Blog #97 – After Exposing the Roots of Homelessness – What?,


Perhaps Trummp understands the logic of this also, and that explains why he so staunchly opposes dealing seriously with and really funding any serious social programs in his budget – if you start helping one set of “losers,” you’re going to have to start helping all of them, and what woould that imply…



Blog #80 – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning: the Good and the Bad

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing: MIH, the Good and the Bad

MIH is an approach to ameliorating housing problems, and it lays an important role in city planning and zoning. It generally permits denser and higher new private development in areas zoned for it, but it requires  developers to set aside a given percentage of the new units for housing affordable  by families of lower income, essentially paid for by the profits of the new market rate housing also allowed. It combines zoning and planning policy with housing policy; both aspects need to be considered in any careful evaluation.

The housing part: A housing system that does not provide adequate decent safe and sanitary housing for all citizens is wrong. It hurts the most vulnerable sections of our society; it is the exact opposite of what Rawls calls the second principle of Justice:[1] it discriminates against those already the least advantaged, those already suffering from hardships in employment, in education, in health care, in finance. And it inevitably overlaps with discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds.

The fact that the effect of discrimination is produced by the market is no excuse for allowing it.[2] Wealth is unequally divided in our society; there is no conceivable moral justification for some acquiring billions and others being homeless; we are rich enough to house everyone, in decent, safe, and sanitary units. Allowing billionaires to play a wildly disproportionate role in politics, and thus in government, in the social decisions that we make through government, permitting them to act in their own self-interest rather than letting government act on behalf of all of us and be guided by a decision-making process that is fully informed and democratic, makes the injustice of a profit-based market housing system even worse.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning can be an effective tool to deal with the injustices of such  a purely market-driven system of producing and allocating housing. I would commend the mayor and HPD for pursing it, and making it an important component of an overall approach to the problem of housing.

But MIH fails if it is distorted to serve as an excuse for segregation and functions by enabling displacement under cover of serving social justice. That’s not a criticism of MIH as such; it’s a criticism of it us without considering it role in the wider task of community–based planning and development. MIH plays this perverse role in two ways:

  1. Who is included in the inclusionary part? If it is a program that makes sure that those earning a million a year are include in every enclave of billionaires, that could be called “inclusionary” too, but not what this is intended to be about by its advocates, and I believe not what the Mayor or HPD intend either. The abstract debate about whether those targeted for inclusion are those at 30% of AMI, or 20%, or 10%, is not quibbling about numbers, it is of the heart of the matter. It calls for thoughtfulness, for a recognition of political realities, for some careful analysis of needs and resources, but it seems clear to me that, given where we are, the lower the income groups served and the higher the proportions required to be included, the better. The perfect may be pragmatically the enemy of the good in political negotiations, but the direction of good public policy must be to move as close to the perfect answer as we can get.
  1. Where and how MIH is used is the second major issue in the program — in addition to the issue of numeric income limits and proportions – and the two are linked. It is a program intended by is advocates to act against discrimination , to help those excluded from decent housing because of their incomes and their jobs, or the lack of jobs, or by their  race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or religions, from a decent housing in a decent environment, those discriminated against by the functioning of the housing market enforced throughout by government, through its courts and judicial system, its environmental regulations and their presence and absence, through  public investments or disinvestment in physical infrastructure  and social  MIH can promote segregation as well  as integration. The devil knows that too.

Segregation is a form of discrimination. It restricts opportunities, inhibits broad diversity and its benefits, defines the opportunities it provides for community solidarity negatively, by indicating what cannot be done, by whom, with whom, rather than enabling a broad social concept of community as embracing the broad range of the society. MIH, if it is not undertaken in a community -sensitive and spatially-planned way, opens the door to the G word, Gentrification. Gentrification, over-simplified, is the displacement of poorer households by better -off ones, worsening the housing of those at the bottom for those closer to the top. The unregulated market will allow  those with the wealth and political resources to take over desirable locations in our cities that have been historically occupied by working class and poor families and turn them into higher income enclaves from which the or  have been expelled. If a MIH proposal is part of a zoning scheme in which gentrification is rationalized by requiring a smattering of those in need of housing to benefit from the displacement of many of their brethren and sisters, it produces that kind of segregation. Rezoning a particular area to allow more housing to be built in such fashion that the net proportion of higher income households is significantly increased in the community displaces families both on the parcels on which it is built and those priced out of the community by the impact of increased land values resulting from the new construction for the richer will further, not reduce, segregation as the net result.

And MIH will have a natural tendency to produce that result if it is not carefully structured to avoid it. The income levels fixed, the proportions allowed, the resulting net totals, the neighborhood effects, the social guidance of the market setting of rents and, the planning social facilities and social investments, re all involved here. The impacts of specific provisions will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, from community to community, and should be undertaken with the greatest of care and the maximum of community input and decision-making – Rawls’ goals of social justice must be kept  in mind.[1] Diversity, for instance , has specific benefits in itself , in permitting mixing, mutual enrichment, solidarity and mutual support ; but diversifying public housing by introducing higher income household at the expense of those intended to be serve by it, with the result of benefiting higher over low-income families, is not  a just objective of public policy . Likewise with the allocation of public subsidies, using housing vouchers, etc., to facilitate inclusionary occupancy only when it is to the ultimate benefit of its developers and those in less need, is unjust.

MIH may be put forward as a painless no-displacement approach to rezoning empty or grossly technically underutilized land. But again it may be helping solve a housing problem at the cost of increasing segregation and in determining desired zoning and planning goals. The issue is not direct displacement, but secondary displacement: preventing families from moving into an area where they might otherwise find affordable housing and integrated housing by an upzoning that increases housing, specifically land, prices beyond their reach. That process is called secondary displacement, and advances segregation as much, if less visibly than, direct displacement.  Using MIH as part of an upzoning is better than having the upzoning without the MIH, but that’s hardly the only alternative. Good planning would evaluate a range of possibilities. One very promising approach, for instance, is the use of community land trusts or mutual housing associations as owners or decision-making entities of development, making the process of planning and implementation really democratic down to the neighborhood level. Further, the alternatives for any major proposal should be considered in the context of planning for the future of the city as a whole, where future commercial development might best be concentrated — or dispersed – whether the plan promotes or helps overcome the sharp divisions of the city with its internal boundaries of race, income, ethnicity, social status, gender.

In summary: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, in the context of community-based planning, strengthening inclusionary communities democratically designed by and for those that government justly should serve, has great potential. But it must be carefully designed, both in its own details, incomes to be served, proportions to be reached, and in its broader context, the communities to be served, the planning into which it must be integrated. Depending on its design, it can go badly awry, or be a real instrument for progress in the social good.


The big picture:

In the best case scenario, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing can be a way of redistributing the benefits of the city’s growth  and sky-rocketing land values, which the city as a whole has created, not the individual land owners benefiting from it, , and letting the city’s people and their communities capture some of that increase in value. It does so in a way clearly meeting the very definition of justice, helping those least advantaged and reducing the advantages of their richer cousins.  Communities, and particularly those most need, can capture some of that socially created increases in land values through MIH. It redistributes from the more fully advantaged to the less advantaged, the very definition of justice. In less advantaged communities, MIH can make sure, given adequate, meaningful community control, that benefits and costs are fairly distributed. In more advantages communities. Think how different today’s suburbs or exclusionary enclaves would look if mandatory inclusionary zoning had been in effect when they were developed!


In the worst case scenario , mandatory inclusionary housing  can be a way of enriching developers and land owners by opening new opportunities for profit for them by building  market rate high rise highly profitable developments in upzoned “undervalued” neighborhoods, at the expense of displacement of families in need of housing , what’s called gentrification. Displacement follows, not only on the site of the new development, but secondary displacement also follows, where land in the newly developed parcels increases development prices in the surrounding neighborhood, putting some of it also out of reach both of its existing residents and of those under normal circumstances likely to move in but unable to at the new higher prices.  And the masters of the new developments can get away with it politically by raising the image of dong good through provision of a limited number of housing units to poorer people, some of whom might actually b those they themselves just displace,. or who might be useful for the rich to have nearby as nannies and cooks and chauffeurs and butlers. In both cases, there is a danger that, at the scale of the city, segregation may increase and, for lack of a comprehensive city-wide planning approach, the desired balance among uses, residential, commercial, manufacturing, public facilities, will be lost.

Even seemingly technical issues, like what % of Area Median Income defines households in need of “affordable“ housing, or what proportion on MIH units in a given development should  be market rate and what affordable, or seemingly procedural planning issues such as the strength of city-wide comprehensive planning and its relationship to community-based plans, and in what communities with what standards, can make the difference between the best case and the  worst case scenarios .



[1] that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged

[2] In fair housing law, it is not only acts of intentional discrimination that are banned, but also those having the adverse effect of discrimination.

From the Just City to the Ideal City: Theory and Practice – Blog #73


[This is the text prepared for the concluding plenary session of  the conference: “The Ideal City: Myth and Reality” of RC21 of the International Sociological Association in Urbano, Italy, in August 2015.  Please take as a draft.]

The name of the conference is The Ideal City, and our concluding panel asks, Is the Ideal City a Just City?

That raises two questions:

  1. What actually is the ideal city to begin with, and is it the same as the Just City, or how different?.
  2. And what is the purpose of talking about it? Why are we all here, anyway?

On the first, What is the Ideal city, and is it just a Just City?

The Ideal City should certainly be a just city but I don’t think that is enough. I think achieving justice is a step on the road to the Ideal City, but not the ultimate destination of that road. Justice is essentially a distributive concept, one that calls for the distribution of goods and services according to principles of justice, however justice is defined: as fairness, as equitable, as serving a;; its residents all its resident equally. Justice means, , in the expanded version that I think you , Susan, use it, also means a just distribution of power. So the call for a Just City is a call for a fair redistribution of power, and that is a necessity for any further change in the direction of what we might consider the ideal city. The call for the Just city is necessarily a critique of the city as it now exists, a confession – or an accusation – tha it is unjust, and needs o be changed. But to what? Is a fair distribution of goods and services really all we want of urban life? Or do we also want a city that expands the capabilities of its residents, that promotes their development, which encourages peaceful and supportive interactions among them, which handles the processes of production as well as of distribution and makes work a desirable and fulfilling part of life? Might not the definition of the ideal City be something like a caring city, a city of solidarity, a city of peace and of beauty?

So one advantage of the Just City concept is that it calls attention to the injustice of the existing city, and proposes a redistribution of power that would improve the situation. Implicitly it raises the question of whether the ideal city requires not just an improvement of the conditions of life of the poor, but also a reduction in the hierarchically-gained advantages of the rich. Perhaps unjustly to the rich? Do we really want a city that is just to all, the perps as well as the victims of the existing system?

But – and this is my second question – how can power be redistributed without struggle , and in that struggle, what role does the idea of an Ideal City, or of a Just City, or of a Caring City, play? Indeed, what role do ideas play in struggles for power anyway? I assume that all of us here would acknowledge the desirability of justice, caring, equity, beauty, in cities, and feel some obligation to bring such a city closer to realization. We haven’t come all this way to Urbino (although it a pleasure indeed to be here, and worth coming just for that sake), but we want to do something more, I think, than solve the problem of imagining the Ideal City as if it were a problem like a crossword puzzle or an exercise in logic.

But we also know that ideas are usually weak weapons in struggles over the distribution of goods and services, and certainly in struggles over the distribution of power. Will developing the idea, or even the image, of the ideal city help in that struggle , will it excite urbanites to action, perhaps to revolt, and produce serious change? Are we here simply to enjoy each other’s company, play with ideas, get t meeting different people worth knowing, to publish something we hone here, perhaps, and then go home satisfied that we have done what a good citizen morally ought to be doing? Or is it even possible that developing the Ideal City, as something necessarily remote, hard even to imagine, hardly realistically possible in the real world, is a chimera, and may get in the way of really accomplishing something tangible, something that on the ground will make a difference, something that will produce nothing but papers at conferences and the smiles on the faces of the holders of those who, unlike we academics and thinkers, have the real power?

So the two questions:

  1. Beyond Justice, what do we really want an Ideal City to be? Do we just want a Just City?


  1. If we want Justice and even more, how does developing the idea of the Just City and beyond it the Ideal City, help in the struggle to actualize what we have talked about; how, if at all, does it help in the struggles for a better world, of which it must be a part?

I think the answer might lie hidden right in front of us, in an imaginary conversation between David Harvey, Susan Fainstein, and Herbert Marcuse, which I would be happy to conduct. It would be based entirely on passages from recently published works, starting with Susan Fainstein’s Introduction to Just City:

Harvey (as quoted in her intro to the Just City, p. 6: [Susan, your] conception of the Just City falters. From the start, it delimits its scope to acting within the existing capitalist régime of rights and freedoms and is thus constrained to mitigating the worst outcomes at the margins of an unjust system. [1]

Fainstein: (from Intro, p. 6): This critique is accurate in accusing me of accepting that urban policy making will continue within the “capitalist régime of rights and freedoms,”[but] my analysis is limited to what appears feasible within the present context of capitalist urbanization in wealthy, formally democratic, Western countries.

To which I would reply: But Susan, why limit your analysis this way. If you were to always start with what is feasible , but then extend it to a more theoretical discussion of what further would be necessary to bring about the ideal, to move from your feasible just City to the even more desirable but less immediately feasible Ideal City, would you not convert immediate demands into transformative demands, using each one of your recommendations both to achieve immediate improvements but also show the way to what more is necessary, what the next steps would be to transform what is feasible to day to hat is necessary the day after.

To which my father would add (In recently published lectures a Vincennes outside Paris in 1976.): and that is exactly the role of theory is in the Marxist dialectic .Theory is part of practice, not independent of it, not wishful thinking about it, but based on practice theory is avant-guard, educating and leading, showing the alternative lying underneath the immediately visible and feasible.

His discussion came about in response to the slogan of the militant students of Paris, who took to the streets in May 1968 in protest against what David Harvey has summarized as the discontent with capitalism –perhaps the last time in recent memory that there was actually thought of a radical seven revolutionary success in the struggle against capitalism and for socialism, and heir slogan, on picket signs carried through the streets of Paris blocking traffic and causing disruption generally, was : ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION.” The meant specifically, the imagination of what a better world might be like, what today we mean, I hope, when we talk, in somewhat more subdued tones, of the Ideal City.

So I would conclude, in memory of those students but in today’s world, but with a raised fist:




[1] (Harvey with Potter 2009, 46)


Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions

Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions

This Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions, then proposes some immediate remedies, and then some principles for real solutions.


Turning to remedies and solutions, one way of looking at the reasons to be restrained in celebrating the Court’s decision and the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation is to ask the question:

“If the Federal government itself were obligated by law to do everything within its legal power to affirmatively further fair housing, what would it be doing?”

There are some immediately available and known policies that could be of substantial help.

They are immediately practicable ideas that might be politically viable even today.

They include, just for instance:

  1. closing the loopholes in the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation,
  2. requiring a fair housing impact statement analogous to an environmental impact statement for all actions affecting housing provision;
  3. a housing speculation provision in the income tax law denying capital gains treatment or imposing progressively steeper taxes on profits from speculation in land ;
  4. expansion of public housing, housing directly and permanently owned by government, with increased roles for tenant participation in management;
  5. a federal housing trust fund, available to provide subsidies for location actions necessary to prepare and implement fair housing plans;
  6. legislative endorsement of the various Declarations of Rights of the UN;
  7. model local legislation on building codes, affordability, zoning, tax policies, eviction policies, comprehensive planning;
  8. Specific financial and technical support for the preparation of comprehensive local master plans covering land use and the key sectors of public engagement,[1]

[1] The new AFFH Regulations already contain provisions for such assistance, but are focused on data provision and analysis, not a comprehensive planning process.

But these are remedies; they operate in a situation in which discrimination in housing is recognized as part of the existing landscape. To be effective, however, such actions need to be based on a recognition of the causes of that situation, and incorporate specific substantive prnciples so that they do not become simply empty paper-work bureaucratic requirements. The next Blog, E. suggests what such further action, looking to solutions rather than just remedies, might look like.

To be effective, however, such actions need to be based on specific substantive principles so that they do not become simply empty paper-work bureaucratic requirements.

At least ten concrete principles could address the six weaknesses of the present court decision and governmental regulations:

  1. Close the loopholes in the law and the regulations and the Supreme Court decision that leave open to undesired interpretation terms such as “adverse,” “disproportionate ,” “legitimate purpose,” “reasonable alternative,” “racial” and “ethnic,” etc. Perhaps a blanket provision stating the constitutional priority to be given to the goal of eliminating discrimination in housing might suffice.
  2. Recognize the unjust and discriminatory way in which the housing system as a whole now operates, face up to the limitations of the private market as the mechanism for determining land uses and more broadly the direction of urban development, as matters of fundamental public policy., limiting the perks of private property[2] standing in the way of the development of alternatives.

Apply the standard used in defining fair housing, and the consequent affirmative obligations of government, to the other major policy areas involved in urban life, acting in recognition of the intersectionality of housing, education, environmental quality, accessibility, aesthetics, economic development, health care, security, the administration of justice, campaign financing, electoral procedures, essentially all sectors that ought to be under public control in a democracy.

Plan comprehensively, re-examining and expanding on the tradition of master planning and the experience in making such planning participatory and democratic. Intersectionality might suggest separate “sections” interacting; the reality is that each “section” is from the beginning entwined with all others from the beginning, and they should be planned jointly, not separately.

Provide the funds to implement fair housing goals. If the major problem creating unfair housing is the inequality of wealth and income, we have the power at least to ameliorate its consequences by redistributing some of that wealth and income, and the tax code is can be a major way to do that. By taxing at the top, with a steeply progressive tax system perhaps in this case focusing on income and wealth created within the housing system and redistributing the proceeds, perhaps through a targeted federal Low Income Housing Trust, adequately funding programs such as public housing which permanently take housing out of the profit -driven housing market, could go vastly further than it has – perhaps from 3% of all housing to 30-70%, in spirit from the 1% to the 99%.

Use the tax code to attack directly the maldistribution within the housing sector at its source by confiscatory taxation of speculative profit in the buying and selling of land and interests in land, monopoly profits from the ownership and management of housing, steeply progressive real property taxation of megahomes and ultra-luxury apartments.

Power must be explicitly taken into consideration. Given the obvious pre-existing inequalities in wealth and political, only exacerbated by the Communities United decision, any remedy for local governmental action must deal with the relations of power of the various groups involved, and minorities will generally , in the large picture , be near the bottom of the totem pole. If the undiluted warm welcome given the new Regulation is to be earned, the actions of the Federal government under the provisions of the FHA must deal with the distribution of power. It must be clear that the Federal government is indeed interfering in local matters, is indeed imposing standards of conduct meeting national priorities and national values. Indeed local input is vital, and necessary for effective implementation, but Federal rules must govern. Choices among decisions not contradicting the intent of the Federal law should indeed be left as fully local as reasonably possible, but it is entirely consistent with the distribution of powers among branches of government in the Constitution that issue of national concern, such as the full implementation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, be in the hands of the Federal government.

Recognize and welcome as positive the dominant role of the Federal government in setting the guidelines   for how housing should be produced, financed, managed, located, and distributed, and enforce those guidelines aggressively. Local discretion (but not autonomy.) is desirable within the framework of national if not global principles, e.g. an enforceable Declaration of Human Rights in Housing.[3]

Spell out, in theory and as implementable guides to practice, what values are intended to be covered by the general concepts of “fair”. Concepts such as justice, democracy, equity, diversity, growth, and sustainability are clearly involved, but their meaning and applicability to action public actions needs to be publicly debated and become ever present considerations in public and private actions.[4]

  1. Require social justice impact statement of all public actions affecting housing and land use, learning from the environmental movement the possibilities of having such statements, as well as an awareness of their limitations with enforcement measures behind them

These nine actions could virtually constitute an agenda for future fair housing and civil rights activity.

Such actions are recognizably not on the immediate political agenda of any social movement, political party, or advocacy group. They sound very theoretical and very idealistic, whether that term is used pejoratively or literally.

But these are actually radical proposals, if their implications are thought through. They call into question fundamental assumptions and values taken for granted in capitalist society, such as the sacrosanct rights of private property, the importance of growth, especially measured in economic terms, as a priority for governmental action, the profit motive as the most effective vehicle for securing efficiency in production and service provision, , the desirability of the market as a mechanism for the allocation of housing or any of the necessities of civilized life, the meaning of equality in the satisfaction of needs.

In Andre Gorz’s phrase, there are reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. These are reformist reforms; the six concrete principles suggested before them tend towards non-reformist reforms. Even more radical reforms, such as public ownership of all land, income based on need, work based on ability, government based on direct democracy, while perhaps still theoretically attractive, are hardly imaginable in countries such as the United States today.

Making the transition from principles to practice, from reforms to non-reformist reforms , is a major challenge to those critical of the status quo, and goes beyond the discussion here. But one simple suggestion might be useful. The difference between the two is essentially that reform still leave much more to be done; no-reformist reforms are more comprehensive, seek to address the roots of our problems, not just the branches – although those branches are what immediately hurts, and must be addressed before the roots can be gotten at. Making this point, and make it continually and emphatically, is perhaps a way of opening a door to the consideration of more, of non-reformist reforms   whose need is made apparent by the limitations of the reformist.

Some reforms lend themselves to opening the door more than others:[5] a speculative property tax on land begs the question of why profit should be made on the sale of land to begin with, zoning issues implicitly raise the question of the priority of exchange over use values, social welfare programs lead to the question of what standard of living we after all want to have everyone be able to have. How far this can be done in any given situation is a question of strategy; its desirability seems to me apparent.


This Blog is part of a set of five:

[Blog #68 – Evaluation of Recent Developments, examined the reception the Court’s decision and the AFFHR have received and their respective roles in dealing with housing discrimination.

Blog #69 – Fair Housing: Limitations of Supreme Court decision and AFFHR, took up the limited scope of the AFFHR, the weaknesses in the Court’s decision and the problems of implementation for both.

Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination, opens an analysis of the current causes of discrimination, and the attribution of causes to both the legacy of slavery and to the present actors behind discrimination, and then the structural context in which they operate.

Blog #72 – Beyond Fair Housing: Some Elusive Principles for Societal Change, will raise some questions about elusive general principles for societal change.]


[1] The new AFFH Regulations already contain provisions for such assistance, but are focused on data provision and analysis, not a comprehensive planning process.

[2] Michel Sorkin’s striking phrase.

[3] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be the beginning of such a process. For a comprehensive survey, see: United Nations Housing rights legislation, Review of international and national legal instruments, publications in support of the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure No. 05. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Nairobi, 2002 available at

[4] Susan Fainstein’s The Just City and David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City are current major steps in this direction. See also Peter Marcuse, James Connolly, Johannes Novy, Ingrid Olivo, Cuz Potter, Justin Steil, eds. 2009. Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

[5] Nancy Fraser has termed such reforms “transformative,” and I have used that term also from time to time. Susan Fainstein, in the opening chapter to her The Just City, has an insightful general discussion of a similar approach.


Blog #63 – “Slums:” Nature, Causes, Research, Policy Implications.


Blog #63 – “Slums:” Nature, Causes, Research, Policy Implications.

Thoughts on Slums – a critical discussion.

If one defines slums simply as aggregations of inadequate housing – stripping the extensive other definitions and uses of the term to categorize variously their residents, the image of such areas in the poplar press and sometimes in more formal intellectual circles, a particular form of social co-habitation, a spatial cesspool of poor morals and criminal instincts [i] — they can be understood as the spatial reflection of an extreme of exploitation and neglect within a profit-driven capitalist economy, a generalized spatial aspect of the early relegation of working-class residences clustered and stuck behind the major streets and residential areas of the new industrial towns of England in the 19th century.

The logic is straight-forward. Businesses, employers, make profits by paying their workers as little as possible, and keeping for themselves as much as they can of the profits made from the sale of what their workers have produced, mixed with their own capital, itself the product of such labor. How high those profits are is of course in part determined by how much those workers get paid, and that will in turn depend in part on how much they need to survive. If their cost of housing goes up, it will increase their pressure for higher wages, at the cost of their employers’ profits. Hence employers have an interest in holding down the cost of housing for their workers, and having minimal housing, below socially desirable and economically feasible standards available for them, is an advantage. Thus the existence of minimal housing, inadequate but minimally livable, i.e. slums, serves the interest of employers.[ii]

But those slums have contradictory consequences. On the hand, for those not relegated to living in them, their function to house low-paid or unemployed workers is a useful one, benefiting businesses directly, arguable benefiting all indirectly – it’s “good for the economy, promotes businesses and their job creation.” On the other hand, it concentrates groups of individuals who have reason to be discontented, who may cause trouble, possibly collectively, possibly on the model of the working-class fauburgs of the 19th century in France which became hot-beds of proletarian agitation and organization, perhaps breeding crime, disease, immorality, as in the thinking and action of early housing reformers in Europe and the United States.[iii] The availability and expansion of such housing areas for the influx of rural residents new to the urban fold accentuated these dangers. And the closeness of such inadequate housing to the housing of more upstanding citizens caused direct pressure to limit their extent and wall them off from their surroundings. So slums were useful for those in power, but had drawbacks for social peace.

Further, such slums caused a specifically spatial problem, newly developing after the initial phase of industrialization. Early factories were located near the centers of towns and cities, where the newly needed large numbers of industrial workers could be housed with ready access to the jobs for which they were needed. Their betters could find housing a little further removed from them and the environmental impact of the industries at the center

But by the early 20th century many factories, growing in size, needed could use location at the fringe of towns, and new modes of transportation were developed that permitted longer journeys to work to be feasible at reasonable cost. The growing need for housing close to their work and business interests by for the rapidly growing number of owners, investors, engineers, lawyers, technical personnel of all sorts at the same time increased the desirability of locations near the centers of cities dramatically. Central cities grew as the location of cultural facilities, entertainment options, restaurants, and all the attributes that have come to be associated with urbanity. With this turn-about, the problem became how to remove the low-paid and unemployed from such desirable central areas?

The answer lay in a multiple set of approaches. [iv] On the one hand, slum clearance in its classic form, what at that time was known and legislated as urban redevelopment, which included simply physical clearance of the in-city areas occupied by “slums,” making those areas available for higher and better uses. That handled the spatial problem. But the social problem of displacement resulting from the displacement of the affected slum-residents needed a further approach, one that was met (in small part) by the provision of early public housing, in the United States in the constellation of New Deal programs dealing directly with the housing of low-paid and unemployed workers in the public sector and secondarily providing a floor under wages of employed workers enabling them to find other housing in the private market outside the newly desired central locations. Today, gentrification is perhaps a softer and slower way by which such desirable in-city locations are recaptured for the use of those better off, having the same effect as earlier slum clearance but with a less obvious direct involvement of the state, whose early clearance schemes had produced the radical implications and public expenses of those of New Deal social programs.

Another approach to dealing with the problems created by the slums was “slum upgrading ,” dealing with those problems where they existed, in situ. It seemed uncontroversial, where their location was not a spatial problem for their betters. Improving the quality of slum housing where it was would help assuage the discontent and unrest occasioned by its obvious disadvantages, reduce the dangers of crime and illness and epidemic that affected not only their residents but others nearby in contact with them. Those improvements could consist of largely of the results of efforts of the slum residents themselves,[v] perhaps supplesmented by not too expensive infrastructure provision, sewage, electric lines, street paving, electrification, and such like. Such improvements did, however, involve government expenditures, expenditures that depended on the state and had to be finance somehow, presumably by higher taxes on those with the ability to pay them, rather than by the poorer residents of the slums themselves.

That regrettable necessity of higher taxes is addressed to some extent by attention increasingly paid to “resident participation,” the manner in which slum improvements are planned and provided. If made wisely and at minimum cost, slum improvements could maximize the satisfaction they provide and reduce the discontent and “anti-social behavior” of slum residents. Participation of the beneficiaries of the proposed improvements in their planning has often been a way to provide such a feeling of satisfaction and even contentment, in practice if not in stated intent, particularly in more newly developing countries Participation, grass-roots democracy, of course is a desirable good in itself for most people and for most communities including slum communities. By giving slum residents the feeling that they themselves controlled the direction of public investment in their communities, by involving them in the details of various projects and proposals, even those going beyond infrastructure , e.g. public education, health care, sports, entertainment, slum residents efforts were focused internally, on their existing units, communities, spaces. All parties were helped by the approach: slum residents not only had improvements, they also benefited because they themselves were involved in the planning and thereby they gained in feeling respected, treated with dignity, enjoying the benefits of citizenship in a democracy.

But citizenship with a limit. For the participation itself had limits. For slums are not sui generis, and cannot by improved only from within, with only their own resources. They are not brought about by the actions of their residents, but by the actions of others in the larger economy and the larger political structure, actions that produce their effective exclusion from areas of alternative better but not affordable housing, actions that keep their level of income below that enabling then to improve their own living and housing   conditions. To affect the causes of slums, slum residents would have to be effective participants in the operations of the economy as a whole, in the running of cities as a whole, in the political structure of decision-making in government a whole. But participation in slum improvement projects is almost always limited to the slum itself.

A final word on the direction of research on slums. As a result of many noteworthy sociologically-oriented studies of slums, and the visible actions of slum residents themselves, it has become very clear that slums are not simply areas of poverty, disorganization, lack of competence, lack of ”social capital.” Rather, they harbor extremely resourceful – by necessity! — Individuals and households, with tight-knit social ties and manifold skills and complex understanding, all well worthy of respect and attention in the outside world. And such studies are important to highlight the necessity and fruitfulness of involving slum residents themselves in the planning of their own futures.

But they are situated on a slippery slope, one which characterizes a good bit of research on slums.[vi] They focus exclusively, if positively, on the slums themselves, their existing characteristics and histories and internal organization and impacts on their residents. Important as they are, they neglect confrontation with the wider social and economic and political forces that in fact produce slums as their necessary by-product: the low wages, the gated communities, the inequalities, the ethnic and religious and gender and national discrimination, the profit-motivated structure of most urban planning, the injustices of tax policies, the environmental degradation, the distorted enjoyment of locational spatial advantages, basically the relations of power, are also all necessary parts of the picture. Gayatri Spivak writes of “rearranging desires” of slum residents as a step in improving their lot, the approach, to be , must be applied to the desires of those creating the slums as well as—even more than—those confined to them, otherwise it slips dangerously close to a blaming the victim view. Solutions, remedies that divert attention from dealing with issues power can end up accelerating the slide down the slope of accepting things as they are instead of changing them.

Of course, dealing with the immediate issues slum residents face cannot wait till these bigger outside issues are dealt with; immediate needs must be raised and dealt with as a first priority, not be replaced by consideration of long-term causes. But the long-term causes of slums need to be kept constantly in mind, and addressed as directly and explicitly and energetically as the political and economic and social situation allows. Generally, paying attention only to the problems of the 99%, without looking at the actions of the 1%, is self-defeating. And expecting consensus without conflict is a deceptive hope.


Comments welcome.

[i] An intelligent discussion of these various usages, and their social and political function, was the topic of a useful conference at the GSAPP, Columbia University, April 9, 2015. I owe much of the thinking in this blog to conversations with David Madden, both at is conference and outside it. If his talk at the conference becomes available, it should be read in conjunction with these thoughts.

[ii] The roots of this vastly over-simplified formulation will easily be recognized in three classic volumes of a well-known nineteenth-century economist and his colleague.

[iii] Jacob Rhys in the United States, Bismarck in Germany, early Council housing in England , are all exampled; David Madden’s contribution at the above-cited conference, contained exemplary quotes .

[iv]   For a good review, see Deepika Andavarapu, David J. Edelman. Evolution of Slum Redevelopment Policy, in Current Urban Studies 2013. Vol.1, No.4, 185-192.

[v] John F. C. Turner’s focus on self-help was the theoretical basis for much of this approach. Herando de Soto’s faith in the ability of residents, once given ownership rights, to handle up-grading is a much touted model today.

[vi] I initially made this argument in a slightly tongue-in-cheek review of “Scholarship and Burning Issues,” a review of Poverty Amid Affluence by Oscar Ornati, in The New Republic, August 13, 1966, pp. 23-24.

Peter Marcuse      


Blog #61 – The Naturalization of Gentrification and Markets

Naturalizing Gentrification and Markets[1]

Naturalizing “gentrification,” using the word as if it describes an active “it,” speaking of it as a natural process, conceals its actual causes : a process by which particular live persons and groups act in particular ways in particular settings in ways that benefit themselves and harm others. Making it seem a natural process is a politically loaded formulation. In the same way, naturalizing “the market,” considering it the natural arrangement for live people to deal with each other in regard to goods and services, is politically loaded. It creates, in discussions of public policy, an initial assumption that this particular arrangement exists autonomously and prior to human action but its “natural” result, and thus any changes in it have the burden of proving their necessity as an “unnatural” act. In both cases, The language makes gentrification and markets organic entities , having lives of their own and specific behaviors, “naturally, ” thus concealing the political fact that they are man-made processes by which certain people act in certain ways in relationships, often unequal, with some other people’

The political questions of who is doing what to whom and how in the particular way they are acting thus is in effect linguistically suppressed by the naturalization.

Consider two formulations:

“The data on Williamsburg reveals the onward march of gentrification in the neighborhood.”

With the formulation:

“The data on Williamsburg reveals the onward march of gentrifiers in the neighborhood.”

In the one case, gentrification is a living thing, marching ahead on its own, and people must struggle against “it,” if they want change. In the other case, gentrification is the action of certain people, who must be struggled against if the process is to be changed.

Or compare the formulations:

“Public policy must take into account the natural functioning of the market”

With the formulation

“Public policy must rewrite the laws controlling the functioning of the market.”

In both cases, naturalizing the terms “gentrification” and “market, ” makes the question aacieving a desirableimprovement in what nature has provided, rather than the much more controversial question of the relations of power that have ennabled partilar patterns of social behavior that are lumped together in those terms. The language is not neutral and its use is insidious; it conceals issues of power and conflicts of interest in its very opening unspoken assumptions. Flesh and blood people, not lawsof nature, or indeed natural laws of economics, are what cause the problem. SSocial arrangements, not nature, must be canged to address them.

The examples of loaded naturalizing language to reinforce the status quo, proteting the existing distribution of wealth and power, are numerous. And they are often used in this way unintentionally, because often even advocates of change are caught in the conventional usage.

“That’s just the way the system works.”

But why does it work that way? Perhaps big fish eat little fish naturally, but the powerful displace the powerless deliberately, consciously creating the systems that serve them best. Certainly one might argue that greed, selfishness, heedlessness of other, the drive to accumulate and ever accumulate more, are “natural” parts of human nature, but there is as certainly much contradictory evidence positing that solidarity, love kindness, are equally “natural” instincts. But that is not the point here The point is that the triumph of greed over love is not something dictated by nature, but something subject to conscious human control,[2] and calling greed “natural” functions to justify it and perpetuate its results.

Detroit must compete in order to survive.”

Is “Detroit” a natural organism that compete with other natural organism s to live or die? Is “Detroit” the legal jurisdiction, Detroit, which, if “it acts is really the political governing bodies of the jurisdiction? Isit the metropolitan region? If so, it is internally sharply split and can’t really act as one. Is it “the” people” of Detroit? But they are hardly one entity, but many multitudes. Conjuring up “Detroit” as a single natural entity, however defined, an entity that can act, is an obfuscation that conceals the complex interplay of separate conflicting and combining interests and actors, and politically just serves to becloud conflict and reinforce the existing distribution of power.

“Cities evolve. They change and grow and shrink, and the economics and demographics of neighborhoods shift. This is healthy and normal.”

Evolving of course is better than remaining static, and of course it’s a natural process. It explains way they change, and replaces interest group conflicts, power struggles, public policies, resolutions in the market, leadership, social movements, from propulsive roles in bring about change or blocking it. It ignores political decisions, and thus downplays and discourages active political engagement by others than those already holding power and steering the “evolution.”

And sometimes the process of naturalization sweeps through an entire construct:

“Urban gentrification is a natural force underpinning the evolution of cities. Gentrification is not just natural, but also healthy for cities. It’s a reflection of their ability to adapt, a facet of their resilience.”[3]

Naturalization of social reality gone wild, ending with making resilience, he ability to overcome change and return to the status quo after inevitable challenges, is as politically loaded a term as you can get.

Thus naturalization distorts and biases discussion of urban issues. It conceals conflicts and contradictions, by-passes issues of power, justify the existing as naturally created, exonerates human beings from moral responsibility for the injustices and pains suffered by other human beings in the places where they live and work. It should be carefully avoided when urban questions are considered.[4]


[1] This article owes a large debt to Tom Slater’s excellent discussion, in “There Is Nothing Natural About Gentrification,”
New Left Project, November 24, 2014, available at

[2] And arguably even historically socially created and unnatural; see the forceful arguments in Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization

[3] Assembled from Philip Ball, “Gentrification is a Natural Evolution,” subtitled, “By regarding cities as natural organisms, we can see what drives gentrification” The Guardian, in turn based on an article by Sergio Porta entitled ‘The Form of Gentrification’, in Physics and Society all as quoted in the Slater article, cited above.

[4] (I am tempted to comment that in the United States we seem to accept naturalization of urban processes much more readily than we accept naturalization of urban immigrants, but will restrain the impulse.)


Blog #60 Toward a Housing Strategy for New York 1

Notes Towards a Housing Strategy for New York City

That there Is a housing crisis in New York City for the majority of its residents, and particularly severe for lower income and “discriminated-against minority groups,” hardly requires further documentation.[1] And there is an emerging consensus amongst housing advocacy groups and community-based and progressive political groups that strong measures, from administrative changes to even radical legislation, are needed to remedy the situation. It may be useful to try to put together what a comprehensive agenda for legal, political, and administrative change might look like, on whose substance common agreement might be developed. And the language with which we discuss urban issues needs to be looked at carefully, for the implicit bias much of it contains.

A. sets forth the premises of the strategy.
B. lists some of the concrete programs that might be foregrounded as demands.
C. lists some of the words that are often mischievously used in housing discussions.

A. The strategy accepts the following premises:

1. That there is indeed a crisis in housing, that it inequitably negatively affects particularly low-income and discriminated-against minority groups and inequitably favors higher income groups and profit-motivated suppliers of housing in the housing industry.
2. That the market, given the gross and inequitable inequalities of income reflects these inequalities, and cannot be expected to be a tool to end this crisis; its natural tendency is indeed to exacerbate it, and it requires radical control from government to act otherwise.
3. That community-based decision-making, accepting broadly-defined principles of justice, non-discrimination, and participation, is an essential element in developing a housing system that is equitable and free of crisis.
4. That, while some reforms may meet general approval and be win-win measures, any serious attempt to resolve the housing crisis will involve sharp conflicts of real interests, both material and ideological, and full consensus of serious reform is not to be expect. Rather, conflicts, in which grass-roots organizations and social movements need to play a critical role, are inevitable, and must be anticipated and planned for.
5. That the very words used in debates about housing policy can operate to vitiate meaningful research and be used as tools to influence the outcomes of conflicts over policy.

B. In outline, then, the measures that together might implement a serous strategy [3] addressing the housing crisis might include [2]:

2. Adopting public policies that predictably serve to reduce discrimination, reinforce equity, and help end the housing crisis, including :

a. Ending upmarket rezoning, which produces displacement, discriminates against the interests of those most in need of housing, and produces exclusionary communities.
b. Participatory budgeting, allocating significant sums for housing programs expanding options for affordable housing.[4]
c. Reinterpreting ULURP to required 4/5 majority of City Planning Commission and city Council votes to override a CB vote, thus reversing an opinion of the Planning commission’s counsel that the Charter Revision creating the Community Boards did not give their votes any legal force or effect. [5]
d. Revising City procedures for the handling of properties whose future use is within its power to influence, to give priority to uses expanding housing opportunities for lower-income households and development, to promote ownership and/or management by non-profits in the form of non-profit coops or condos or community land trusts or mutual housing associations community-based non-profit non-governmental organizations.
e. Amending the real estate tax system to serve social policy purposes as well as raise revenue, by increasing taxes for underused and speculatively-held vacant properties, imposing a speculation tax on the profit from rapid turnover of properties acquired for resale.
f. Requiring a registry of residential properties (lots, buildings, units) held vacant for over 3 months and imposing significant fees for late registration or failure to register, steeply increase with time, and authorizing filing of a lien.
g. Rent control, with limits pegged at the lower of tenant affordability and landlord break-even in the aggregate. Eliminating vacancy decontrol.
h. Public housing support and new construction, with continuing occupancy at proportionately increased rent if income increases over limits for entry.
i. Minimum wage and pro-labor organizing measures, with the understanding that they ameliorate the housing crisis, but do not establish an equitable housing system, and are ineffective unless coupled with rent and price controls. (Likewise, health insurance, unemployment compensation, and parallel measures).

C. In research and advocacy, avoiding language that cloaks serious issues or act as euphemisms for actions that would be recognized as undesirable if properly named.[6] Such terms, which often reflect implicit but heavily
Ideologically biased concepts, include:

a. Density, when put forward as if increasing density is per se a suitable goal for a housing policy, or as a simple way to produce affordable housing
b. Affordable housing, when used without recognizing that the definition of what is affordable must take into account that the need for housing becomes greater as incomes decline.
c. Market, when only the private profit-driven market in meant, rather than a system of shaping the distribution of goods and serves, and of public policies, to reflect varying individual and social preferences.
d. Up-zoning, rather than upmarket zoning
e. Wealth creation, if seen as a goal of housing policy for home owners, treating housing, not as a necessity of life valued for its use, but rather as a commodity invested in for it the profit to be derived from it
f. Government intervention, if suggesting there is a “natural” private housing system not fully dependent from the outset on governmental action.
g. Diversity, if used to encourage introduction of higher income or higher status households into lower income communities or communities of color.
h. Color blindness, if used to preclude examination of patterns that my reflect discrimination on the basis of color.
i. Environmentally Sustainable, when excluding the consideration of the social environment.
j. Displacement, when limited to the immediate eviction of households, excluding 1) precautionary or “voluntary” displacement undertaken ahead of but because of the immanence of rising unaffordable rents/costs or foreclosure actions, excluding 2) secondary displacement resulting from price changes in areas outside the immediate area of a given change but required because of it, and excluding 3) excluding prospective displacement, the prevention of households moving into -moving into a neighborhood desired by and otherwise affordable for them because of rising prices. [7]
k. Gentrification, when used as synonymous with neighborhood improvement, rather than its accurate definition as in-movement of higher income households into a neighborhood displacing lower-income households.
l. Integration, desegregation, mixed income, when used to support-movement of a white non-Hispanic population into a community displacing lower income and/or minority households. [8]
m. Growth, when used as a self-evident goal of public policy per se, neglecting what is to be grown and for whom, the relation between the various forms and directions of growth and social justice .
n. Competitiveness, when used as a desirable goal of city policy per se, neglecting questions of the net social desirability of aiding the competitive position of a given city against other cities in terms of the impact on social justice and the differential impact of economic competiveness on different economic and ethnic and racial goops.
o. City, as in ”the city,” when used to suggest that the city is an organic entity in which a benefit to any one part is a benefit to all, avoiding acknowledgement of the multiple conflicting interests in the city and the recognition that benefits for some, most frequently the upper income and elite, is likely to be at the expense of others, most likely the poor and minorities, e.g. wage levels.
p. Filtering, the assumption, contrary to fact, that benefits at the top of the income social, ethnic and racial ladder will filter down and benefit those below as well. As their higher-income residents move in, the tendency is rather to displace than to benefit lower-income ones. [9]
q. Transformative, unless used to separate radical from reformist proposals or policies. [10]

1. See, for instance, the several excellent studies of the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, the trenchant studies of many
3.For the distinctions between reformist and transformative proposals, see, “Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas”
4. See Marcuse, Peter. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting–Expansion.” In City Limits web site,
5. A vote of the City Council, or even a new Charter Revision may be necessary for this purpose, and might expand the Board’s access to information and revise Board procedures improving the availability of technical assistance outside of city government if needed.
6. Marcuse, Peter, 2006. Expert Report, In Mhany Management Inc., And New York Communities For Change Vs. Incorporated Village Of Garden City and Garden City Board Of Trustees, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Case 2:05-cv-02301-ADS-WDW Document 413 Filed 12/06/13 Page 1 of 65 PageID #: 10601, cited at page 41.
7.For a fuller discussion, see Marcuse, Peter, “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 28, 1985, reprinted in revised form as “Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in Nw York City” in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, eds., Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986, pp. 153-177, and in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, eds. The Gentrification Reader, 2010, London, Routledge, pp. 333-348.
8.As a sample of the mischievous use of the term: a chair of the New York City Planning commission argued: “gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth.. “ “Improvement of neighborhoods – some people call it gentrification – provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said.
9. Leo Goldberg’s draft for his research spells this out.
10. See, Blog #11, Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims.