Thursday, June 14, 2007
Confessions of a DC Gentrifier
When I bought the place I live in right now, I considered many things: what was best financially and emotionally for me and my wife and any future children. Being close to work and metro was a priority so I wouldn’t have to spend very much time commuting and thus spend more time with my family. I also took into consideration my core values: respect for the environment, my belief in the goodness of urban life, my appreciation of a diversity of cultures. City living is green living. We walk an awful lot, instead of taking our one car. Our place is small, and shares walls and floors and ceilings, meaning it uses less energy. We live in a pre-existing urban environment, meaning that no new open space is being destroyed, no new utilities are being installed, no new roads being built for my benefit. I considered all these things when choosing where to live.
But I never said to myself “oh, and as an added benefit, I can get rid of some poor people or minority people this way, too, by running up property values and taxes.” In fact, quite the opposite: I worried (and still worry) obsessively about my culpability for what happens to people who find themselves in a financial situation that forces them to move out of a neighborhood they’ve lived in for a long time.
When I bought my first house near RFK Stadium in 2002, I knew that a young black couple rented it, but had moved out months before I bought it. I didn’t force them out, did I? I still felt a twinge of guilt about it, though. The landlord decided to sell it, but I was never sure if he decided to sell because his tenants moved out, or his tenants moved out because he decided to sell. (After I bought it, I was shocked that anyone had lived there: the floors were rotted away, the windows didn’t open, there was no air conditioning, there were rats under and in the house, there was one bathroom with a leaking toilet, the floors were sloped because of broken joists caused by a sunken wall caused by fire damage that had never been adequately repaired.)
I don’t like the word “gentrification.” It’s an inexact jargon word meant to stir up class antagonism (the Gentry are moving in to oppress the peasants!). The word does little to describe the enormously complex reality of market forces, economics, poverty, racism, city planning, zoning, public policy, and private choices. The reality is so complicated that one word can’t even begin to describe it; instead, it clouds with emotion and anger and frustration any clear thought processes that would allow people to begin to come up with solutions.
Take my old neighborhood near RFK. Some old couples sold their houses for 20 or 30 times what they paid for them years before. Sometimes their children forced them to sell and put them in nursing homes. Sometimes owners sold the houses out from under their renters. And sometimes the renters bought them. Sometimes houses and apartment buildings that were vacant for years, even decades, were rehabilitated and sold or rented to the influx of middle class people. Sometimes rental buildings went condo, forcing out the renters who couldn’t afford to buy. Sometimes public housing projects were closed and the tenants relocated to other public housing, and the land redeveloped to include some affordable housing and some market rate housing. Sometimes the public housing was saved from the wrecking ball. Sometimes an old person died and the children sold the house for as much as they could get. And some people couldn’t afford the rising property taxes and sold for huge profits and moved out. Which of these instances is gentrification? Which isn’t?
I guess it comes down to two things: freedom of choice and the responsibility to help those less fortunate. Is being against gentrification to be against an old couple selling their house for an enormous profit? Is it to be against a person like me, who values diversity and the environment and urbanity, buying a home in a once-working class neighborhood?
Or is being against gentrification to be against the wholesale redevelopment of communities in the name of progress, like what happened in Southwest in the 1950s and ‘60s? Is it to be for government programs and private initiatives that help the poor have a safe place to live while they pull themselves out of poverty? I hope that’s what being against gentrification means.
One thing is certain: it sucks to be poor. Whether you get pushed around because you have no clout, like what Haussmann did in Paris, or you simply get priced out, like what is happening now in Washington, being poor makes you extremely vulnerable. I don’t have a solution. I suspect there isn’t just one mega-solution, but many, many small things that have to happen, and none of them are simple and none of them can be summed up in a slogan or by a "-tion" word. But I know that the right thing to do is strive to help poor people not be poor anymore, and not feel guilty about the decisions we make in the best interests of our families.