Blog #46 – The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal

The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal

Gentrification is an ethical problem. At the societal level, it is a problem of social justice.

At that level, some quite clear guidelines for an ethical approach can be developed. At the individual level, however, there may be more complicated answers, more dependent on individual circumstances

 The following discussion takes it that the undesirable consequences of the displacement caused by gentrification are by now well established, [1] and the issue is how to address such displacement to obtain a more social and ethically just result. A number of approaches are the first section. The second section deals, less satisfactorily, with the issue of individual ethics, with only one firm conclusion.

The Transformative Ethical Societal Measures:

 The general principles should be clear by now:


I) Where there are vacancies, provide for some limited middle income in-movers into workng class neighborhoods, in numbers and under conditions acceptable to existing residents, conditions established through democratic controls. Those numbers and conditions should include measures to prevent speculation in increased housing values both by limited equity and income controlled occupancy, as with community land trusts or mutual housing associations, or by local BID-like residential stabilization district tax and planning programs. In New York City empowering existing but democratically selected community boards in threatened districts to determine the limits of such development, as through effective more than advisory ULURP proceedings, would make a major difference. Encouraging rising incomes of existing residents through general economic policies and community economic development is a longer-time but more fundamental solution. .

 II) Require that all new construction be of mixed income housing, in sensitively planned developments with publicly established and legally controlled balanced price and occupancy limits, as part of a broad program for adequate housing supply across incomes.

 III) Strictly limit the ability of upper-income households to make or keep neighborhoods exclusionary. Prohibit such actions by development controls on occupancy through zoning, confiscatory taxation of speculative real estate land transaction and profits therefrom, rent controls throughout the system, high progressive property value taxes with revenues partly dedicated to subsidizing the provision of housing under 1) and 2)

IV ) Reexamine and adapt all existing governmental programs and controls, at local, state, and national levels, to take into account these principles[2]

 And one could list the specific guidelines that would go in the right direction:

 1. First principle. No Displacement. Period. No evictions. No one moves unless they agree they’re better off after, and want to.
2. Any replacement housing must protect social ties.
3. Where displacement is not an issue, including economic displacement, etc., the first priority is looking at area needs of all  those potential in-movers in need of housing, and providing for them first, based on need, not on income.
4. For any action whatsoever, community control is key, and not for every community, but for those serving residents based on need — i.e. limited community control where it’s a high income exclusionary community, according to general principles for community goals, outlawing exclusion.
5. Heavy anti-speculation taxes, virtually eliminating profit for increases land values.
6. Widespread use of alternate tenure forms taking housing out of the market, e.g. community land trusts, mutual housing associations, public land banks, public financing and resales controls.
7. Extensive public or community investment in shared facilities: kitchens, libraries, recreation and sorts, education, security, all under community control (but #4).
8. Willingness to use militant tactics and strategies to achieve just ends.           9. More research, not simply descriptive of extent of gentrification and its causes, but also on what has or could work to deal with displacement. on what has worked.
10. Public education advancing critical understanding, demolishing established ideological shibboleths such as balance as a goal in the allocation of public resources (high-income folks’ needs don’t deserve “balancing” against low-income folks needs).

 Such answers are not likely to be easily or fully implemented in any private market economy in the near future. But the effort to adopt them can be transformative. Efforts to implement them can help move the decision-making as to residential patterns from the market, which reflects the inequalities and injustices of the capitalist system, to the public sector, where the terrain for decision-making is substantially more democratic (even if with severe limits) than in the market.

 The Individual Ethical Measures:

 “Gentrifier? Who, Me?” is the aptly named sensitive recent article by John Joe Schlichtman And Jason Patch,[3] and poses the individual ethical question clearly. If displacement from gentrification is wrong – the issue of social ethics – then are gentrifiers who displace ethically wrong in the individual actions in moving in where they’re not wanted? But gentrifiers are people too, with their own needs and facing their own constraints. Studies from the very beginning have shown that they are often people just like those that study them and what they do – just like us. Damaris Rose found that to be true at the very beginning of research on the subject. So did Neil Smith, writing on gentrifiers as pioneers. And so did Lance Freeman, implicitly. But what makes these decent people displace other people with lower incomes in a worse position to find decent housing than they? Not their moral turpitude, but, at least, in many cases, their lack of available alternatives affordable to them.

 If the world of residential real estate most gentrifiers would look at is divided among working class/lower income neighborhoods, middle income largely suburban neighborhoods, and rich exclusionary neighborhoods, and if decent gentrifiers like us don’t want to live in suburbs for a variety of good reasons, where can they go? Either up or down. They can’t go up to pricey neighborhoods, often gated, racially exclusive. Expand their own neighborhoods? They are too limited, and either subject to too strong upward price pressures from upscale conversion, or too run down physically, to provide long-term answers.. So: move down, price-wise, to working class neighborhoods in tolerable condition and still marginally reasonably priced, displacing those already there, whose housing needs are even more constricted than theirs? A set of Hobson’s choices, for socially concerned gentrifiers.

 Schlichtman and Patch point out that some young urban researchers are reluctant to engage with questions of gentrification out of embarrassment that they are themselves gentrifiers, and thus in no position to criticize gentrification while at the same time takng advantage of it. . It is an honorable dilemma. A young researcher able to pay more for a given apartment than another with a slightly lower income may find that other justly aggrieved, but his or her refusal therefore to bid on the apartment will not help produce a more just distribution of apartments – unless it is part of a social action, e.g. for boycotting a landlord, or adopting rent controls, or endorsing or opposing a given zoning change. . Individual young researchers live in a market economy, and should conscientiously examine how their individual decisions as to where to live can best contribute to a socially just distribution of apartments, what alternatives they have, at what cost. If university-controlled space available only to university affiliates is available to them, and reasonably equivalent to gentrifying space, they should take the university unit. But they may well find that the contribution they make by refusing to contribute to gentrification by their choice of an apartment is less than the contribution they can make to limiting gentrification by their political activity, their solidarity with neighborhood movements to limit gentrification, the use they make of their research skills, including their findings from their own personal experience.

 The ethical obligation of young researchers studying gentrification does impose  other ethical obligations on them that indeed require careful attention, and whose pursuit will contribute more to curing the ills of gentrification than their choice of where to live. That is the obligation to draw conclusions from their own research, and as they learn more of the injustice that gentrification causes, to become actively engaged in the fight against it, to use their research skills to spread recognition of those injustices, to help formulate and implement the kinds of measures suggested under Transformative Ethical Societal Measures above. That’s the hard-core ethical course confronting them.

Peter Marcuse

 [1] Serious scholarly consideration largely took off from Fried, Marc. 1963. “Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological costs of Relocation,” in Leonard J. Duhl, The Urban Condition: People and Policy in the Metropolis, New York: Basic Books, Chapter 12, pp. 151‑171; recent empirical work is well rerpesented by Fullilove, Mindy Thompson, M.D. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.. One World/Ballantine Books, June 2004, and the work collected in The Gentrification Reader eds. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvyn Wyle, Routledge, Milton Park, UK, 2010.

[2] For discussion of some possibilities at the local level in New York City, see Marcuse, P. (1985b) ‘To control gentrification: anti-displacement zoning and planning for stable residential districts’, Review of Law and Social Chang, 13, pp.931-945.

[3] Schlichtman, J. J. and Patch, J. (2013),” Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome.

8 thoughts on “Blog #46 – The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal”

  1. “Where there are vacancies, provide for some limited middle income in-movers into workng class neighborhoods, in numbers and under conditions acceptable to existing residents, conditions established through democratic controls.” Peter Marcuse

    This proposal is instructive for HDFC cooperatives that presently selling units to above-median residents but place no limits on the number of sales in these buildings. HPD says it had hoped that Boards of Directors would use the opportunity to bring in a small number of above median residents which would allow them to use the money from the sales to make capital improvements and create much needed reserves. But of course, Americans are not socialist, even working class Americans, so there no limit to the number of above-median residents and no sooner than later there is a contest of power in which in almost every instance the the new shareholders seize control over the corporation and usually with the help the very department, HPD hat created the opportunity for them to buy into these cooperative, but not without good reason: most HDFCs have literally no semblance of corporate governance. These business are essentially an extension of the boards of directors household economies.

    1. There are ways around that. Provide in the B-Laws that residents can only sell to buyers who agree only to resell to lower income buyers and recoup profits over a certain level on any resident’s sale over a certain limit, or limit number of such sales, or…

      But indeed interests will conflict.

      Thanks for our comment.

      Peter Marcuse

  2. > First principle. No Displacement. Period. No evictions.

    but what about people who are bothering their neighbors? can they be evicted?

    and how would “no evictions” help people who are living in substandard or unsafe housing? will they have an equivalent right to *move into* better housing, as much as people already in better housing have a right not to be evicted from it?

    1. That there should be no evictions because of gentrification doesn’t mean there can’t be evictions for (limited) other reasons. The law already covers that,under the doctrines of nuisance (for disturbing neighbors), waste (for damaging the place), etc. And anti-eviction isn’t enough to solve the housing problem; indeed, we also need public and not-for-profit and subsidized social housing…

      Peter Marcuse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s