Can Bill de Blasio Stop Gentrification? Can Anyone?
On the campaign trail this year, Bill de Blasio repeatedly channeled New Yorkers’ anger over gentrification, the widespread sense that the city is turning into a playground for the rich that locks out everyone else. “I see people suffering and feeling like they’re losing their grip on the place, and my job is to help New Yorkers live in New York. It’s not to clear the place out and see it fully gentrified,” the mayor-elect was quoted in New York magazine in June.
That means when de Blasio takes office, he’ll be attempting to solve a problem that is plaguing major urban centers all over the world. Housing prices are soaring in San Francisco as technology workers stream into once-affordable neighborhoods like the Mission District. In June, London housing prices were up almost 10 percent from a year earlier, fueled partly by international speculation. Even the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are gentrifying. Reporting from one of the city’s hillside shantytowns, The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts wrote, “The most high-profile conflict here now is not between rival gangs, but between two European investors who are tussling over a prime plot.”
So far, there isn’t a city on earth that has developed an effective response to the gentrification juggernaut. New ideas, or rejiggered versions of old ones, are desperately needed because today’s market-based solutions aren’t succeeding. “All we’re trying to do is tweak a system that isn’t working, rather than envisioning something different,” says Stacey Sutton, an assistant professor at Columbia who wrote her thesis on the gentrification of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene.
The main tweak de Blasio has proposed is mandatory inclusionary zoning. Right now, inclusionary zoning is optional; developers are allowed to build additional square footage in exchange for making 20 percent of their units affordable. According to a report from City Councilman Brad Lander and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, in most neighborhoods covered by the inclusionary zoning program, very few developers choose to participate. If they were required to, significantly more below-market-rate housing could be created. But probably not enough to change New York’s housing dynamics. One of the neighborhoods where inclusionary zoning was most successful is Greenpoint/Williamsburg, where 949 units were created under the program (13 percent of new residential development). That, obviously, did not stop Williamsburg from becoming a symbol of gentrification.
“Zoning is a very weak tool,” says Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs at CUNY. “Inclusionary zoning at best still relies on significant market-rate investment. It doesn’t compensate for the rise or increase in rents and land prices.”
A common progressive response to gentrification is to fight new market-rate development on the grounds that it drives up area prices. This is true on the micro-level; as luxury condos and stores arrive in a once-poor neighborhood, adjacent property becomes more valuable. But citywide, the law of supply and demand still holds. The moneyed arrivistes have to go somewhere, and if there isn’t new housing available for them, they’ll bid up the price on existing dwellings. Consider the housing crunch in San Francisco, perhaps the most development-averse city in the country, where rents are soaring by upward of 20 percent a year.
So what is to be done? Miguel Robles-Durán, director of the Urban Ecologies program at the New School, makes a convincing case that among the most useful tools are limited-equity cooperatives of the kind established under New York’s 1955 Limited-Profit Housing Companies Act, better known as Mitchell-Lama. Under these programs, households own shares in a building, but the price at which they can sell their shares is limited for a certain period of time, usually twenty years. These arrangements offer stability of ownership without the skyrocketing prices that accompany real estate speculation. “The city needs to begin to experiment with alternative property systems,” says Robles-Durán. “If you’re not allowed to speculate on your property, developers will lose interest, and we’ll finally concentrate on the property where we want to live.”
It’s tremendously unlikely, of course, that we’ll see a substantial new wave of cooperatively owned housing anytime soon. In New York, the trend is in the other direction, as Mitchell-Lama buildings convert to having market-rate apartments. Part of what makes gentrification so thorny is the mismatch between the scale of the problem and the viability of potential solutions. If preventing widespread displacement means dismantling the real estate industry, we’re in real trouble. Then again, the solutions that exist are implausible—but not impossible. A year ago, one might have said the same thing about Bill de Blasio becoming mayor.
Bill de Blasio has a mandate to lead New York City. After he was elected, the editors of The Nation suggested five areas in which he can make a progressive change.