Cities Displace Poor and Minorities for Luxury Development

‘‘The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

San Francisco

A condemned building in Harlem, 2005. Harlem has played a leading role in the culture of black America. Affluent, mostly white, newcomers are now displacing black residents and changing Harlem's character.

A condemned building in Harlem, NYC, 2005. Harlem has played a leading role in the culture of black America. Affluent, mostly white, newcomers are now displacing black residents and transforming historic Harlem’s character.

San Francisco tech entrepreneur Justin Keller wrote an open letter complaining that “riff raff” had spoiled both his celebration of Presidents Day and were ruining the city in general. The social media backlash went viral. ‘‘I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society,” wrote Keller. He admitted he had only lived in San Francisco for three years.

Gentrification happens when the affluent move into previously neglected city neighborhoods. With them comes new investment – luxury high rises and upscale shops, improved open spaces, better schools and police protection. Crime decreases. Beautiful, but neglected, buildings such as Victorians are restored. And it’s not all due to the “free market,” despite Keller’s assertion. Governments grant tax breaks to corporations and subsidies to developers to encourage this process. Urban planners promote it as a social good that encourages “walkable urban spaces” and “revitalization.”

(A former resident of San Francisco’s Mission District explains his experience with gentrification.)

Seattle's Belltown, traditionally known as the Regrade. Developers typically rebrand districts with names more appealing to upscale potential customers. In total disregard of the area's history. Another example is the South Bronx, NYC. Developers want to renamed it the "Piano District."

Seattle’s Belltown, traditionally known as The Regrade. Developers typically rebrand districts with names more appealing to upscale potential customers. In total disregard of an area’s history. Another example is the South Bronx, NYC. Developers propose to rename it the “Piano District.”

Yet improvement comes at a price. Rents rise, as do costs for food and other necessities. This displaces many or most of the previous residents. Those few who remain become isolated from their social connections. The most vulnerable end up homeless. Working class communities, often minority-dominated, lose their character and culture.

San Francisco is the most gentrified city in the United States. The tech boom has washed a rising tide of newly-affluent millennial hipsters into the city during the past decade. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment has skyrocketed to over $3,200, far outstripping growth in wages. Disproportionately white, male and single, the new techies are rejecting the suburbs most of them grew up in. They instead seek the convenience, excitement and cultural benefits of an urban, typically car-free lifestyle.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Barrington Street. Critics of gentrification complain it imposes a bland corporate monoculture.

Barrington Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Critics of gentrification assert it imposes a bland corporate monoculture. Upscale bistros, Starbucks and day spas typically predominate.

Yet that comes at a heavy cost to low wage workers dependent on public transportation. Bay Area rents have risen most spectacularly near BART system commuter lines. Google, Genentech and other tech giants cater to thousands of new recruits by providing shuttles from the heart of San Francisco to the Silicon Valley, 40 miles away. The shuttles have become a focus of protests in recent years.

Housing rights activists complain that “affordable” housing incentives to developers are woefully inadequate. Applicants stand a one in ten chance of winning the city’s lottery for “affordable” condos or apartments. Worse, such units are still unaffordable for the middle and working classes. “Affordable” housing mostly caters to upwardly-mobile, entry level tech workers earning near $70,000 per year.

Developers comply with the program to fast-track the building of more luxury units. Not surprisingly, the city’s mostly working class black population has declined by over 44%, the most of any US city. “A lot of people can relate to feeling like an outcast in their city,” laments Jimmy Fails, co-creator of the film Last Black Man Standing in San Francisco.

(An urban studies professor discusses gentrification in Jersey City, New Jersey.)


Gentrification in Berlin.

Gentrification in Berlin.

The gentrification trend encompasses most North American cities, but doesn’t stop there. From Seoul to Melbourne, Barcelona to Berlin, gentrification is impacting cities across the globe. “I would say that all of the evidence points to the fact that poorer people are having to move out of inner London boroughs due to housing costs,” Dr Alaisdair Rae, an expert on urban deprivation at the University of Sheffield, commented. As middle class families displace traditionally working class residents, protests have erupted in areas such as Brixton, Camden and Brick Lane.

Housing and Planning minister Brandon Lewis issued an official statement in 2015: “We are ensuring that every part of Britain benefits from a growing economy,” and added: “Our affordable housebuilding efforts have exceeded ambitions and delivered more than 260,000 affordable homes.” Yet, as in San Francisco, many point to the ongoing flight of London’s working classes as proof that “affordable” housing really isn’t affordable.

(Working class residents protest gentrification in London. Meanwhile, foreign investors and the those interested in vacation homes displace them.)

And, while rents skyrocket, the government is shutting down perfectly habitable council residences to make way for luxury highrises. Meanwhile, stringent restrictions are placed on struggling renters seeking council housing. It was intended during the pre-Margaret Thatcher era as decent, truly affordable housing for those of modest means. Only eight percent of Britons live in council residences today, down from 42 percent in 1979.

Haggerston Estates, social housing complex, London. It was recently demolished for private redevelopment.

Haggerston Estates, social housing complex, London. It was recently demolished for private redevelopment.

Pat Freeman, 55, recounts when her family moved into the Quaker Court residence near the City of London, teeming with young families, mostly long-term residents. “You practically knew every kid that was here, and you always had someone to play with,” she says. “The parents got on brilliantly as well. If one of you was having a party, the whole lot of you would go. Do you know what I mean?”

A hostel at E15 Stratford evicted Jasmin Stone into homelessness when her child was a mere 13 months old. Having grown up in Newham, she met with the London borough’s Labour mayor, Sir Robin Wales. He told her and the 210 other young women similarly evicted, “if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham,” she recounts in disgust. The hostel was torn down to make way for luxury flats.

(A 30 minute documentary on gentrification in London.)

The City of London.

High rises, The City of London. (Canary Wharf, background.)

Stone ridicules the idea of “affordable” housing that costs up to 80 percent of the superheated market rate. Instead of accepting public housing offered to her hundreds of miles away in Birmingham or Manchester, she squatted in a boarded up council residence near the Olympic Park. Stone explains how the government has been using “every trick in the book to get rid of the few remaining residents” there, including falsely claiming asbestos contamination. The goal is to clear the land for developers to build even more luxury housing.

She decided to form the Focus E15 Mothers campaign for decent, local social housing for all who need it. “The boarded-up house we have opened is in beautiful condition. It has running water, a power shower, working gas and electricity. Just by adding a sofa, table and chairs and some plants, we have turned this house into a home, and solved the housing crisis for one of the 6,500 rough sleepers or thousands of other homeless people in London.”

Stone points to 2,000 more residences in similar condition in her complex alone, not to mention far more scattered throughout London. “But the council leaves them to rot and deteriorate through weather damage, so they are in a bad enough way for the council to say they are in an unlivable condition.”


(Is gentrification without the negatives possible? A case study in Columbus, Ohio.)

The Broadway Market Occupation, 2006. Banners protest gentrification. Hackney, London.

The Broadway Market Occupation, 2006. Banners protest gentrification. Hackney, London.

So what can we do? Market urbanists make a valid point that zoning regulations are a tool of the wealthy. They have the clout in city government to shunt unwanted development off into poorer areas with less backroom pull in circles of power. Easing the governmental fetters of zoning and other regulation will allow developers to supply market demand and stabilize housing costs.

All well and good, but how long will that take? And how can that be easily accomplished when city governments actively encourage growth through tax breaks and other incentives to corporations, despite the social costs and lack of adequate infrastructure?

What can be done right now to prevent displacement and preserve the character, history and community bonds of neighborhoods? And to enable people of modest means to live near their jobs and established social networks? City tax coffers overflow with fees, property and sales tax revenues by encouraging luxury development. Shouldn’t residents demand that cities apply more of that tax largesse to subsidize those adversely impacted by gentrification, instead of just showering services on affluent newcomers?

Is rent control a solution? It hasn’t worked in either San Francisco or New York City. Manhattan is the fourth most gentrified market in the US, with Brooklyn not far behind.

(A millennial discusses how gentrification has impacted her home in Olympia, Washington. She worries about her college debt and the real possibility of homelessness. Can creating sustainable housing communities function as a safety net?)

Located adjacent to downtown San Francisco, the Tenderloin District is an island of affordability in a sea of gentrification. This is mostly due to a high percentage of single room occupancy hotels (SRO). San Francisco law prevents their destruction. Of course, the neighborhood is drug and crime ridden, and the accommodations are typically substandard.

Tenderloin Historic District, San Francisco. Arlington Hotel.

Tenderloin Historic District, San Francisco. Arlington Hotel.

Yet, like the far more successful council residences of Britain, the SROs of the Tenderloin District still prove that stopping gentrification is difficult, but not impossible. That demands educating ourselves, banding together, not accepting politicians’ excuses, and demanding our tax dollars are spent in the interests of our communities – not showered upon those of big-money lobbyists. Cities have traditionally provided space for a mix of all economic classes and, in the US and many other nations, diverse races and ethnicities as well.

Gentrification is about crony capitalism and government corruption, not the “free market.” No more. Not on our dime. It’s long past time to stand up and just say no.

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  1. Lin Jenkinson

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