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Why Do Progressives Hate Gentrification?

The word “gentrification” was coined in 1964 to describe the influx of wealthy newcomers into low-income inner-city neighborhoods, resulting in rising property values, changes in neighborhood culture, and displacement of original residents. Though gentrification predates the modern era, it has only become the target of criticism in recent decades, as cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Boston have witnessed rapid transformations. Opponents of gentrification have ranged from residents directly affected by it to wealthy college students directly responsible for it, as well as prominent Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Critics of gentrification give two main reasons for their opposition: (1) wealthy newcomers drive up monthly rents, thereby displacing original residents; and (2) rapid change to neighborhood culture represents an injustice to original residents. Both critiques are magnified by the presumed skin color of the gentrifiers and the gentrified, who tend to be white and black or Hispanic, respectively.

Though such critiques may seem reasonable at first glance, neither of them survive scrutiny. Not only is gentrification harmless, it’s actually beneficial. Indeed, for reasons I will lay out, it’s exactly the kind of thing that progressives should support.

Let’s begin with the charge that gentrification displaces original residents. Two economists used data from the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010-2014 American Community Survey to track individual outcomes for all residents of “gentrifiable”—or low-income inner-city—neighborhoods in America’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas. The largest study of its kind, it divided residents of gentrifiable neighborhoods into two categories based on educational attainment. Their findings refute the displacement narrative conclusively.

Firstly, residents of gentrifiable neighborhoods move frequently—with or without gentrification. In all gentrifiable neighborhoods, over 60 percent of less-educated renters moved apartments over the course of a decade. From that baseline rate of out-migration, neighborhoods that gentrified saw an additional 4 to 6 percentage point increase. The study authors interpret this to mean that gentrification caused, at most, a ten percent (6 out of 60) increase in out-migration. In other words, less than one-in-ten disadvantaged renters who move out of a gentrifying neighborhood are moving because of gentrification.

What happens to that (less than) one-in-ten? On average, that person moves to a neighborhood that is just as good as the one they left. As the study authors put it, “we find no evidence that movers from gentrifying neighborhoods, including the most disadvantaged residents, move to observably worse neighborhoods or experience negative changes to employment, income, or commuting distance.”

But doesn’t gentrification increase the monthly rent for residents who choose to stay? It does, the study found, but only for more-educated renters. The study authors observe that “somewhat surprisingly, gentrification has no effect on reported monthly rents paid by original resident less-educated renters” (emphasis mine). They don’t know why rent increases for one group but not the other, but they speculate that it could be because of rental market segmentation, greater willingness to pay among more-educated renters, or sticky rents.

On the whole, progressives ought to love gentrification. It makes black inner-city homeowners wealthier. Among less-educated homeowners—who are majority non-white and comprise over a quarter of the total population in gentrifiable neighborhoods—those who remained in gentrified neighborhoods saw a $15,000 increase in the value of their homes due to gentrification. Among more-educated homeowners—who are also majority non-white—those who remained saw a $20,000 increase in property value.

What’s more, gentrification breaks up concentrated poverty and reduces residential segregation. Progressives have frequently observed that poor blacks are more likely to live in concentrated poverty than poor whites. As a result, they lose out on the advantages that come with living in a mixed-income neighborhood. Gentrification helps solve this problem. Moreover, progressives often observe that residential segregation remains pervasive half a century after the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Gentrification helps solve that problem too.

If a Democratic president were to implement a policy that substantially increased the net worth of tens of thousands of black inner-city residents, decreased residential segregation, and broke up concentrated poverty—all at no cost to taxpayers—they would go down as one of the greatest progressive presidents in recent history. Yet, despite the fact that its effects are identical, progressives view gentrification as at best, regrettable, and at worst, evil. The following passage, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, is representative:

…I know that “gentrification” is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime. To speak the word gentrification is to immediately lie.

The question is: why do so many progressives take this stance? One reason might be that they worry about the second kind of harm that accompanies gentrification: the changing culture and character of neighborhoods. People don’t like change, and it’s reasonable to worry that rapid cultural change is a kind of injustice.

But the fact that gentrification causes almost no displacement suggests that cultural change doesn’t matter much to those directly affected. Compared to the speed with which people will flee a neighborhood when crime rises, for instance, the level of urgency that accompanies anti-gentrification sentiment is low. The existence of highly visible exceptions, such as anti-gentrification community activist groups, hardly undermines my point. A few dozen protesters will receive news coverage, creating the false perception of widespread opposition to cultural change. But you will never hear about the thousands of black inner-city renters and homeowners who don’t care about, or love, gentrification.

Whether or not concerns about cultural change have merit, it’s clear that they are not the driving force behind progressive opposition to gentrification. Indeed, the main reason progressives oppose gentrification has less to do with the well-being of the gentrified than with the race of the gentrifiers. If you doubt this, consider the following hypothetical: imagine that the gentrifiers, instead of being white, were high-skilled immigrants from India. The economic effects of gentrification would be identical: rising rents for more-educated original residents, rising property values for all, minimal displacement, and so on. The cultural shock would be different in kind but identical in degree: instead of artisan coffee shops flooding Harlem, you might see, for example, Indian grocery stores.

In this scenario, can you imagine college students at elite universities railing against gentrification day in and day out? Can you imagine prominent Democrats making opposition to gentrification a pillar of their housing policy? Perhaps. But it is far more likely that if the skin color of the gentrifiers were to change, as if by magic, most of the outrage over gentrification would disappear.

Without doubt, the strain of anti-white sentiment that runs through progressive thinking is not identical—in kind or degree—to anti-black racism. Progressives do not feel, for example, that white people are unintelligent, dirty, or unattractive. Progressive anti-whiteness more closely resembles communist hatred of the bourgeoisie. It is a conspiratorial bigotry that ascribes to white people a mercenary nature, a high level of competence, and an innate desire for dominance.

Such anti-white sentiment not only explains much of progressive opposition to gentrification; it also explains why the New York Times ran a column arguing that we should teach black children not to befriend white children; it explains why the Huffington Post ran a piece advocating the metaphorical wounding of white people en masse; and it explains why Sarah Jeong got hired by the Times despite authoring a series of anti-white tweets that would have been career-ending were they about any other race.

All of this matters for two reasons. Firstly, opposition to gentrification has consequences. Measures intended to curb gentrification, such as rent control and zoning laws, perversely make housing less affordable for the poor and wealthy alike.

But more importantly, anti-white sentiment does not go unnoticed outside of the progressive bubble. And whatever wall of irony allegedly separates progressive white-bashing from true bigotry gets lost in translation across the political divide. The path back to normalcy for American democracy, the path away from right-wing populism and political tribalism, can’t involve one major political party entertaining sentiments that, explicitly or not, attack the majority of Americans for attributes they can’t change. And if the Democratic party cannot manage to reject the anti-white strain within it, then, in all likelihood, the electorate will reject it for them.

 

Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Progressives hate gentrification because it fosters assimilation.

  2. The path back to normalcy for American democracy,

    I can’t think of a single example of American democracy, or culture, returning to an older, better time. “The path back” is a nostalgic daydream. There is only a series of paths forward for any of us.

    the path away from right-wing populism

    Well, now, lately I’ve been thinking that the path toward right-wing populism isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, or my family, or my closest friends. It may actually be a good thing. I don’t think it automatically leads to fascism, although there is a risk. And, anyway, isn’t “right-wing populism” just a left-wing dog whistle meaning “conservatives voting”?

    and political tribalism,

    The way things are going – forward, and not on the “path back” – political tribalism just might be the saving of me.

    And if the Democratic Party cannot manage to reject the anti-white strain within it, then, in all likelihood, the electorate will reject it for them.

    I do think it’s in my best interest that the Democratic Party not survive in its current state. I would very much like to see the party splinter into two or more separate parties, politically weakening all progressives and doing real harm to the Socialist Project.

    From my perspective, this would be the better outcome.

  3. It’s not only progressives that hate gentrification, Centrists and conservatives that understand basic economic principles are less than ecstatic about it, as well.

    With all due respect to the author of this piece, Mr. Hughes (and I mean that sincerely; he is to be applauded for the quality of his work and the incisiveness of his analyses,) the assertions and conclusions of those who conducted the study are in some ways irrational and are wholly suspect.

    “neighborhood demographic changes are driven almost entirely
    by changes to those willing and able to move into gentrifying neighborhoods” may be correct, but “demographics” are not “populations,” even though they correlate to varying degrees. The statement may be accurate to some degree, but it’s misleading to those of a less-than-pedantic nature. Assuming a neighborhood’s capacity to be finite, entry constitutes replacement. Ordinarily, vacancies owing to death and typical out-migrations provide opportunities for those already living there to remain by starting their own household (e.g. youth.)

    Gentrification always increases housing costs, and that is the primary objection. When the ability to pay those costs is entirely owing to incursion/displacement, family separation increases. When your children must leave the area in order to start their own household, distance becomes an obstacle to consortium.

    Every region needs someplace for the poor to live. However critical anyone may be about the poor being “forced” to live in areas that exhibit massive amounts of, shall we say… deferred maintenance, those shabby neighborhoods are the refuges of people with limited means. If shabby areas are not kept clean, it’s a social problem. Where poor neighborhoods can be described as shabby but well-swept, they are not anyone’s problem, even though they represent profitable opportunities for those with the economic strength to replace those who have lived there for generations.

    The article goes on to accurately point out the advantages of gentrification to property owners, but those lacking the wherewithal to purchase also require housing, and gentrification raises rents.

    I will review the study more closely, examine the data, read the article again and hope to have my outlook modified thereby, but my first reading provokes me to say “Mr. Hughes, there’s a great deal of this issue left to examine and discuss; your article is well-written but woefully incomplete as analysis of the adverse effects of gentrification.”

    That said, I always enjoy reading whatever Coleman Hughes has on offer.

  4. For decades there has been voiced opposition to a process of urban renewal that results in pricing poor residents out of the rental market. That many on the left now condone anti-white racism and incorporate it into their reasoning is not enough to persuade that it is also now their primary motivation on this or any other issue. That said the title did not strike as hyperbole, “Why Do Progressives Hate …”, there has been so much overwrought emotion brought to almost every issue these days. It would be useful if it could all be dialed back, but unfortunately in the present issues sweepstakes everything takes on the trappings of a crusade and the advocates with the highest level of hysteria win the media attention. It fosters a grievance industry that feeds off our baser instincts.

    When debating increasing costs of living it is advantageous to know the specifics for the community in question. For example, simply reducing crime can have a long term upward effect on housing prices. Is the reason for the uptick in housing due to some nefarious developer or the positive collective action of the local residents? What ever the reasons, don’t look to the ideology of those who run California for solutions. Their state is suffering simultaneously from both urban blight and increasingly high housing costs that torment the poor and are driving out the middle class. Hopefully the majority outside of the aloof class will soon understand their representatives do not represent them.

  5. I absolutely love gentrification. As a contractor it means home improvements, retail and commercial space build-outs, and the chance to do interesting restoration work on old and historic residences and buildings.

    I don’t know how you can argue that gentrification is economically a detriment or even lateral based on the volume of jobs created alone.

    For the record, I think Coates is a shameless race hustler half a step up from the likes of al sharpton, but I’d still love to work on his 2.1 million dollar home in Brooklyn. Shoot him my info if he’s thinking about renovations.

  6. The “gentrification” conversation reveals the dishonesty of the Left’s talk about diversity and tolerance.

    The Left wants white people displaced by nonwhite people. It wants neighborhoods where white culture exists to be replaced with nonwhite culture. It doesn’t want any white person to be able to go back to where he grew up and experience the community he grew up in if that community is “white”. It wants to stigmatize even the slightest nostalgia for a white community.

    But swap “white” with any nonwhite ethnicity, and the Left’s position swaps with it. A culturally homogeneous nonwhite neighborhood must not be tainted by awful whiteness. It’s a tragedy if nonwhite kids’ childhood neighborhoods lose their old character. Adding white people or culture to any community is NOT “diversity”, and must not be tolerated!

    “Diversity” is a dog whistle for anti-white.

    As for an objective analysis of “gentrification”, it’s quite simple. Communities in choice locations are either expensive or dilapidated. There is no third option. If they are dilapidated, they will have poor residents, and the Left will complain about the conditions those residents are enduring. Fixing the dilapidation costs money and results in the community becoming expensive. Those are the choices: stay dilapidated or become expensive. The Left will complain either way, because complaining is what Leftists do.

    Fixing dilapidation is the preferred option, every time, because resources should be put to their highest and best use. Society is overall better off (and greener!) when the people who have the high-paying inner city jobs live near their workplaces. Low-paying jobs are relatively fungible. Yes, some low-skilled people will have to commute to the downtown area to perform its service jobs, but they have the option of living in studio apartments, et al, which is preferable to crime and drug-ridden dilapidation.

  7. “Gentrifier” here. Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. White as the day is long. On the receiving end of anti-white racism on behalf of many black neighbors. Blacks coming from deeper in Brooklyn block the subway doors, reducing the efficiency of trains, leaving the aisle in the center of the car vacant. Should you try to “excuse me” your way to that empty space, it’s very likely you’ll get threatened along the way. It’s enough to make a pure white person racist.

    We didn’t move to this neighborhood because we wanted to get down with our black neighbors. We moved here because we had to. The neighborhood we came from – (white?) – Williamsburg – we got pushed from, due to gentrification on steroids. Should we move from Bed-Stuy, we’ll end up in East New York, and on deeper into Brooklyn, as “gentrification” radiates outward. That is unless circumstances decree that we can afford to move to a neighborhood where we “belong.”

    In other words, ‘gentrification’ is not something the new tenant is trying to do. The gentrifier is a cog in a wheel. However, I have on several occasions heard that my presence in Bed-Stuy is “GENOCIDE.” This word is misused without a shred of self-awareness. At a meeting recently, that was supposed to"heal" “victims” of some "racist Halloween decorations, most of the attendees were white, and thus told that we are wreaking “genocide” on this historically black neighborhood, and we are all inherently “racist” and don’t ask the facilitator of this bon homie how we can help – subtext – get the hell out of Bed-Stuy, we don’t want white people here.

    However, the brownstones in the neighborhood are owned primarily by blacks. Who then sell the houses to the highest bidders – whites. A house worth a few hundred thousand years ago is now worth over a million.

    The building we live in is a renovated tenement. The population of the building is mixed. Apparently the owners do not give a rat’s ass about skin color. It’s a lovely racial rainbow, here. After renovating, the rent went up to market and has to remain relatively fixed due to the number of units. So our rent hasn’t gone up since we moved in.

    Another issue: In NYC, your credit generally has to be pristine in order to compete for an apartment. So if you’re going to make a lateral move in Bed-Stuy, and you’re not timely on your bills, that apartment is going to go to someone who IS timely on their bills. If there’s anything racist about this…well…

    Houses and buildings are also sold to developers who are obligated to include a certain number of low rent units unless they find their way around that.

    In any case, I read such illuminating racist commentary on the Bed-Stuy Facebook page. The neighborhood is safer and the housing stock more valuable. I don’t like it because I can’t afford it. But anyone who’s owned here will make a mint…and the only way to retain a certain skin color here is to discriminate against whites wanting to buy in.

    And that’s RACIST.

  8. “Progressives do not feel, for example, that white people are unintelligent, dirty, or unattractive.”

    The one sentence I disagree with in this otherwise excellent essay.

    Progressives do feel that “white people” are unintelligent, dirty, and unattractive. Racist, bitter clingers of their guns and religions, too. They just don’t categorize themselves as “those type” of white people. When they say ‘white people’ they perform a sort of cognitive dissonance trick-- what they really mean is “everyone but upper class/intelligentsia white people” aka “flyover country.”

    Progressives exclude themselves from their condemnations. This is how it ties into what the author refers to as the communist hatred of the bourgeoisie. They use “white” to stand in for class as well as race/ethnicity. This is why they never offer to step down from their lucrative or powerful positions and let a poor Brown or Black person take their place. The idea is that it’s the lower orders that have to step aside, not they. They fully intend to stay in power, and indeed, the whole exercise is an exercise in power dynamics wherein under the veil of righteousness they grab power any way they can, using Black people as tools and symbols of their own Woke Priestly Power. This is also why they’re ‘against’ gentrification. They don’t live there. It costs them nothing. Who is likely to live in newly gentrified areas? Why, the lower orders. Including - as in the urban area I work in - working class new immigrants, Indian, Arab, and Asian.Their races aren’t the right ones, as Hughes points out, so no one calls it ‘gentrification.’ But the other issue is the progressives are utterly unaware of the ‘gentrification’ because it’s not an area they go to-- it’s too low class for them, and filled with crime and violence they want to pretend doesn’t exist.

  9. It is the no win victim game. Whites moving in is gentrification (bad). Whites moving out is racist “white flight”. Black neighborhoods are a result of red lining (bad).

  10. The alt-Right’s existence, explained.

  11. Why does this article refer to “minority” residents as being “original” residents who are being displaced by gentrification ? If you go back a few decades, you often find that these “minority” residents actually displace the previous white residents.
    Many neighborhoods in New York City that were majority black by the mid 20th century were majority white at the beginning of the 20th century.
    Why woyuld it not be equally justified to demonize them as “invaders” of somebody else’s neighborhood - if it is OK to demonize white gentrifiers as “invaders” ?Especially since the arrival of “minorities” typically brought huge increases in crime and decreases in property value, loss of neighborhood businesses, etc.

  12. “Progressives hate gentrification because it fosters assimilation.” That’s how I see it, as well, Farris.

    Quoting from the article: “What’s more, gentrification breaks up concentrated poverty and reduces residential segregation.”

    Progressives don’t want this. They don’t want white and black/brown people to like each other or share common interests. They want racial division and mistrust, if not outright hatred. That is their power base (white SJW grievance mongers) if not meal ticket (Coates).

  13. There are secondary effects of gentrification that can affect both residents and business’. Namely property tax escalation. In most jurisdictions property tax rates are tied to an assessed value for a property. The rising tide raises all ships indeed and the entire neighborhood essentially evolves to a higher value as some properties are fixed up and become worth more there is a halo effect that hits nearby properties. For long time residents they may feel this more sharply when they get their property tax bill as the intrinsic value of their property has risen by virtue of proximity. They may not have the liquidity to address the higher costs and it may be that less sophisticated owners cannot translate improved capital asset value into liquidity to service the higher costs. Thus people may have to sell to stay afloat, for seniors this is a serious issue if they are on fixed income for example.

    Likewise business owners can suffer. Rents rise in response to elevated city taxes and this can have the effect of drowning existing businesses in costs they cannot keep up with forcing them to downsize, relocate or simply close up shop. This is where you hear true pain and squealing when long time cultural institutions like a bakery or diner have to close up shop because of rising rents. It is a real issue that affects the fabric of a neighborhood unless of course those business and institutions can adapt to new clientele and grow their business to keep up with the rise in cost base. Some survive, many don’t.

    I imagine progressives enjoy the extent to which gentrification elevates tax revenues as they have more $$$ to play with at City Hall. Not to mention so many regulations can only be implemented through new construction or major renovations, it’s a critical regulatory choke point where many progressive policies can be implemented as inaction means nothing changes, but new investment means policy implementation by proxy via an investors $$$. An example would be making buildings meet elevated green standards that are a requirement if you’re going to get a building permit for any major work.

    Urban planning and real estate are lands where the law of unintended consequences runs rampant. Buyer, seller, resident and City council beware, there’s complexity ahead.

  14. I find it interesting that that ‘‘progressives’’ so hate the idea of local culture being affected by immigration when it is affluent whites who are the immigrants, but are very keen on immigration bringing in new cultures when it is a matter of displacing white people. They are for illegal immigrants to come from overseas, but hate the idea of white people moving across a city to a new area.
    Oikophobia is a nasty thing.

  15. Good points here, especially that when ‘gentrification’ is slow social friction is ameliorated, also that housing deterioration is more expensive to correct than to prevent. I once worked with a lefty urban do-gooder org which went against the leftist grain by eschewing pressure for new regulations and insisting on law enforcement in various forms from increased police presence to the myriad of landlord/tenant and nuisance laws long on the books.

    Residents of poor and working-class neighborhoods repeatedly told us that their main problems were high crime including blatant drug-dealing, landlords refusing reasonable repairs and junk cars, piles of trash and yes, excessively noisy neighbors, ie really loud parties on weeknights till 4.00 AM. So we addressed those with laws passed before the 70s and somewhat successfully too.

    Leaks from the roof and plumbing are not only difficult to live with, they eventually destroy a building if left un-repaired - especially a wooden one - creating a slum out of an otherwise merely old building. Electrical wiring unmaintained for 40 years becomes a fire hazard and peeling paint is not only unhealthy and unsightly but again allows water entry to degrade the structure. Preventing these before too much damage is done not only directly improves the lives of residents it also maintains housing stock for residents to buy near family and friends as they slowly move up the economic ladder; otherwise those that do buy leave to do it as a well-maintained building elsewhere is typically cheaper and less risky than the cost of a wreck plus very unpredictable renovation costs.

    This allows for the slower form of ‘gentrification’ which includes the gentrification of many of the residents as well as accommodating newcomers of all races including that of the current residents; ‘gentry’ being an old term for the ‘well-to-do’ and people becoming well-to-do is a good thing, not a bad one, despite many do-gooders’ current thinking. This last shows the folly of racializing class and “classifying” race: a cook in a diner at 25 who shares a rented apartment nearby is working class but that same person who becomes head cook and buys a modest place in the same neighborhood at 32 becomes middle-class and (using that place as collateral) 7 years later at 40 opens their own diner has joined the gentry; the well-to-do. Meanwhile, the kids grow up in a reasonable and ordinary neighborhood, if not a fashionable and hip one, and go on to be engineers, teachers, doctors etc.

    Most cities, NYC included, have inspectors to deal with the above problems and in extremis, rent-strike procedures where the rent is paid into escrow until the building is brought up to code while the tenants are protected from eviction. Sadly, the people typically needing these provisions, despite being law-abiding and hard-working, are unaware of them and unused to engaging productively and patiently with city officials (including the complex written forms involved) so benefit greatly from any help in this area. Meanwhile, they’re getting no help from the activists who’ve latched onto this issue as another doomed moral crusade, now infected by racial segregationist rhetoric and a romanticisation of ghettos as somehow “authentic.”

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