The Uneven Experience of Affordability and Gentrification

Jonathan Geeting has a piece up at Next City that I think is one of the best takes I’ve ever read on the problem of housing affordability. The title of the piece is “Philly has an Income Problem, not a Housing Affordability Problem,” and that’s essentially the core of his argument–most of the article is taken up by data proving his point. As Geeting notes, Philly’s housing costs, whether renting or buying, are on the citywide level among if not THE lowest in the Northeast–and yet, the city has erupted in debates over gentrification as the city center has grown in recent years. It’s a paradox–it seems that affordable housing advocates fear for the viability of the city’s low-income population regardless of how cheap housing is on an objective scale. Geeting’s point is that driving down housing costs, by whatever method one may employ, isn’t going to solve a problem that entrenched. In other words, once housing is super cheap already–and in Philly, citywide rents haven’t gone up despite the recent influx of relatively wealthy, mainly white, newcomers–making it even cheaper isn’t going to help entrenched poverty; in fact, doing so can have all kinds of negative impacts on the city’s finances. In fact, there’s a definite floor to housing prices, below which absolutely nothing will ever get built. Philly doesn’t have a supply problem for affordable housing–if it did, prices would be higher. The problem is one of income, or really lack thereof, not one of affordability. Poverty advocates have taken up the banner of “affordable housing” because that’s a traditional way for government to help out the urban poor, but Geeting’s claim is that in the case of Philly that’s not the best tack they could be taking.

Geeting’s case resonated strongly with me. Aside from being emotionally wrought, the national discussion of gentrification tends to be colored by the experiences of certain cities–places like New York City, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and Washington, DC, where hordes of wealthy young and mostly white people have “reclaimed the city,” bringing new financial resources and excitement but also driving up housing costs and forcing lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods. In New York and San Francisco in particular (and increasingly in DC),  complaints about gentrification have been driven by a very real–and entirely fair–fear that people of lower income are not just being driven from their neighborhoods, but from the city entirely. Where the demand for housing of all kinds is for all intents and purposes infinite, it’s hard to imagine that competition for housing isn’t a zero-sum game. But Geeting’s piece is a useful reminder that even as it appears that the Millennial return to the city is a nationwide trend, the experience of every city is not going to be the same. The discussion about gentrification in Baltimore doesn’t have to be the same as in DC. Philly’s doesn’t have to be the same as New York’s.

Moreover, there are, in fact, very few cities where the zero-sum logic of gentrification as derived from NYC and San Francisco actually applies. In most of the country, urban housing prices are still very, very low–artificially so, the product of mistaken public policy that has and continues to subsidize suburban sprawl–and even as urban population numbers have stopped declining and in most areas begun to grow again since the turn of the Millennium, prices haven’t exactly skyrocketed. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Philly. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Baltimore. There’s definitely no lack of affordable housing in Detroit. There’s not even a true lack of affordable housing in Chicago, which (the conglomeration of sprawl that is Houston aside) may be the cheapest major city in the country. And there’s certainly no lack of affordable housing in many smaller cities, including Albany. What those cities lack isn’t housing–it’s wealth, income, stable neighborhoods, and local businesses at which to spend money. Certainly some neighborhoods have changed, but on a citywide level very few cities are experiencing the kind of crazy competition and upward-spiraling prices that characterize gentrifying New York and San Francisco. Very few cities will ever experience that kind of demand. And it’s worth remembering that while there are all sorts of banners for urban activists, particularly those on the Left, to be carrying forward, affordable housing isn’t, despite its emotional power, in most cases one of them. 

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