The harms of gentrification

The harms of gentrification | Aeon
Districts like the largely Latino Mission District in San Francisco have experienced the effects of gentrification with fast-rising housing costs and the eviction of longtime tenants. 9 May 2015. Photo by Preston Gannaway/New York Times

The exclusion of poorer people from their own neighbourhoods is not just a social problem but a philosophical one

Daniel Putnam is a Furman Scholar at the School of Law at New York University.

Edited by Sam Dresser

In the Mission District in San Francisco, there’s a popular soccer field nestled between elegant Victorian homes and neighbourhood taquerías. Over the years, an informal system for using the field developed among locals. If there wasn’t enough space for everyone, some played while others watched from the sidelines. Once one team scored, the losing team would trade places with those who’d been on the sidelines. Sooner or later, everyone got a chance to play.

On 18 August 2014, a group of young people from the neighbourhood were playing soccer at Mission Playground when some adults, mostly employees of Dropbox and Airbnb, asked them to forfeit the field. When the kids offered to share it instead, they were rebuffed. Unbeknown to them, the San Francisco City Council had implemented a permit process whereby use of the field was sold for $27 per hour during choice times. The tech employees had a permit; the young people didn’t. Things got tense. One of the youths asked one of the employees how long he’d lived in the Mission. ‘Who cares about the neighbourhood?’ came the reply. Another of the adults waved the permit in front of the kids. The entire episode was captured on video, which promptly went viral. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of long-time residents from the Mission assembled in front of City Hall to protest the permit process. Bowing to public pressure, the city council discontinued it, and the on-and-off system for using the field resumed.

In the years leading up to this episode, the Mission District had become ground zero for the tech-fuelled gentrification of San Francisco. Historically a working-class, majority-Latino neighbourhood, the Mission saw a 60 per cent increase in market-rate residential rents between 2004 and 2013. As a result, many long-time residents were displaced, and the overall share of the Latino population declined by 25 per cent. What happened at Mission Playground was experienced by many neighbourhood residents as a moral synecdoche of gentrification. As Edwin Lindo, formerly vice president of external affairs of the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club, put it: ‘This is a literal interpretation of what is happening in our community – someone coming with a paper saying you need to leave.’

Gentrification is one of the most pressing – and polarising – issues confronting cities today. In popular discussions, defenders of gentrification tend to paint it as an influx of badly needed capital into blighted urban areas. They point to increased commercial activity and tax revenue, new wealth flowing to low-income homeowners, decreased crime and improved public services as evidence of the fact that gentrification is, on balance, a good thing. Critics view gentrification as a quasi-colonial invasion of the privileged into economically vulnerable communities. They point to the displacement of long-time residents, the overpolicing of public spaces, and the homogenisation of the commercial environment as evidence of the fact that gentrification is, on balance, a bad thing.

To some extent, the two camps disagree about the empirical facts, particularly the extent to which gentrification actually produces residential displacement. But their deepest disagreements concern political morality: the ends we ought to be pursuing as a political community. It is at the level of value disagreement that political philosophy can make a distinctive contribution to the debate on gentrification.

Gentrification is a fruitful topic of study for economists, sociologists, political scientists and historians, among others. It’s less clear where philosophy fits in. A great deal of work in philosophy is difficult to connect to gentrification simply because it exists at such a high level of idealisation and abstraction. However, recent work in political philosophy points the way towards a more practical orientation. In particular, philosophers such as Elizabeth Anderson, Amartya Sen and others have argued that philosophy can play the role of diagnosing injustice. It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the metaphor….


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