The issue of gentrification has become a silent boogeyman among liberals. Very few established Democrats have officially endorsed or condemned it, but many of the party’s supporters have voiced their disgust with the economic phenomena. Many local governments have even gone so far as to intentionally withhold investment in their communities to avoid the alleged adverse effects of gentrification.
California’s collective aversion to gentrification has become tragically oversimplified, and is locking generations into financial insecurity. Currently, the state needs 1.8 to 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 to meet existing demand and projected population growth, but it is producing housing at far too slow a rate. If the state continues to develop at a steady pace, it will only produce 80 percent of what the California Department of Housing and Community Development projects as the minimum annual production to meet demand. The housing crisis is costing California $140 billion a year, stalling the state’s impressive economic progress and creating a homelessness epidemic of nearly war-like proportions.
State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced an ambitious bill last spring to combat the shortage: Senate Bill 827, a resolution which aimed to modernize the damaging sprawl of much of urban California as well as produce more housing. The bill incentivized high-density development by effectively prioritizing the construction of multi-family housing over single-family housing near public transportation.
The bill died quickly. When the Los Angeles City Council received a draft, it was unanimously rejected. Councilman David Ryu wrote the resolution opposing the bill, stating that its adoption would result in a “housing boom for a privileged few and eviction notices for everyone else.” Essentially, the bill was dismissed over fears of gentrification.
This reaction is understandable. If gentrification goes uncontrolled, it is absolutely a damaging process. Beautifying a poor neighborhood is not worth sacrificing its already vulnerable inhabitants. However, L.A. and California lawmakers’ fear of gentrification, and in particular, the type of gentrification that SB 827 would create, is misguided.
The truth is that gentrification itself isn’t harmful; displacement is. Nobody is opposed to improved school districts, cleaner sidewalks or reduced crime; people are instead opposed to the rising living costs such as increased gas and grocery prices that often accompany these benefits. However, the link between the benefits and the costs aren’t as pronounced as one might expect. A 2005 nationwide study conducted by Columbia University found that the “relationship between gentrification and displacement is not especially robust.”
Localized studies show varying results, with some indicating increased low-income displacement in certain gentrified areas and the opposite effect in others. These results don’t mean that gentrification doesn’t have the potential to negatively impact neighborhoods — it does. What they do mean is that the impact of rising price levels is complicated, and depends on other factors such as zoning laws, rent control and the speed at which the process takes place. The results call for deliberation but also for action, so that cities can provide safety and opportunity to vulnerable populations, while not threatening their ability to afford the cost of living.
The prioritization of new, dense housing as incentivized by SB 827 would help accomplish this objective. A 2017 UCLA study found that in Los Angeles, six affordable multi-family housing units were created for every single-family unit that was demolished. Basically, the development SB 827 encourages would significantly increase the availability of housing for low-income residents rather than deplete it.
It is also important to note the role of basic supply and demand in the housing crisis. When demand far exceeds supply and production, price levels increase, and in the case of California, that is happening at an uncontrollable rate. Increasing housing options would increase supply thus lowering the price per unit, which would in turn help all Californians, but particularly those who are most vulnerable.
SB 827 showed promise to provide low-income people with increased access to transportation, education and integration but was rejected in favor of the status quo because of a reflexive fear of developing vulnerable communities. Thankfully, however, the L.A. City Council approved a similar resolution last month which allows for denser development around five stops along the Expo Line west of USC’s campus. Although it is a small step, it signifies a new boldness by the council to enact solutions that actually increase the supply of housing in L.A. This is a boldness that must be both cautiously monitored and encouraged.
Housing policy is the frontline of urban social justice. There is no right more fundamental in a society than the basic right to live in it. Housing shortages aren’t cured by withholding housing, and protecting low-income people isn’t accomplished by letting them be the first to be priced out of California from sheer demand. Well-planned and equitable gentrifying solutions like SB 827 must be considered because the alternative is, to quote Ryu, a California “for a privileged few, and eviction notices for everyone else.”
Nathaniel Hyman is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law. His column,“Social Anxieties,” runs every other Tuesday.