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McGough '23: Don’t let fears of gentrification hold back housing

America has a housing problem. Whether in being prohibitively expensive, hopelessly rundown or environmentally unfriendly, America’s housing is not meeting the needs of the 21st century. The good news is that we have a simple solution to this problem: more urban housing, which will bring down costs and freshen aging stock.

Why, then, do community activists so often find themselves opposing new housing in struggling neighborhoods?

While based on the valid goal of halting gentrification, irresponsible progressive advocacy against development in underprivileged communities ultimately leads to further rent destabilization and unmet housing demand. Fighting market-rate development in low-income neighborhoods constitutes a progressive “not-in-my-backyard” mentality that is holding cities back. The solution to the affordable housing crisis is not to oppose development in cheap neighborhoods, but to responsibly support it everywhere.

From small cities like Providence to metropolises like New York City, activists regularly argue that developments in low-income neighborhoods should not go forward. They attack housing-rich redevelopments and anything that dares to revitalize a downtrodden block. They crowd municipal meetings, demanding city councils cast away investors and developers or face ballot box retribution.

Fearing rising rents and changing neighborhood character, a faction of the progressive left joined by Bernie Sanders has painted development by “corrupt real estate developers” as the source of America’s housing woes. Corporate profit incentives, they argue, are turning urban refuges for low-income families of color into white, yuppie havens. Their scorn stops not at private interests — progressives have even opposed projects like parks, trains and sidewalk improvements, which they see as preparatory work for gentrifying colonies of millennial twenty-somethings.

Much of the friction on this issue stems from disagreement over why housing is too expensive. Activists have stood against housing initiatives in fear that they will raise rents and price residents out of their homes. Communities push back against market-rate projects in a desperate struggle to keep their neighborhoods affordable.

To be sure, there are projects that represent net negatives for these communities. Occasionally, developers scoop up and raze lots only to fill them in with parking, or combine multiple lots into one to build a mansion. These efforts, common during the tragic urban renewals of the postwar period, are no longer common and are being undone. Nevertheless, they should be opposed whenever they crop up as they reduce housing units.

However, most projects do not resemble these, and angst toward developers should not be predetermined by them. Treating all private investment equally is a mistake that hurts communities more than it helps. Developers are not maliciously trying to tear down communities but are simply following demand.

Demand for city living, especially among young people, is through the roof. Situated on transit corridors and near job-rich downtowns, neighborhoods like Capitol Hill in Seattle — the temporary site of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest — are building upward while leaders of these cultural hubs lament the destabilizing effects of demand surges. The irony is that rents in neighborhoods like these are skyrocketing in part because community members are slowing the only thing that can meet rising housing demand: more supply.

New housing, whether it be low-income, market-rate or luxury, lowers rents. This may seem unintuitive, but it is true when supply matches demand: When a market-rate unit becomes available in a low-income neighborhood, someone able and willing to move into the new home does so, leaving their old home unoccupied. This process repeats until someone vacates the least desirable unit, forcing its landlord to drop the rent to attract an occupant. Multiply this effect by 400 and one can see how a new market-rate apartment project ends up lowering an area’s rent.

The reason this market mechanism is not always obvious is because supply continues to lag behind demand where developments have been stalled. When new projects are completed, far more people than units can accommodate apply to move in, setting prices high and giving the appearance that the new projects are raising rents. Rents are astronomical in places like California not because private developers are gouging, but because supply is massively underperforming demand.

One alternative route — rent control — is a potential short-term solution, but it only treats the symptoms of weak housing supply, not the causes. Applied topically, rent controls can temporarily alleviate growing pains from upscaling neighborhoods while supply catches up to demand. However, permanent or blanket rent controls suppress supply in cities, pushing prospective renters to less-restrictive areas and forcing rents upward elsewhere.

The only long-term solution to rising demand is a healthy supply, so attracting development should be the primary goal of any housing policy. One solution — pioneered in Minneapolis — is to eliminate single-family zoning outright. By opening every lot to multiplexes, cities can support supply by attracting small-scale investors that cannot afford to develop downtown towers. The results of this measure are astounding: In 2020, the Twin Cities started developing more units than California’s San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland combined.

Another way for our cities to supercharge private investment is to make major public investments in transit, open space and placemaking, which focuses on collaborative development of public space to maximize shared value. Activists sometimes oppose these kinds of projects, arguing that they will make the neighborhood too costly for its present inhabitants, but this logic is flawed. The answer should never be to deny an underprivileged community access to a 21st century amenity, but to ensure that the community can grow responsibly with it. If housing supply is allowed to follow projects that stimulate demand, rent will stay the same or fall, thereby stabilizing cultural communities and providing them with access to amenities like new parks or trains.

Around Brown, Providence has taken some of these steps, like improving downtown transit services and replacing the old I-195 right-of-way with parks and pedestrian infrastructure, but has not yet shed restrictive zoning laws that prevent urban neighborhoods from upscaling. In fact, an expansion of the College Hill historic district has been proposed. Bids like this to preserve single-family neighborhoods should be seen for what they are: an attempt to stall development efforts.

We cannot let skepticism of monied interests become opposition to urban growth. Inadequate supply is the enemy of housing for all, so progressive activists should welcome efforts to boost development. The instinct to fear new projects as gentrification must be exchanged for support for all new housing to bring this crisis to a close.

Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at jackson_mcgough@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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