The "Millennial Housing Shortage Fallacy" Revisited

Housing unit vacancy rates by census tract since 2000, in metro Boston.  Areas of growth are nearly contiguous with city limits of Boston.  Source: globalreview.blogspot.com

It’s way past time that I come back to the most viewed post — by far — of anything written during the 2 1/2 year life of this blog.

First, let me say that I, along with fellow Chicago urbanist blogger Daniel Kay Hertz, was honored to be a panelist for a discussion last week at the Metropolitan Planning Council last week.  It seems our differing views on future policy directions as a response to gentrification sparked quite a discussion in the offices of MPC, and they were kind enough to extend an invitation to the both of us to expand on our views.  It was a great time, and I thank MPC for the opportunity.

I won’t go into great detail here rehashing my presentation, but essentially I made the following points:

  • Chicago, and cities like it, is at an inflection point as it relates to gentrification/redevelopment.
  • My belief is that, in the short- to mid-term (probably 5-10 years or so), a relaxed zoning policy geared toward increasing the overall number of housing units in the city would mean the addition of more unaffordable housing units as developers seek to meet the high-income demand first.
  • Relaxing zoning policy in Chicago would lead to a north lakefront that would become a “citadel of affluence” that I liken to what currently exists in Miami, as an example — a city of oceanfront luxury high-rise condo towers that define public perception about the city, but surrounded by neighborhoods of impoverished residents who gain little from the high-income concentration.
  • Relaxing zoning policy to increase housing supply would be a huge political challenge.
  • Gentrification is causing an imbalance of housing demand in cities like Chicago — demand is too high in some places, and too low in others — and changing the supply will not affect that.
  • Relaxing zoning to increase housing supply in the suburbs is a laudable goal, but could lead to vastly different future for metro areas — concentrated white affluence within cities, and concentrated minority poverty in the suburbs.
I then went on to compare two community areas in Chicago, Edgewater on the North Side and South Shore on the South Side.  Both were initially settled at similar times and had similar early development histories as recreational getaways for city residents, and with similar neighborhood amenities.  But each had distinctly different fortunes following World War II.  Edgewater became a working-class community by the 1960s, but gentrification pushed toward it from the south and transformed the area.  South Shore also became largely working-class by the ’60s, but it witnessed an influx of African-American residents from the South and other parts of the South side of Chicago.  Edgewater’s population over the last 60 years has changed little, but its economic profile has shifted upward dramatically.  South Shore’s population and economic profile have both dropped precipitously.  In my opinion, Edgewater was redeemed, while South Shore was shunned.
While preparing for the MPC presentation, a notable characteristic of the gentrification public debate dawned on me.  It seems the debate is largely built on the experiences of three key cities — New York, San Francisco, and Boston.  It’s true that these three cities each had the economy that attracted potential gentrifiers to them, and had the type of walkable and textured neighborhoods with lots of amenities that make them attractive as well.  But you know what each also had?  Smaller historical African-American populations.  
Let’s be clear here.  While San Francisco and Boston have long been known to have smaller black populations when compared to similarly sized cities, New York does have a very large overall black population.  But its black population has never exceeded 25% of the city’s total, unlike that of many other large American cities.  This has caused a unique phenomenon.  In New York, San Francisco and Boston, gentrification debates have been citywide in their scope, and economic sensitivities have been at the forefront — what does gentrification mean, for example, for New York’s supply of affordable housing?  That kind of perspective has dominated debates about gentrification for the last ten years.
However, the experience of the early gentrifying cities is certainly not the experience of most other large cities in the nation.  Many Rust Belt cities attracted large numbers of African-Americans, and that led to vastly altered perceptions of the built environment landscape.  Neighborhoods that once were part of the mental landscape of Philadelphia or Chicago were eliminated from memory once blacks moved in.  In the South, large historical black populations in some large cities meant that these areas were never truly considered as part of the city by many white residents.  What I think this means is that cultural sensitivities have been at the forefront of gentrification discussions in these cities, and that’s a very different discussion than what’s happened in the big three early gentrifying cities.
I don’t quite know how to describe it, but gentrification debates seem to be different in, say, Washington and Philadelphia than they are in New York and San Francisco, and I believe race — and racism — plays a big role in the difference.  When talking about gentrification in Boston, it simply seems more of the city is part of the conversation than, say, Atlanta.  Policy responses that could work in the big three early gentrifiers seem, on the surface, ill-suited for Chicago.
I’ll have more on this later.

3 thoughts on “The "Millennial Housing Shortage Fallacy" Revisited

  1. I believe that if there's a way to revitalize and gentrify a city without alienating or displacing low-income residents, then it'll be found in Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia. Cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington DC have the money for large-scale gentrification, but low-income residents are being pushed out. On the other hand, cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis have a lot of low-income residents, but not a lot of money to throw around. Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia occupy a middle ground where there's a lot of money, but there hasn't been a mass exodus of low-income residents.

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  2. Also, another significant difference between New York and Boston versus Chicago and Philadelphia is that the black population in New York and Boston is less segregated. Most of the neighborhoods with a large black population also have a large Hispanic or other immigrant population, which means that these neighborhoods have more “churn” or “flow” and don't experience population decline. Also, there is possibly less social stigmatization of these immigrant neighborhoods compared to predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago with a small foreign-born population. This partially explains why the imbalance of housing demand in New York and Boston might be less than it is in Chicago and Philadelphia.

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