Most of us do not lie to each others faces, or at least, not often, but we do often allow cliches, headlines, and slogans to do our thinking for us. As we adopt the detritus of other people’s thinking without doing our own, we lose sight of what we mean and end up using a lot of words to say nothing at all.
One of the ways we fall into the trap is through an over-reliance on jargon. Jargon in itself is not bad, being the specialized language developed in some professions. Some bits of jargon are now quite venerable, having passed out of their original context and into mainstream language. But some words of jargon have been ripped from their contexts in order to stifle or control debates, often at the expense of society.
This is most evident at the local level, where intensely emotional and divisive debates over housing occur. The most famous bit of jargon to emerge from this decade’s housing debates is the word “gentrification.”
The word originally was only a description for a process where middle-class people would move into a working-class neighborhood where they would buy up and restore old homes. Now the word is emotionally loaded and means a great deal more, to the point where, for many, it sums up the dominant narrative of all American cities.
A glance at the typical articles and recent books on urban problems will see “gentrification” invoked as the cause of displacement, homelessness, an increasing cost of living, racial segregation, income inequality, and pretty much every other bad thing or trend that can happen in today’s cities. Fear of gentrification has led neighborhood activists to oppose much-needed investments in poor and working-class neighborhoods, such as in Nashville, where Mayor Megan Barry’s transit plans have been opposed by left-wing activists.
However, the truth is that gentrification, for all the press coverage it receives, is a very small problem. Most poor urban neighborhoods are growing poorer, according to research done by Joe Cortwright at City Observatory and most American cities are not sharing in the growth and abundance of Boston, New York, Washington, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.
In cities like Detroit, Baltimore, St Louis, and Cleveland, the population remains overwhelmingly poor and without opportunity. Schools are bad, jobs have mostly gone to the suburbs, they have little access to capital, and their neighborhoods have often been already written off by city officials. Services and infrastructure are so expensive to maintain and so many neighborhoods are now so sparsely populated that cities refuse to serve certain homes in them. Many homes in these cities have been abandoned for so long they have fallen into ruin and so get demolished to prevent them from becoming fire hazards and criminal hideouts. This can be seen by viewing a city street on Google Maps, where green fields grow in between homes in an otherwise built out block.
In such a situation, one would expect that anyone willing to bring in capital to renovate homes and get them back on tax rolls, to start a small business, or to make any other investment in the neighborhood would be welcomed with open arms. Instead, fear of “gentrification” makes neighbors hostile and suspicious, as though Detroit is going to turn into San Francisco overnight because someone wants to open a brewpub. As Jason Segedy writes, “Even the earliest signs of neighborhood revitalization . . . are frequently opposed by people who are convinced that they are acting in the name of social justice.”
Another phrase that obscures the issue it refers to is “affordable housing”. Obviously, everyone wants affordable housing, but what does it mean? Our preconceived notions about the nature of good housing, the traditions of architects and economists who study such housing, and the biases against the people who live in it all go into each person’s understanding of “affordable housing” and help make sure that the people who need it most don’t get it. Housing scholars traditionally define affordability as meaning that a person or household spends no more than 30 percent of their income on it. This definition is somewhat arbitrary, but it is conventional at this point. Note that the type of housing, tenancy, and income don’t matter. If someone is paying $100,000 of their annual $150,000 salary on a single family home, they are still considered to be paying too much.
Complicating matters is that many cities have enacted inclusionary development policies to create affordable housing—but they use a different measure of affordability. Inclusionary development is a kind of tax on developers, whereby if they want to build a new multifamily development, they will be required to set aside a portion of the units, usually between 10 and 20 percent, to rent at below market rates. These “below market rates,” however, are based on the area median income (AMI) as determined by the United States Census. Normally, the rate is based on being affordable to someone making 80 percent of the AMI, but the AMI includes high-income suburbs, pushing it up. In Boston, for example, the “affordable” units created by inclusionary development are designed to be affordable to people on a police officer’s, firefighter’s or teacher’s salary—people who are more middle income than the people activists are trying to help or whom many think are being helped.
The opacity of affordable housing allows people who oppose any new housing from being built in their communities to appear to support the poor while denying them the housing they need. Under inclusionary development, the housing is still built by for-profit developers and so in order for anything to get built the developers still need to be able to profit from it—and selling or renting units at below market rates detracts from profitability. In some cities this is understood and developers will be granted a “density bonus”—additional market-rate units that replace the affordable ones. In some cities, however, the inclusionary requirements are deliberately made too high to prevent any apartments from being built. This lets the opponents of housing claim to be for it and put the blame on developers.
Another trouble with affordable housing is that focusing on the housing can sometimes obscure the reasons it’s unaffordable. The housing crisis in St Louis and the housing crisis in Boston are very different. Boston’s high rents are primarily due to laws and processes that delay the construction of housing, especially in the suburbs, resulting in an insufficient supply. In other parts of the country the problem is primarily one of poverty: there are numerous homes for sale, right now, in Akron, Ohio, for under $100,000. One is even available for $7,900. It’s hard to imagine homes getting less expensive while still being livable.
While there is certainly poverty in Boston, the housing crisis here is marked by the inability of middle- and even upper-middle-income people to afford housing, while in places like Akron, people can’t afford what Bostonians would consider dirt-cheap homes.
Lastly, affordable housing is complicated by what the people in power consider to be good housing. Many suburbs have what are called “snob zoning” ordinances that use elements like minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, setbacks (a requirement that a building or structural element be so many feet from the property line) and other methods to ensure that the easiest homes to build are large, expensive, and single family. “Progressive” reformers of the early 20th century promoted outlawing boarding houses and rooming houses, which are both excellent ways to provide low-cost housing, because they disliked the sort of people who used those kinds of housing. In a similar way, mobile homes are frequently prohibited by zoning regulations and their owners are derided at every turn.
The housing crisis in this country is very real and has led to an increase in homelessness and its attendant pathologies and is causing a growing number of families to be cost-burdened. But if we remember the truths that housing issues are contextual, that new development is not automatically bad, and that different people and families have different needs and desires when it comes to housing— needs and desires these are not always shared by the people in power—then we can do something about it. Housing is a human issue, which is forgotten in concerns about property values, aesthetics, and shadows.