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Trickle-Down Gentrification Won't Solve Housing Crisis

Shelter is a basic human need—nobody argues that. Developers in urban cities, however, increasingly treat housing like a commodity when employing gentrification, often justified by its intended “trickle-down” effects.

The argument is that once luxury condominiums are built, the truly wealthy will flock to these new buildings, leaving the open market-rate apartments to the middle class. Poor neighborhoods are given a face lift in the name of “revitalization,” rather than its impoverished and disempowered residents receiving acknowledgment and resources. New life is breathed into these districts while new residents replace and relocate the working class. Meanwhile the gentrification method is applauded for helping the area leap out of poverty when it's actually just moving it a couple zip codes away.

The reality is that affordable housing is on the decline while displacement in these neighborhoods is on the rise across the world. Jacobin magazine writes, “If affordable housing is sometimes affordable, and public housing construction has stalled, then how will luxury condominium developments keep cities affordable for poor and working class people? It won’t, of course. But the idea that the crisis can be solved by letting the free market build penthouses masks the need for government intervention through massive construction of new housing.” 

David Madden for The Guardian challenges a few myths often associated with gentrification:

The dichotomy: either a city gentrifies or suffers urban decay. “No serious critic of gentrification wants to maintain the status quo. Instead of either gentrification or decay, cities could push for more equal distribution of resources and more democratic decision-making.”

The trickle-down effect: New York's former mayor Michael Bloomberg said attracting the super rich is the best way to help the less fortunate. “The trickle-down argument for gentrification ignores the fact that the ‘very fortunate’ invariably seek to bend municipal priorities and local land uses towards their own needs, usually to the detriment of their less powerful neighbors. And the more urban governments become obsessed with gutting welfare policies and punishing the poor, the less the trickle-down theory of gentrification makes sense.”

It’s unstoppable: its roots in political-economics make alternatives near impossible. Madden, however, says there are many policies which, “even in the short term, would produce a more democratic and egalitarian city: more and better public housing, rent control and regulation, community control of neighborhood space, expanding social welfare, strengthening progressive labor unions, and empowering social movements that embody the political ambitions of the urban working classes and poor.”

While focusing more on the loss of character rather than the true issue of displacement (which Madden writes is the least useful way to criticize this trend: “this kind of story reduces something that’s all about inequality to middle class agonizing over authenticity”), The Huffington Post illustrates gentrification in New York City with this video.

Image by Arild Nybo, licensed under Creative Commons.