Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Housing Question

In reality, the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion -that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew... No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else... the same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place. (Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question (1872)
This passage, which was brought to my attention by an article on urbanism and capitalism by David Harvey, very effectively highlights a deep-seated contradiction that afflicts the urban housing question in capitalist societies.

Capitalism requires, as a condition of producing spectacular wealth for some, a class of people living at or near subsistence who work wage-labor jobs. Modern cities, most of which became what they are today through an earlier process of heavy industrialization, required a large working class to build them (literally and figuratively). If Chicago got rich "on the backs of" the meat-packing and railroad industries, then the wealth of urbanization required a large, poor working-class to help create it.

But where to house these working-class folk? This is the problem.

Capitalism creates (and needs for its continued existence) a sizable quantity of wage laborers who must be located close enough to urban centers in order for capital to employ them. But land and residential property, under capitalism, are not owned by the working class but by another class for whom seeking rent on their property is most important. Worker's wages cannot reasonably be expected to keep pace with real estate markets, particularly when property speculators key in on a working-class section of a city as a potential source of big profits. Put succinctly, land use under capitalism tends to be sorted according to its rate of return for investors, not according to the needs of working-class people. But the working poor, a permanent feature of capitalist societies, have to live somewhere.

For example, at one point workers may have lived in a centralized district when a given city was still industrializing and urbanizing. But as wealth accumulates, the central districts workers occupy may become attractive to speculators. This imagined working-class neighborhood may quickly become a serious drag from the perspective of nearby land-owners and rentiers interested in seeing the value of their investments increase. There are any number of tactics, from blockbusting to eminent domain, that those wanting to purchase the property low and sell high can employ to scatter the existing population.

But as Engels pointed out in 1872, the process of displacement through gentrification doesn't solve the housing problem, it merely recreates it anew. As long as there is a working class, they have got to live somewhere. Yet while it may appear, from the local and narrow perspective of property-owners living in a gentrifying neighborhood that "things are looking up" in that section of the city, in reality the systemic problems that produced a slum in the first place have gone totally unchanged.

The "problems" that used to afflict now wholly-gentrified neighborhoods like Lincoln Park haven't gone away, they've been swept under a different rug. And in many cases, just as Engels pointed out in the 19th century, this process was (in that initial displacement) begun anew. One thinks of the displacement of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago from Lincoln Park, then southwest to Division Street, and finally further west into Humboldt Park. Today parts of Humboldt park are gentrifying due to their proximity to the popular Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods.

When a neighborhood gentrifies, it's undeniable that "good" things do happen: housing stock is refurbished and renovated, property-tax revenues flow into the ward, commercial investment increases, crime decreases, the availability of necessary institutions (banks, grocery stores, etc.) increases as well. The cosmetic features of the neighborhood are cleaned up and green spaces are often cultivated where they had been neglected during tough times.

But for whom are all of these improvements relevant? Certainly not for the working-class populations whose displacement was a condition of this "improvement" to the neighborhood.

This is the problem: in capitalism, it is a condition of the betterment of downtrodden neighborhoods that they are gradually purged of working class people. Improving neighborhoods requires that poor residents are displaced and shoved aside. Race complicates this process further, of course, but the tactic of "accumulation by displacement" is usually the same. This is precisely the contradiction inherent to capitalism mentioned by Engels in the quote preceding this post. It isn't possible, within the framework of profit-driven market forces alone, to improve working class neighborhoods as such. Improvement ultimately requires a cleansing of the poor, a process of what Harvey calls "accumulation through displacement". Because who bankrolls the improvements? Investors. And what piques their interest? High returns on their investments. And if that is our only criterion for determining how to use land, then its not hard to see why working class neighborhoods are simply moved elsewhere: they aren't fertile ground for high profits.

Why improve the lot of poor workers when you can displace them, raze their homes, build brand-new condos and charge a fortune in rent to the wealthy people who'll move in?

This is what the slogan "the right to the city" is meant to oppose. It openly defies the market logic of capitalist urban thinking and declares, against the imperatives of real estate capital, that bustling urban spaces should be democratic and available to all, not simply playgrounds for the rich. We should not be forced to choose between the crumbling lower Manhattan of the 1970s and what is more and more becoming a massive 'gated community' for the wealthy today.
So the question isn't simply whether or not gentrification is "good" or "bad". It's both at once; although these do not cancel each other out. As Adorno might have put it, gentrified boulevards and working-class slums are torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they don't add up.

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