conventional property, despite the fact that its unusual ownership structure results in a lower market value for the property. A few states have adopted legislation requiring that CLT property be assessed at a lower value than unrestricted property. (e.g. Florida, North Carolina, Vermont). Otherwise it is a city-by-city proposition
Third, new land trusts are confronting rapidly escalating real estate prices that outpace their ability to finance expansion. When the Dudley Street Initiative was born, land in that part of Boston could be had for a song. Now its price is rising rapidly. In 2015, the nascent Chinatown Community Land Trust was thwarted in its first attempt at acquisition when it came short in a bidding war with a developer. (Undaunted, this past March, an a dozen local neighborhood groups formed the Metro Boston Community Land Trust.)
Fourth, cities remain lukewarm, at best, to the concept despite the evidence that the city as well as its low-income residents may benefit. Foreclosed properties significantly diminish nearby housing values, leaving the remaining homeowners vulnerable to foreclosure and the neighborhood to increased crime. Foreclosures also impose costs on municipalities. The cumulative costs of administrative fees attendant to foreclosure, demolition of vacant properties, and declining property taxes can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per house.
One reason cities are reticent about supporting land trusts is the very reason land trusts have been created. A significant percentage of municipal revenues come from property taxes, giving the city financial interest in maximizing the market/assessed value of real estate. The land trust slows the increased price of real estate.”
“At the core of the American housing system of today is the fundamental belief that housing should be a vehicle for private wealth creation. Privately owned housing on the market makes up 96.3% of the total housing stock in the U.S. Homeownership, once one of the surest ways for a family to accumulate wealth, has declined across the country; rates dropped to 63.4% in 2016, their lowest since 1967. Big banks and mortgage companies attach stringent criteria and high interest rates to loans that often lock lower-income people out of buying a home.
So instead, they’re forced into the rental market. As wages have stagnated and property costs have continued to rise, an astonishing number of Americans struggle to afford monthly payments. Almost half of all renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent, which is the ratio the federal government deems affordable. One in four renters shell out half their income to hold onto a place to live. Homeowners aren’t any better off: Around 41% are struggling to make mortgage payments, and risking foreclosure as a result. Across market-based housing, people of color, gender nonconforming people, and those with a criminal record routinely face barriers to securing housing.
Scattered throughout this mess is the remaining 3.7% of the American housing stock. These homes fall under the category of “social housing” which includes government-owned housing, and nonprofit-financed, community-based models. Investment in the former has fallen precipitously; Chicago’s demolition of the Cabrini-Green Homes, completed in 2011, perhaps best encapsulates the nation’s move away from public housing and increasing dependence on the market to provide housing for low-income people. Permanently affordable, inclusive housing models like community land trusts (CLTs)–represent a tiny portion of the housing stock, but if it could go mainstream, they could give people the affordable options they need and the market can’t provide.That’s the crux of a new report from the Right to the City Alliance, a nonprofit focused on creating equitable urban areas, and its Homes for All Campaign, which advocates for affordable, dignified housing for all. “Communities Over Commodities: People-Driven Alternatives To An Unjust Housing System” details four models of “decommodified housing” (in other words, housing that is a place to live, not an investment vehicle) that have proven, in other countries, to provide stability to families struggling to afford a place to live.
“It’s extremely timely because of the sheer scale of the crisis and suffering, and the failure in general of elected officials and policymakers in general to acknowledge the crisis, or to come up with anything other than quick fixes that don’t address the root causes of the problem,” says Tony Romano, director of organizing and strategic partnerships for the Right to the City Alliance, in a recent webinar.
The four models follow the organizations’ Just Housing principles, which both Right to the City and Homes for All believe are necessary for creating truly affordable and dignified housing: community control, affordability, permanence, inclusivity, and health and sustainability. “We see community control as the linchpin upon which all the other principles are made possible,” the report notes. Essentially a model that puts the community first is the reverse of market-oriented housing–and that’s why organizers are optimistic about its potential to effect real change.
Political will behind these models is scant. The idea of houses as an appreciating asset has become a key part of American economic policy and an important part of many people’s financial planning. But the system does not work to house all people: We need something different. “These examples dispel myths that alternative models can never reach scale, that there are no feasible financing mechanisms and that they stagnate the economy,” the report reads. Right to the City hopes that its work can translate into policy recommendations for cities and communities struggling with housing affordability.
Limited Equity Cooperatives
In this model, member-residents jointly and democratically own and reside in their building, which they secure through a combination of collective purchasing and a low-interest mortgage, often with the assistance of a nonprofit. Households–which generally have to fall below a certain income level to be eligible–purchase shares in a corporation or nonprofit that owns the limited equity cooperative (LEC), and in addition to paying for that share, they pay monthly fees to cover property taxes and operating costs, which the LEC manages. By purchasing a share, households are given a unit to live in under a lease that protects tenants from unjust eviction and typically lasts 99 years–essentially, for a lifetime. But if a member-resident chooses to leave, they are not permitted to sell the unit for profit; the LEC members collectively determine a cap on resale values to keep units affordable. The resale price cannot exceed the sum of the original cost of the unit plus the cost of any upgrades to the property throughout the time of the first tenancy.
LECs have a long history in the U.S., dating back to when the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union set up this housing structure and financing mechanism for their workers. Unlike market-based housing, LECs are “not a vehicle for real-estate investment or profit,” according to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. They aim instead to give low-income people–those who are particularly struggling in the current market–an affordable place to live and perhaps most importantly, put down roots for long enough to build a life.
Community Land Trusts
If LECs manage buildings, who controls the land upon which they build? In places like Oakland, where exorbitant land costs have hampered affordable housing (developers feel pressured to charge enough to tenants to recuperate the costs of land), land management is a crucial part of the affordable housing picture that’s often left out.
Community land trusts can work in tandem with long-term affordable housing structures like LECs to keep both land and units affordable. CLTs, using a combination of public and private funds, buy up parcels of land–either vacant lots or existing properties–and place them into community ownership through a nonprofit. Anyone who develops property on the land owned by the CLT has to adhere to cost guidelines set by the community, pegged to the median incomes of people within the CLT–not to market rates. If, say, a developer wants to build an apartment building on the CLT, they have to set the cost of units by taking one-third of the local median wage, multiplying it by the standard 25-year mortgage rate, and adding a deposit rate of 10%. If the owner of a unit wishes to sell, they must follow the same formula. A similar formula, set by the CLT, applies to individual homes and businesses.
CLTs are able to regulate costs in this way because they own the land and, as such, determine its value. And because CLTs are motivated by providing community benefit, not creating profits, they keep the value of land steady, rather than subjecting it to market speculation and raising its price. CLT members also follow a democratic process in determining what gets built on the land.
New York City, one of the flashpoints of the American housing affordability crisis, last year moved to establish its first CLT on parcels of land across the city, with the support of a coalition of nonprofits and stakeholders, who helped finance the initial land purchase. While this is a win for the city, it’s frustrating in light of the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio has, in his four-year tenure, sold 202 parcels of land to developers for $1 to spur housing creation, but just one of those developments is permanently affordable. Those parcels could instead have been fed into a land trust, and it’s a mark of the lack of political will for the model–despite its benefits–that they were not.
While the U.S. has a handful of LECs and CLTs, the Tenement Syndicate model originated in Germany, and is confined to Europe. This model defines itself as a “solidarity network” and its key feature is a dual ownership model, in which member buildings are managed by two entities: the tenants organized by individual housing projects, and an overall syndicate, which provides organizational support and supervision, and is comprised of members of each house project as well as legal support and counsel, often provided by associated nonprofits. Tenants decide issues like setting the cost of rent and what building renovations are necessary, and the syndicate manages loans for projects, and advises the individual buildings within the network on operational matters.
Unlike LECs or CLTs, which may be eligible for public funding to get started, each new building that comes into a syndicate structure is paid for via a conventional mortgage loan that requires a down payment of around 20%. The building residents collectively finance the down payment and often tap resources like alternative lenders to do so. And a particularly compelling feature of this model is that tenants of existing buildings in the syndicate pay a small amount each month into a “solidarity fund,” which then goes toward bringing new projects into the syndicate. The idea behind tenement syndicates is that no one is in this alone–and that the larger syndicate structure exists to support buildings in which people reside according to this ethos.
Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives
Like tenement syndicates, mutual aid housing cooperatives (MHACs) are a foreign concept in the U.S., but quite popular in several countries in Latin America, where they were first established in the 1960s. What sets it apart from the previous three models is that the residents of a MAHC work together to both maintain and build their own housing.
A group of families band together and decide to form a MAHC. They then seek out land on which to build, which they secure either via a grant or a purchase. If the latter, the families go in on a collective loan with which to purchase the land, which minimizes risk. The whole family participates in the building and management process–MAHCs make a special point give women and people with disabilities responsibility–and the work contribution saves an estimated 15% to 20% of labor costs. Federación Uruguaya de Cooperativas de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua (FUCVAM), based in Uruguay, is the largest and oldest federation of MAHCs in the world, and to date, it comprises more than 500 housing developments for 25,000 families; its success has spurred the expansion of the model to 17 countries. Not only does the collective organizing and building structure create a community support system for individual families, it also equips young people in the MAHC with construction and organizing skills.
A New Way Forward
As housing becomes less and less affordable, rates of homelessness have spiked in the country, and numerous previous studies have shown that it’s much less expensive to house people decently than it is to manage their needs–from shelter to health–without a stable home.
If we’re going to try to truly tackle the affordability crisis in the U.S., the report contends, we can’t just continue to work within the current system. While the report’s authors acknowledge that establishing community-based systems is radical, what choice, exactly, do we have?
“The current U.S. housing system, rooted in the commodification of land and housing and speculation, is not our only option,” Romano says. “There are alternatives, and these alternatives do work and are guided by a vision of housing as a human right and undergirded by principles including community control.”
Last year, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody placed his neighborhood in a tragic spotlight, highlighting an all-too common urban misery: epidemic poverty, blighted lots, and shattered homes. Gray’s Baltimore has become notorious as the site of failed “urban renewal” projects, rife with liberal talking points but showing precious little progress in alleviating poverty and joblessness. There’s now a plan to generate change from the inside out, creating community housing as a source of collective healing.
Facing a change in administration in pending elections, activists are pushing a plan before the City Council to devote about $40 million to housing development, not just to fix up vacancies or construct commercial towers but to overhaul neighborhoods through developing Community Land Trusts. As we’ve reported before, the idea would be to establish communally owned property under a democratic governance structure, which allows residents and the surrounding neighborhood to cooperatively manage land and property use.
Baltimore struggles with both massive abandoned vacancies and pockets of gentrification. Residents face tracts of sky-high rents alongside chronically neglected housing stock, dividing wealthy and impoverished areas. Now the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a coalition of grassroots groups, envisions a plan to curb displacement and rationalize the twisted housing market. It sees joint ownership as a path to revitalizing community oriented housing…
…Through years of gentrification and deindustrialization, the housing market has polarized. Millions of low-income units have vanished, often swallowed by predatory developers. Meanwhile, more than 66,500 households are constantly at risk of eviction due to non-payment. According to the Roundtable’s research published in January, “approximately one-third of Baltimore households were homeless or at risk of homelessness.” Amid eroding tax bases and impoverished schools, political malaise exacerbates urban depression, the Roundtable reports: “Baltimore City officials have offered no housing plan or community development plan that is responsive to those most in need, the poor working class or fixed income families” in the lowest income bracket, particularly in recession-battered black communities.
Under the CLT’s cooperative ownership structure, the resident owns the property, while the community retains the land. The resident pays an annual leasing fee, plus other mortgage and maintenance expenses. When the property is sold, price is controlled through a prearranged agreement with a community authority, with representation from neighbors and “public stakeholders” such as local officials or community-development organizations. The homeowner can share in any appreciation of the sales value.
When these community controls are leveraged against market forces, neighborhoods can ensure a communally managed recycling of ownership, and avoid the frenzied churn of renters and developers commonly associated with boom-bust speculation and gentrification…
…Chris Lafferty of the community development organization North East Housing Initiative, discusses the CLT framework in the Roundtable’s report from a racial justice angle, as a strategy of “arresting decline and enabling the creation and maintenance of communities that are sustainable, as well as ethnically, racially, and economically diverse…The CLT may be an unprecedented citywide effort to turn residents, often seen as victims of structural inequality, into community planners.”
In 1978, City Council passed a temporary anti-speculation tax after debating various versions in legislative hearings. The Residential Real Property Transfer Excise Tax was written in response to concern about widespread flipping and speculation in the residential property market.
Speculation is, roughly, an investment in a property that carries very little risk but offers the possibility of large gains. It can drive up the cost of housing and property taxes to the point where the residents of the area can no longer afford to live there. Speculation can also be predatory. In D.C. in the 1970s speculators took advantage of the wave of first time black homeowners who didn’t have “the expertise to go through land records to find out what the slum speculator paid, and when.” The new homeowners often paid exorbitant rates for houses that just weeks earlier were listed at a fraction of the price. A Council study found the following: “Between October 1972 and September 1974…one out of every five sales of homes in the District involved two or more sales of the same property, 80% within 10 months of each other.”
Inspired by the politics of SNCC and the just-passed D.C. Human Rights Act, which protected against discrimination in housing, the law levied a steep tax (near 100%) on short-term buying and selling of residential properties without improvements. It also required an inventory of all transfers of residential property and the disclosure of the seller’s purchase price and costs to buyers of residential property. All three of these measures were the first of their kind in the country. (Caveat: Vermont at the time had a tax to stop speculation of rural land.)
The law expired in 1981 with the City Council’s blessing. By December 1979, the Washington Post had already deemed the law an utter failure. By that time, the law had only been implemented three times, thanks in large part to easy-to-find loopholes.
Some blamed the failure on the City Council and Mayor, specifically the way its progress on civil rights was not met with progressive stances on economic justice. Mayor Walter Washington once asked, “But what’s wrong with speculation?”
Others cited the influence of the real estate industry. They first became politically organized through the debates on the tax and actively opposed it. In addition, there was the racial politics of speculation. With the new win of home rule, many black leaders thought it was finally their turn to turn a profit—and the development industry was the place to do it. Speculation sounded to many like a form of economic power that was owed to black city residents. As a result, one observer wrote that it was difficult for “activists to invoke the same degree of outrage at black profit seekers as they do when the perpetrators are white.”
about the purposes and effects of capitalist housing markets. I argue that these questions, which were left unanswered,ultimately undermined the efficacy of the country’s first and only urban speculation tax. At the end of 1981, the Council let the tax expire…
…For political economists, the answer to Friedrich Engels’ housing question—the question of why decent, clean places to live continue to be out of reach for many—is the profit-oriented nature of the housing industry and market (Bratt et al. 1986, 2006). Though exacerbated by racism and sexism, the root of housing problems is the commodification of residential space. Geographic research has explored at length regulatory mechanisms, sophisticated credit systems, labor-market restructurings, “free” market ideologies, and practices like speculation that produce housing as a commodity. This work has helped scholars like David Harvey (1976), Manuel Castells (1979) and Chester Hartman (1983) to see speculation as a predatory practice and one that differs from traditional development. Neil Smith (1979:25), too, has argued that there is “a vital distinction between the speculator proper who buys a house to sell it unaltered, at a profit, and the developer who buys a house to rehabilitate it before selling”. The only thing a real estate speculator hopes to produce is a rising land value…
…In 1970 the city’s (DC) population was 72% black and 28% white. As the decade went on, the number of black residents living in the city shrank for the first time in history and a demographic dichotomy emerged. The city’s population became increasingly either white and wealthy or poor and black. There was a rush of condominium conversions, a surge of gentrification, and a larger number of white residents moving into the city than out (Gale 1987). A cardboard sign taped to the window of a house, and captured in a newspaper photograph, described some of the racial politics of these changes:
tate actors…Opponents to the tax went further with this point. They repeatedly alleged that any regulation on speculation would “virtually end” all private investments in housing…
…A false choice emerged in the debates: housing development through an unregulated housing market or no housing development at all. A representative of the Office and Apartment Building Association was explicit: “It’s not a choice between houses for poor people and houses for rich people. It’s a choice between houses for rich people or no houses at all.”…
…The final tax included a loophole to exempt renovated properties if a seller offered a one-year warranty on infrastructure like heating, plumbing, and electrical systems. A council member explained, “homesellers and speculators who have done nothing more than put up a new coat of paint will ‘warranty’ that all parts of the house are in good condition”. During its three years on the books, only seven people paid the tax, and, of that group, one was refunded.
Rent Control Policies
Wikipedia: Rent Control
Rent control is considered necessary by the state of New York to protect the public and to prevent landlords from imposing rent increases that cause key workers or vulnerable people to leave an area. Maintaining a supply of affordable housing is believed to be essential to sustaining the local society. Homeowners who support rent control point to the neighborhood instability caused by high or frequent rent increases and the effect on schools, youth groups, and community organizations when tenants move more frequently.
In certain instances the term “rent stabilization” is used instead of rent “control,” for example, in some cities in California, such as San Francisco. With rent stabilization and vacancy de-control landlords are free to set prices of vacant units at market prices, but once rented to a tenant, subsequent increases are capped based on the rate of inflation or a regulated percentage. This is considered a basic form of consumer protection: once tenants move into a vacant unit at market rents they can afford and establish lives in these homes, they won’t have to renegotiate. Without rent regulation, landlords can demand any amount and tenants must either pay or move. Thus, tenants can become vulnerable to arbitrary and extortionate increases above market value. For example, elderly or disabled tenants may be unable to move, and families risk disrupting children’s educations by moving in the middle of a school year. Advocates insist that finding a new home is not a trivial matter, and tenants should have some assurance that they can maintain some stability in their housing situation.
Some property tax measures also promote the societal goals of community stability and allowing people to remain in their homes even in times of inflation. In California, Proposition 13 generally caps real estate tax increases at 2% per year. Leading the campaign to enact Proposition 13, California politician Howard Jarvis claimed that landlords would pass tax savings along to tenants; when most failed to do so, it became an argument for rent control, to allow tenants to share in the benefit of the property tax control.”
Strategies for Community Organizing to Fight Gentrification
One of the best ways to counter gentrification is to organize community action groups to advocate for more responsible development. These efforts can include organizing communities to:
- Advocate civic associations
- developers often need approval from local civic associations
- Advocate local government budgets
- learn your local gov budget cycle and know when to advocate to protect and increase funds for programs like affordable housing, public housing, homeless shelters, etc.
- Advocate for or against local legislation and policies
- public housing, affordable housing regulations, development projects and development incentives, rent controls, tenant rights, community land trusts, etc
- Direct action
- disrupt and/or expose development not good for local communities until developers/local gov will negotiate
- Demonstrations, sit ins, marches, petitions, boycotts, etc
Below our Principles and Tips from Great Community Organizers
Empower DC Community Organizing Techniques
The mission of Empower DC is to enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income DC residents in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality of life. We accomplish our mission through grassroots organizing and trainings, leadership development, and community education.
Empower DC believes that community organizing is the most effective way to uplift low-income communities in the District of Columbia. Community organizing builds the power of people directly impacted by an issue – such as the demolition of public housing or the closure of a school – to create positive, long-lasting change for their communities, their families, and themselves.
Empower DC’s community organizing is guided by these principles:
- Work with groups of people who share a common problem
- Develop leadership through training and providing leadership opportunities
- Develop the self-confidence of leaders and potential leaders
- Support groups to develop action plans and implement them
- Use the media to inform the larger community about issues and to gain support
- Use confrontation when necessary to force a recalcitrant target to negotiate or resolve an issue
- Leaders, rather than staff, set the agenda for the organization and carry it out
Empower DC Community Organizing 101
Ella Baker’s Principles for Organizing
Authored by Je’Kendria Trahan and Monae White, on behalf of BYP100 DC
- Emphasizing the ability and knowledge of local people to solve their own issues
- Self Determination – People need to have a sense of their own value and their own strengths.
- An inclusive environment – identifying who is in the room, who is not in the room and why
- Organic intellectuals – non-traditionally educated, working class, or otherwise intellectually marginalized folks having the power and ability to form complex understandings of oppression and act on injustices.
- Group-centered leadership – leaders form in groups and are committed to building shared power and struggling for collective goals. This is different than leader-centered groups, in which the group id dedicated to the goals and power of that leader.
- The minimization of hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership.
- Direct action as an answer to fear, alienation, and intellectual detachment
- Individuals confront the oppression in their own heads and begin the process of self-transformation and self-actualization
- Willingness to learn from mistakes and successes and become stronger people in the process: people who believe in themselves and feel as sense of their own powerto affect the world around them.
- Being a leader – as facilitator, creating processes and methods for others to express themselves and make decisions; as coordinator, creating events, situations and dynamics that build and strengthen collective efforts; and as teacher/education, working with others to develop their own sense of power, capacity to organize and analyze, vision of liberation and ability to act in the world for justice
- Center people’s humanity while doing the work together
Seeds of Change Organizing Resources
Seeds of Change: Organising Successful Meetings
Seeds of Change: Facilitating Meetings
Seeds of Change: Consensus Decision Making
Greening the Ghetto
Yahoo: A new generation of anti-gentrification radicals are on the march in Los Angeles – and around the country
“LOS ANGELES — The protest at Mariachi Plaza didn’t seem, at first, like a declaration of war. In fact, the Feb. 7 event looked like the same sort of grassroots, anti-gentrification gathering that might have taken place in any big American city at any point over the past 10 years as higher-income transplants have increasingly colonized lower-income urban communities, remaking once marginalized neighborhoods in their own cold-brew-and-kombucha image.
But this one was different.
That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return.
“Gentrification is not your next documentary topic,” the group recently wrote on its blog. Its leaders distrust the media, saying they’d “rather opt out and tell our story for ourselves,” and did not respond to interview requests.
“Gentrification is not a trend for the ‘woke wide web’ or for the detached subculture of the left to consume,” they continued. “It is a vicious, protracted attack on poor and working-class people. And we are engaging in class warfare that leaves our friends, families, and neighbors, homeless, devastated, deported or dead. So get with down friends and make s*** crack.”
By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer.
As a result, like-minded groups in other cities — Chicago, Austin, New York — have adopted the same hard-line tactics. Their ranks are small and their methods are controversial, even within the communities they purport to defend. But their members are drawn from the most politically radical, economically anxious generational cohort in recent memory — young millennials of color — and their cause has the makings of a national movement: a new, more militant war on gentrification…
…“There’s a legal side to the struggle, and there’s a creative side to the struggle,” he said. “No one is telling you you gotta mask up — that you gotta be militant as f***. No one is telling you to do that — although,” he chuckled, “that is the right thing to do.
“So let’s take a poll,” Rompe continued. “Raise your hand if you’re anti-gentrification — and you’ll do whatever the f*** possible to stop it.”
Everyone in the plaza — about sixty people in total — raised his or her hand.
“So that means you’re down to put your body on the line?” Rompe asked.
He scanned the crowd; no hands fell.
“Cool,” he said. “Then let us show you a tour of Boyle Heights.”
Why are young people taking such a militant stand against gentrification? And why now?
Gentrification itself is nothing new. The term originated in a 1964 essay by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist writing about the displacement of working-class Londoners, and the transformative effect of such displacement on American cities has become one of the most well-known economic storylines of the early 21st century. In the 1960s and ’70s, cities were decimated by white flight, riots and the decline of manufacturing; in the 1980s, crime and drugs drove even more people away. But since the era of former President George W. Bush, major urban cores across the nation have been on the upswing, attracting millions of new residents. Neighborhoods from Fort Greene in Brooklyn to the Mission District in San Francisco have become wealthier — and whiter — in the process.
Anti-gentrification activism isn’t novel either. For decades, nonprofit groups nationwide — Chicago’s Pilsen Alliance, the East LA Community Corporation — have pushed back, working to rally residents around affordable housing initiatives and secure a voice in the planning process.
But Defend Boyle Heights and its ilk aren’t publishing white papers or dialoguing with developers. They are fighting in the streets.
So what’s changed?
In 2016, the top 1 percent made 87 times more than the bottom 50 percent of workers, up from a 27:1 ratio in 1980, and CEOs made 271 times more, on average, than a typical employee — a 930 percent increase since 1978.
And it’s not just the 1 percent. In fact, the recent growth of the upper middle class may be even more consequential. According to a 2016 report by the Urban Institute, households with incomes of $100,000 to $350,000 made up about 13 percent of the population in 1979. Today they make up nearly 30 percent. The $100,000-plus crowd is dominating America’s economy.
They’re also clustering in cities. According to a December 2017 study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, in San Francisco, a whopping 93 percent of new renter households between 2006 and 2016 — along with 65 percent in New York City — earned more than $100,000 a year. New rental apartment construction followed the money into cities, catering increasingly to the top end of the market, while overall the renter population remained younger with lower incomes than homeowners. Meanwhile, thanks in part to the post-economic-crisis crash in minority home-ownership rates, the overall renter population is heavily minority — 47 percent — and more likely to contain immigrants.
At the same time, poverty has been on the rise — and is hitting cities especially hard. Earlier this year, a United Nations special rapporteur concluded a 15-day investigation that discovered poverty and inequality in the U.S. at levels “shockingly at odds with [the United States’] immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.” Today, 1.5 million American households live in extreme poverty — nearly twice as many as 20 years ago.
The result is that major American cities have become economically polarized — playgrounds for the six-figure set, and increasingly perilous footholds for the poor, with almost no middle class left in between. A recent analysis from the National Housing Conference and the Center for Housing Policy showed that neither a teacher nor a social worker making the median national salary in their respective professions can afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom home in the Boston, San Francisco, San Jose or Washington, D.C., metro areas. In San Francisco, the annual income now required to purchase a median-priced home is $303,000; in Las Vegas, nearly 9 out of 10 of the poorest renters spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing (a burden described in official reports as “severe”).
These are just some of the factors that led the Harvard study authors to conclude that the rental markets in America’s largest cities are “settling into a new normal where nearly half of renter households are cost burdened.”
The urban real estate market is the clearest, and most brutal, expression of this inequality — and big money is only making matters worse. The aesthetic and culinary choices of hipster millennials and Gen X parents may be the public face of gentrification, but behind all that avocado toast is a slew of changes driven by companies and holders of major capital.
Developers — often aided by the politicians they donate to — have concentrated on building homes and apartments for six-figure arrivistes, not the working-class locals they threaten to displace.
A new wave of foreign investors has also looked to the revived American city as a moneymaking opportunity. At the start of the decade, foreign investment in the New York real estate market hovered under 20 percent; by 2016, it had skyrocketed to 50 percent. Not to be outdone, Los Angeles just tied N.Y.C. for the first time as America’s top city for foreign buyers, according to a 2017 poll of major investors.
The rise of Airbnb, meanwhile, has transformed everyday homeowners and even tenants into bed-and-breakfast proprietors, ratcheting up rents in quickly gentrifying areas. According to a study by McGill University researchers, Airbnb has pushed up New York rents by as much 7 percent, with the biggest disparity in returns between white hosts and minority ones coming in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. Today, newcomers aren’t just moving in as families; they are moving in as cottage businesses.
And it’s not just the economic conditions in cities that have changed. The political attitudes of young, lower-income, largely minority residents have also changed in response.
Millennials are, simply put, “facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” as HuffPost’s Michael Hobbes recently put it. They’ve taken on at least 300 percent more student debt than their parents did. They’re about half as likely to own a home as young adults were in 1975. One in five is living in poverty. Based on current trends, many of them won’t be able to retire until they’re 75. Jobs have become gigs; college is exorbitant, starting salaries are paltry the social safety net is shredded.
And all of these trends are especially acute among the poorer, nonwhite millennials who tend to live in major cities. Between 1979 and 2014, for instance, the poverty rate among young high school-only graduates more than tripled, to 22 percent, and roughly 70 percent of black families and 71 percent of Latino families don’t have enough money saved to cover three months of living expenses.
These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well.
The rise of America’s first developer-in-chief, meanwhile, has fanned the flames, creating an atmosphere of at-all-costs resistance on the left — and a newfound sense of political urgency among women and people of color, who feel particularly unwelcome in Donald Trump’s America.
Ultimately, the fight over gentrification is what the fight over income inequality in America looks like up close today: a clash between the economic forces transforming our cities and a young, diverse, debt-saddled generation that is losing faith in capitalism itself.”
Hyper Allergic: An Artists’ Guide to Not Being Complicit with Gentrification
1. Becoming involved in housing struggles — especially if we are part of a more “desirable” gentrifying class — is crucial. While deciding to commit to that work is not necessarily easy, a first step can be to understand the history and context you are moving into. If we move to a new block it’s essential to go beyond learning about who already lives there. We have to choose to stand with neighbors who have different needs. While we realize that as artists we contribute to the first wave of gentrification, we can choose to support our neighbors by joining them in demanding housing justice, by protesting unfair rent hikes, lacking repairs, or businesses that don’t serve the needs of long-term residents.
2. As artists, we have to educate ourselves, especially considering that we might have racial, educational, or class privilege compared to our neighbors. We become part of the problem, another domino in the gentrification process, if we as renters don’t know our renters’ rights, or don’t take time to learn our rights and the reality of local conflicts. Abusive landlords operate on the notion that tenants do not know their rights. Learning our rights is the first step to building collective power.
3. It is imperative to understand the need to find other ways of dealing with conflict or safety issues besides calling the police, given who the police serve and who the police jail and kill with impunity. We all have a stake in how our neighborhoods are made safe for everyone, and can choose to do this work without criminalizing the poor and people of color. Most galleries represent a white supremacist capitalist system that is protected by the police. For instance, in the community of Boyle Heights, each time those fighting to hold the galleries accountable for their impact on displacement and gentrification in their neighborhood stage a demonstration, the galleries have called the police, and have even accused the protesters of hate crimes. These accusations paint the galleries as victims while disguising the fact that they are protected by the state.
4. As artists who participate in and support exhibitions, we must interrogate the spaces we choose to enter and work with. We must challenge what we do with our resources and privilege, on both a personal and a socio-political level. Consider for instance, if the spaces we support fail to ask questions about their structural impacts in a particular neighborhood — particularly if they are media-driven, contemporary art spaces. Regardless of their intentions (community engagement, bringing cultural programming to “underserved” populations, etc.) many art spaces ultimately serve as investment projects and property value boosterism for landlords, developers, and realtors. Is it worth supporting an art space when we know that it is currently contributing to or will contribute to someone losing their home?
5. We must choose between prioritizing our own individualistic artistic careers or prioritizing the dismantling of oppressive structures. There are no places without contradiction, nor places where we can be absolved of reinforcing oppressive structures. Instead, we must reorient our priorities so that we can be honest about what we are actually working towards. It takes time to learn how to point at a problem, yet too often we feel the work ends there. When it comes to art, there’s a certain cultural capital gained by criticizing capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting anything on the line to dismantle it. In far too many instances, the violence of the status quo is actually protected, guarded, and upheld in smug, self-assured condescension by artists with careers to protect when those who seek to rattle the cage more vigorously violate liberal taboos like “tone” and “unity.” If we get involved in anti-oppression struggles, listen, and are aware of privilege and the differing crises that surround us, it’s difficult to see an individual art career as something worthwhile. We’ve seen many artists with visibility (i.e. artists with gallery representation or those who have received major recognition of their work through awards or grants) who dismiss and criticize the artists and local organizers who choose to stand with the local neighbors of Boyle Heights in the form of social media rants and public media outlets (calling them misguided and naive). How might we tune our listening away from those with powerful art world platforms to those most impacted by gentrification?
6. We must ask about the power of art spaces to decide who is included in the first place. This is a moment of extreme tokenism, one in which exhibition spaces co-opt political movements or artistic identities and pat themselves on the back for their diversification, for their “radical” inclusion. We see this in museums, where curators invite grassroots organizers to do educational outreach work. Doling out temporary visibility does not decentralize the white ruling class that presides over the art world, in the form of, let’s say, Wall Street bankers sitting on the board of a contemporary art museum. What is an art institution’s intent when they only temporarily feature a social movement in their space?
Art Causes Gentrification | Ethan Pettit
Hyper Allergic: An Artists’ Guide to Not Being Complicit with Gentrification
Construction Dive: The gentrification effect: What new development means for communities
Truth-Out: The Gentrification-to-Prison Pipeline
New Republic: How to Stop Gentrification