By Mindy Fullilove
In 2016, Dominic Moulden, Derek Hyra and I launched our IRL project, “Making the Just City: An Examination of Organizing for Equity and Health in Shaw and Orange, NJ,” a neighborhood-level study of gentrification.
For years, we have each been aware of the gentrification of specific neighborhoods in key American cities: Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, Shaw in Washington DC, Downtown in Los Angeles, and Five Points in Denver. In some cities, like Hoboken, NJ, it had been going on long enough that we have seen its slow but inexorable transformation from a factory city to a bedroom community housing financiers who work on Wall Street. In other places gentrification was just beginning and we wondered what might be done to prevent the seemingly inevitable displacement of people and the annihilation of local culture. It was this neighborhood-level view of gentrification that inspired our study.
Soon after we started, however, a slew of reports emerged that made it clear that not only was the process of gentrification was affecting cities everywhere: Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Houston, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland. In fact, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition 2017 report noted that there was no state in which a person working fulltime at minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate.
|Barry Farm, SE||Encampment in Houston, TX|
We realized that what we were thinking of as a “neighborhood problem” was, in fact, a national housing crisis, which would require a national solution. At the level of national housing policy, we are in a difficult situation. As noted in the Atlantic in 2017,Federal housing policy transfers lots of money to rich homeowners, a bit less to middle-class homeowners, and practically nothing to poor renters. Half of all poor American families who rent spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. In May, rental income as a share of GDP hit an all-time high.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the federal government spent $71 billion on the MID, and households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. Since the value of the deduction rises as the cost of one’s mortgage increases, the policy essentially pays upper-middle-class and rich households to buy larger and more expensive homes. At the same time, because national housing policy’s benefits don’t accumulate as much to renters, it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners.
At the same time, we know that we are caught in the legacy of McCarthy-era efforts of the real estate lobby to ensure that housing is created only by the “free market,” thus protecting us from the “Communist” influence of public funding for housing. That rhetoric continues to this day, preventing the building of new public housing, and undermining the care of existing public housing stock. Like most scholars, we expected the data to challenge one or more of our hypotheses. Instead, the data have shown us that gentrification is not a neighborhood problem, it is a symptom of the growing national housing crisis. The implications for health are dire.