As high housing prices become a more and more powerful force in determining the basic shape of our lives – where we get to live, what jobs we can apply for, what schools our children get to go to – there's a growing demand for some sort of explanation, some sort of narrative, about what's going on.
This week, James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz took a stab at articulating one popular version, which places blame firmly on "neoliberalism" and the unfettered market.
"Gentrification isn't new," he writes. He continues:
It's actually baked into the economic forces that have been driving urban development since the 1950s, [when] newly opulent Americans turned to the economic philosophy of neo-liberalism.... In the economic context of cities, neo-liberal ideology encourages free enterprise, open competition, deregulation, and the dismantling of public goods.... The city is increasingly undemocratic.... But ultimately, this pattern of neo-liberal problem-solving reinforces gentrification.
Now, the devaluation of public goods and services — say, closing lots of neighborhood schools, or public health clinics — is a neo-liberal phenomenon that meaningfully hurts people of limited means, and makes the city a harsher environment for them. Those kinds of closures can also be a way of making an area more palatable for developers who target the educated affluent class, and so can play a role in gentrification.
But as an explanation for the last 60 years of housing policy, and how we got where we are today — with rolling waves of gentrification and real estate prices that have made American cities more segregated by income than at any other time in living memory — it's just missing an enormous amount.
The postwar period actually represents the beginning of a golden age of the kind of overbearing government interventions in the housing market that, for the most part, we can't imagine today. Massive new bureaucracies built hundreds of thousands of new units of public housing; other bureaucracies demolished and replaced wholesale neighborhoods deemed unfit for human habitation. More enduringly, but no less revolutionary, the government created new regulatory frameworks designed to carefully shepherd — and create — the national secondary mortgage market, and subsidize with public money the construction and consumption of millions of new homes. And, of course, there was the audacious project of building the world's largest network of superhighways, all with public money.
Those projects' legacies are complicated, but on the whole they are pretty shameful. Public housing became, in city after city, the industrial North's best attempt at state-led Jim Crow; urban renewal was barely more than a naked land grab that destroyed existing communities to shore up white business interests; the mortgage market was explicitly designed to exclude blacks and steer capital investment away from the inner cities where they and other undesirables lived; and when the highway system entered metropolitan areas, more often than not it abetted all three of those policies.
Then, in the 1950s and '60s came a wave of new zoning laws, following up on the ones that had been invented in the 1920s, which ushered in the beginning of the age of micro-regulations of the urban space, in which the size, function, number of windows, orientation, number of inhabitants, number of parking spaces, color, lawn space, and a million other details of every single building in the city came to be a legitimate state interest.
Before the 1920s, if a neighborhood was desirable, builders (or anybody who wanted to build their own home) could construct a home, or apartment building, almost wherever they pleased, as long as it met basic safety requirements. You can see that process of urbanization in a neighborhood like Hyde Park in Chicago, which began as a 19th century upper-class commuting suburb, but by the early 20th century had become more citylike, with apartment flats and even a few towers cropping up to allow people of more modest means to live in the community. The 1960s zoning codes put an end to that.
The postwar period saw the invention of the suburb — or city neighborhood — whose exclusive economic character was protected by law against encroachment from the apartment-dwelling masses. That kind of state-sponsored separatism, say economists from neo-liberal Ed Glaeser to Keynesian Paul Krugman, is a major reason why our cities are now divided into rich and poor enclaves more than ever before.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, the ghetto is public policy. So, to an amazing extent, is gentrification, which is really only another face of the ghetto. If the market is amoral, casting aside Darwinian losers without regard for human dignity, then the legacy of urban governance in postwar America is deeply immoral, a targeted annihilation and segregation of any and all people — blacks, Appalachians, immigrants, the poor of any color or language — who happened to be of the wrong crowd. Gentrification on the scale we see it today would be nearly impossible without help from exclusionary zoning laws; nor is it clear what would have happened to the major American downtowns around which gentrification now orbits without the government removing hundreds of thousands of undesirables during urban renewal.
As with other explicitly exclusionary policies, the brazenness with which city governments prosecute this agenda has mellowed. And, to be fair, there are lots of people in government who are working actively in the other direction. But we're still very much living in an era when urban policy is, on the whole, massively regressive, from land use to transportation to whatever else you can think of. What makes this more pernicious is that today, much of that regressive power comes in the form of the widely accepted idea that communities have the right to use government power to maintain the "character" of their neighborhoods. That's an idea that seems, in some ways, deeply righteous, and it's hard to fault people for acting on a sense of ownership of their communities. But the pedigree of the ways in which we define "character," and the powers we give the state to enforce that "character," ought to give us pause.
I'm not suggesting that we turn over cities to the free market. The market is, in so many ways, amoral, and allowing it to do its damage when you have the power to do otherwise is something worse. We do need protections for people who are losing their longtime homes because of rent increases, and we do need to support the people who don't make enough money to buy decent housing even when zoning laws aren't doing their best to inflate prices.
But I also agree with the author of the piece when he writes: "If we want to address gentrification's ills, we need to address this force that undergirds it." The force just isn't entirely what he thinks it is.