City Lab's Daniel Hertz wonders if he should say an Act of Contrition for buying in an emerging neighborhood.
Mine is a cohort – the youngish, college-educated, left-leaning set – that places a great deal of moral significance on geography. (Probably everyone does, but I can only speak to our particular code.) Most of us believe in a moral imperative to reject the suburbs: to disavow environmentally-destructive sprawl and alleged ethnic homogeneity and cultural sterility.

We know, too, that well-to-do urban neighborhoods that hoard scarce resources aren't much better. And if you move to a poor or working-class neighborhood with your college degree, earning potential, and cultural power, the rising rents that ripple outward from you and your friends can be just as damning.

As a result, we tend to carry a lot of guilt about our living arrangements. We have a lot of conversations about whether or not it's acceptable to live in our current neighborhood, or the one we'd like to live in. Sometimes, we reassure ourselves by discussing the obviously graver transgressions of the people who live in some other neighborhood, which has accumulated slightly more bougie coffee shops and restaurants. Sometimes we find solace in some part of the continuum of gentrification that we're comfortable with: the very beginning, when you can kid yourself that your presence isn't changing anything; or when the tipping point has tipped, and the damage has already been done.

And sometimes we come up with lists of reasons why we're not implicated in the whole dirty business.
Here's where the Tragic Vision comes in handy. Markets allocate resources, and urban structure is emergent.
Moving to a higher-income neighborhood – one where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income – means you're helping to sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area segregated. You're also forcing lower-income college graduates to move to more economically marginal areas, where they in turn will push out people with even less purchasing power. You can't escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape their whiteness, because those are both subject to systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the classes, there is no division between "gentrifiers" and "non-gentrifiers." If you live in a city, you don't get to opt out.

The upshot here is not that we should all descend into nihilistic real estate hedonism. But we need to recognize what's really going on: that what we call "gentrification" these days is only one facet of the much larger issue of economic segregation. That people get priced out of the places they already live in is only half of the problem. The other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that people can't move to the neighborhoods to which they'd like to move, and are stuck in places with worse schools, more crime, and inferior access to jobs and amenities like grocery stores. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it's no less of a disaster.

And all this, in turn, is the result of a curiously dysfunctional housing system – one that's set up to allow market forces to push up prices without regard for people who might be excluded, and to prevent market forces from building more homes and mitigating that exclusion.
Sorry, no, the problem of crappy neighborhoods is not easy to ignore, it is probably more of a disaster, and until building the social capital, or keeping it from leaving, becomes something for public policy, you're likely to see the preemption of crappy neighborhoods by snob zoning, or by rising housing prices.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

In the early 2000s, I shopped around what I liked to call the Euphemistic Neighborhoods ("emerging," "gentrifying," "vibrant," et al.) of D.C. Although I decided not to buy, what I saw didn't fit the conventional gentrification narratives. Anecdotally, I'd guess that at least half of the houses I considered buying were owned by nice but not-well-off black families who were surprised to discover they suddenly had a marketable asset: a house purchased for a five-digit sum by grandparents or parents a lifetime ago, now paid off and worth up to half a million dollars. As quickly as they could, those families were selling and fleeing to the suburbs: nicer house, better neighborhood, safer schools. Others can debate the ethics of gentrification, but for all the discussion about real estate and the housing bubble in the past decade, I don't think I've seen anyone acknowledge that in many cases, both sides were utterly delighted by the transaction.