Moving On Up: Gentrification and Inequality



For longtime residents of  “the Mission,” one of San Francisco’s most distinguished neighborhoods, the community’s rapidly changing demographic is a regular topic of public discussion. Historically working class and Latino, the neighborhood has in recent years evolved into an enclave for the young, often white, and affluent. Such a shift has had many implications for the neighborhood’s identity, as well as livability. Where local, decades-strong small businesses once stood, high-end condo developments and trendy restaurants now prevail. The annual Day of the Dead street vigil, a Mexican-based tradition centered on respectful religious observance, has turned into a boisterous, Halloween-like festival with the influx of new “hipster” residents.[1] Eviction notices are commonplace, as tenants have been displaced here more than in any of the city’s other neighborhoods.[2] Yet the Mission is not a lone case. Gentrification, though particularly palpable in the Mission, has afflicted San Francisco at large.

At the center of the city’s transformation is the issue of affordability, both in terms of housing and overall cost of living. San Francisco’s median citywide home price soared nearly fifty percent between 2002 and 2012, to $879,000, while its median rental price rose to $3,156, according to its Budget and Legislative Analyst. [3] Coupled with rising prices for food and other basic consumer goods, San Francisco’s cost of living is today among the very highest in the nation.[4] In many cases, its middle and working class families- many of whom immigrated to the city originally because of its widespread opportunity- have found no choice but to leave.

To many, the presence of high-tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook and their well-compensated employees serves as the engine of the city’s affordability crisis. As these corporations have grown and attracted more workers, they have produced a demand for housing that has encouraged landlords and developers to raise prices to unprecedented levels. Life in San Francisco has, as a result, increasingly become available only for top earners.

In light of this, Google has recently come under tremendous scrutiny. Since last fall, a protest movement has developed in the city to remonstrate the company’s deployment of large, luxurious shuttle buses from its Silicon Valley headquarters to 200 public bus stops around San Francisco. Demonstrators originally claimed that they took issue with the increased traffic caused by the buses; however, as time has passed, their grievances have come to focus on issues of gentrification and inequality, for which they blame tech companies. Many decry the landlords who have kicked out families, intellectuals, and artists for the sake of greater profit under California’s Ellis Act, which permits owners to evict tenants as a means of re-renting them for higher prices, carrying signs in protest with messages such as “San Francisco, not for sale.”[5] To them, the shuttle buses are a symbol for the growing schism between the privileges of the wealthy and the rest, which, they feel, has broader implications for San Francisco’s historical identity as a center of cultural diversity, intellectual vitality, and economic opportunity.

This is not solely San Francisco’s problem, however. Middle and working class people face similar problems posed by this kind of inequality in cities across the US. Since the 1990s, local governments have worked hard to make urban life more appealing, reducing crime, improving services, and ensuring greater access to human and social capital in the process. In turn, they have attracted the wealthy and highly educated in large numbers. At the same time, though, these policies have increasingly marginalized these cities’ other residents. For the sake of comparison, Los Angeles’ Gini coefficient (.485), a measure of inequality out of 1.0, is now approximately equal to the Dominican Republic’s (.484), while Chicago’s (.468) is similar to El Salvador’s (.469), and New York’s (.504) is equal to Swaziland’s– a country that has one of the world’s lowest life expectancy rates.[6] Yet, it is often difficult to see such realities from the outside, from which we see fewer panhandlers and criminals, and more boutique shops and Starbucks.

These economic functions have had fascinating effects on the American conscience. Whereas the white-picket-fence suburban archetype was considered mainstream America’s exemplar for much of the twentieth century, urban life has evolved into the new ideal. Television shows such as Leave it To Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and The Wonder Years have slowly been replaced by Friends, Gossip Girl, and How I Met Your Mother. The renewed vitality and place of the city in our culture, as it has become safer and more familiar to those who grew up mostly removed from it, has captivated our imaginations and aspirations. Yet city life’s accessibility today is much like suburbia’s was in the early and mid twentieth century: limited to the few who can afford it, and a product of socially-developed circumstances external to individual control.

This re-framing of metropolitan America transcends both socioeconomic class and race. In a reversal of the geographic diversion of the 1950’s, gentrification has led to a sort-of reversal of the “white flight” phenomenon, as neighborhoods that have been diverse and/or minority-majority for decades are becoming more uniformly white. In Washington, DC- once colloquially termed “Chocolate City”- the Navy Yard region, which was ninety-five black only in 2000, is now less than a third African-American.[7] Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn now popular among hipsters, has experienced a six-fold increase in whites and fourteen percent decrease in blacks in the short time span from 2010 to 2012.[8] And according to its 2010 census, Atlanta lost 31,678 African-Americans since 2000, while gaining 22,213 whites.[9]

This displacement has led to not just a re-definition of the city in terms of racial and socioeconomic demographics, but suburbia, as well. More urban middle and working class minorities are moving to the suburbs now than in any other period– not necessarily because they want to, but rather because they have to. They have been priced out of their old neighborhoods. The percentage of low-income people in the suburbs grew nearly five times faster than it did in the city between 1999 and 2008– a twenty-five percent increase.[10]  This change in traditional demographic distributions is significant particularly when considering that minorities were, due to housing discrimination policies and public prejudice, prohibited from moving to the suburbs until the Civil Rights movement at a time when whites received billions of dollars in subsidized home loans with low rates. This, in effect, condemned those left in urban centers to economic depravation, as property values plunged from newly built highways connecting the city to suburbs running through neighborhoods, and tax bases deteriorated. As our image of the city has reversed, leading to an increase in its desirability rather than and at the expense of the suburbs, minorities have once again been barred from joining prosperity.

For many, however, moving to suburbs in pursuit of affordability is not an option. Among them include those who are victims of the vicious cycle of poverty, such as the poor who live in public housing developments and rely on city services, and others whose jobs are often in city limits and who cannot afford to buy cars or rely on commuter transportation systems. Instead, they are forced into undesirable, increasingly compact and neglected city outskirts, where resources are less available and are continually being cut. Such is the case in Brooklyn, where many people who used to live in now-expensive neighborhoods directly across the river from Manhattan, like Williamsburgh, Dumbo, and Greenpoint, have been uplifted into Eastern Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Brownsville, which has the highest concentration of low-income housing developments in the country and where little growth-oriented policies have been implemented.[11] The outer city has increasingly become the new inner city.

Some argue that the influx of new wealth and changes brought about in these cities have been far more positive than negative. They argue that high-income earners have stimulated the local economy by spending more and paying more taxes, which in turn creates higher public revenues, higher paying jobs, and better financial resources to help the underprivileged. However, such outcomes have yet to be widely observed. City government policies intended to advanced gentrification in the name of development have mostly promoted socioeconomic and geographical segregation, as well as decreased access to opportunity, through political and economic inequality. According to pro-gentrification theorists, the forces of trickle-down should allow for the expansion of prosperity for all; yet in New York, a city whose dominance developed from its status as a Mecca for economic opportunity, only forty-one percent of residents hold college degrees, forty percent of which born abroad, while the majority of jobs created since 2000 have been in the fast food industry.[12] As for increased housing prices and the augmented evictions that have resulted: forced displacement is not a sign of progress, but severe deficiency. The waning ability for people to live in the neighborhoods in which they lived their entire lives, or move to other safe, economically strong communities, is something that should be considered symptomatic of broader societal ills worth fighting.

While gentrification has irrefutably helped cities become more safe and, in a sense, desirable, the fundamental reality is that cities have not become more broadly prosperous; they have become more unequal, segregated, and inaccessible for the many. Instead of helping their people through implementing substantive initiatives designed to strengthen upward mobility, city governments have more often harmed them through the process of encouraging perceived “development.” As the problems posed by city gentrification have begun to transcend classes, affecting increasingly more people higher in the socioeconomic spectrum, it is becoming less convenient and more consequential for government leaders to simply dismiss this pressing issue. The idea of the city as an engine of progress and opportunity is today threatened, and changes must be actively sought for the sake of its preservation.

Among these include increasing access to affordable housing, as its shortage has contributed immensely to inequality. The best way to address for city governments to address this issue is by supplying demand, which will inevitably require changes in zoning restrictions. Man have fought hard to preserve to their current buildings and neighborhoods against proposed changes, such as Washington, DC with its Height of Buildings Act of 1910. However, such objections result only in fewer homes with higher prices, and must be re-assessed. Low-density and height neighborhoods should accept some level of increases under updated “zone capacity” laws. Governments should also encourage development by removing restrictions on under-utilized public lands, while implementing inclusionary zoning laws on new structures to insure their availability to low and middle income earners. Property taxes from neighborhoods with high rates of development can be used to partly fund this building, particularly in underdeveloped neighborhoods.[13]

Let it not be misunderstood: the issue of gentrification, and finding a way to rightly approach it, is complicated. Without some level of affluence within a community, it is likely for that community to fall into a vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and violence, which all agree is undesirable. The key, however, is not to neglect and displace the suffering people within those communities as a means of repairing them. Instead, government must work aggressively to relieve the people’s plight, and aid them in their struggle to join and rise in the ladder of opportunity. Doing so will in turn help create a more equitable, stable, and prosperous society, in which all can contribute, and for which all can benefit.
















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