Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This Is Why Your Rent Is Going Up. Here's How We Can Stop It.

Photo Credit: Y. Sawa
Writing for The Atlantic Cities. James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz complains that it is very difficult to stop gentrification. The problem of rising rents, increasingly expensive commodities, and the displacement of minorities is a problem that Boston knows quite well. These trends and their connection to gentrification are deeply worrying, but they are also broadly misunderstood.

What confuses most people about gentrification is that they think that it is gentrification that is the problem. To see why this is wrong, one need only realize the most obvious solution to gentrification itself: make the city a worse place to live. 

If the problem is that wealthy young professionals are moving to a neighborhood and driving up rents, there are countless ways to discourage them from doing so. Prohibit the launching of new businesses. Require all bars to close by 7:00pm. Fire half of the sanitation department and police force. Sure enough, fewer people will want to live in your city, and rents will not go up.

Of course, these proposals are ridiculous. No reasonable person wants to actively make a neighborhood or city a worse place to live. Most people want to improve their neighborhoods. The problem is, once an area becomes a better place to live, more people want to live there, and rents go up.

We should realize that, in this sense, gentrification is a good thing. Gentrification means that the quality of life for a given area is improving. What we want is for the benefits to be enjoyed by all, not just the wealthy who can afford it.

In his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, Matt Yglesias describes how we can do exactly that. The problem of gentrification is not that a city becomes a better place to live, but the fact that not enough people can live there. The real solution to the problems of gentrification is to ease the zoning restrictions that reduce the supply of housing.

What, exactly, does this mean? Allow for taller apartment buildings in the downtown. Allow for narrower lots in the suburbs and for more multi-family structures. If we curb legislation that reduces population density, developers will build more places for residents to live, and rents will come down. A broader portion of the population will be able to enjoy the benefits of a modern city.

This is the quintessential case of supply and demand. Rents are only high when a lot of people want to live somewhere, paired with housing scarcity. Those who can use their higher incomes to gain an advantage do, and those without much money to spare are priced out. If there were a greater supply of housing, the increase in competition from landowners for tenants would drive down rents.

This doesn’t mean, as some worry, that we should abandon of public goods. We can still have parks, libraries, (some) historical structures, and we don’t have to live next to nuclear plants. Some zoning laws justified. 

But where residential structures are permitted, there is no reason to, as the city of Boston’s web page suggests, protect neighborhoods from the development of residences that “do not into the context of a neighborhood." Whether it is intentional or not,  protecting a neighborhood's "context" results in keeping poor people out. 

Many people defend the virtues of smaller, less-dense cities, and for these reasons favor restrictive zoning laws. But if someone wants to live in an area of shorter buildings, they can move out of the areas with the highest demand for housing. All housing choices involve some trade-offs, and it is not fair to use city regulations to essentially turn neighborhoods into highly desirable, and deeply inegalitarian, country clubs.

Some on the political left deride the market-based ideas I’m advocating with the the dreaded epithet of “neo-liberalism.” But their counter-proposals of rent-control and low-income housing zoning have well-known problems. And though there are clearly cases in which market solutions are likely not the best solution (such as in health care or education), there is something fundamentally democratic about market-based solutions. When a market is working well, individuals have the power to decide for themselves which trade-offs they want to make for their own lives.

This problem is even more pressing than it might first appear. Lower rents mean higher take-home income, which can be a very big deal for struggling families. Even better, an increased housing supply makes it easier to get highly desirable jobs within the city itself, giving residents access to opportunities they might otherwise have missed. And the easing of zoning regulations can be a boon to the construction sector, which will have many positive spillover effects.

The rise of the micro-apartment, while a small contribution to population density, is a symptom rather than a solution. It is clear that Boston needs to get serious about housing policy, and we can be a leader in the right direction for the rest of the country. If we really care about making our city a more inclusive, budget-friendly, and welfare-oriented metropolis, then we must learn to love a taller, denser Boston.

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