Public Comment

What is to be Done about Gentrification in Berkeley?

Thomas Lord
Thursday August 27, 2015 - 04:22:00 PM

This is part 2 of a 2 part article. See also Berkeley's Progressives: Fighting to Make Gentrification Even Worse

Berkeley can't fight gentrification if it doesn't understand what gentrification is. Here, we have a problem.

We labor under neoliberal nonsense about gentrification

In the popular imagination, gentrification is merely the replacement of the poor with the better off; often the displacement of the less-white with the more-white; the replacement of the shabby with vibrant; in short the so-called "upgrading" of a neighborhood or region. 

Too often, policy researchers and practitioners in a neoliberal framework conceive gentrification along those lines. For example, the recently trumpeted Urban Displacement project at UC Berkeley proposes: 


"Today, gentrification is generally defined as "the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city into middle-class residential or commercial use"."
It is critical to these scholars to portray gentrification as a kind of passive process, more or less an act of nature or a shift in the weather. 


Furthermore, these scholars must deflect attention away from the impacts on people. 

Gentrification is, in their genteel discourse, "the [subject-less] transformation" of an "area of the central city". 

Since it is an "area" that is "transformed", any impact on people must be treated as a separate issue which these scholars dub: "displacement": 


"While the vast majority of literature and media attention on gentrification focuses on class-based analyses, the deep history of racial residential segregation and income inequality in the United States results in gentrification being a clearly racialized process. Gentrification is often associated with white middle class households moving into low-income and communities of color." [....]  

"Residential displacement occurs when a household is forced to move from its residence or is prevented from moving into a neighborhood that was previously accessible to them [....]" 

Gentrification may lead to displacement, and/or displacement may lead to gentrification – but not necessarily. 



Not only do these researchers treat displacement apart from gentrification, they confine their attention to households and ignore the questions of communities and local economies. 


From such dismal conceptions of what gentrification is in the first place such researchers are unable to relate its causes to public policies, or to discuss its human relevance other than in the most superficial terms. 

Unable to identify real causes they are confined to discovering merely the warning signs that gentrification is underway. 

Their contribution to policy is not a constructive guide helping local economies and communities thrive. On the contrary, they have published an alleged weather map of where gentrification is forecast to be as inevitable as it is unexplained. 

Worst of all, by concentrating on a narrow "transformation" from "working-class" to "middle-class", these researchers can not apply their theories to cases of gentrification that don't take place in "the central city" or that do not "upgrade" from proletariat to petite bourgeoisie ("working-class" to "middle-class" in their terms). 

What is gentrification, really? 

Here is the key to understanding gentrification: 

To the working class, real estate is primarily an object of utility. We live there. We form families there. We become small entrepreneurs. We age there. If we are homeowners we may keep some of our savings invested in the form of a dwelling but primarily our interest is to have a place to live and thrive. 

To the real estate speculator, real estate is exclusively a source of rent. They collect lease payments, mortgage payments, and capital gains upon flipping. 

Gentrification occurs when there is a coincidence of, on the one hand, speculators anxious to find ways to lend out their excess capital; on the other hand, a community vulnerable to large increases in rent extraction through a process of new investment. 


"The owners of residential real estate know that if a previously working-class area becomes "gentrified," ground-rent - the value of land - is sure to soar. As soon as they sense the bare possibly of gentrification, the landlords will do all they can to drive their working-class tenants out. " -- Sam Williams. (A critique of crisis theory (blog))  



The signs and symptoms are familiar. As market rents go up the working class is immobilized, unable to relocate within their home market. Rent increases and evictions pick up. Mortgage resets and tax increases put the squeeze on. Step by step communities are broken up as people leave, leaving behind the stranded. 


Meanwhile, by any means that works, speculators grab up properties and raise all forms of rent. Perhaps they build a high-end playground or perhaps they build a new student ghetto. The history of Library Gardens illustrates the ambiguity and ambivalence of speculator plans. Only the bottom line matters: a radical shift upwards in the amount of rent being extracted, even at the cost of communities and local economies. 

Emergency steps that Berkeley can take 

End overcrowding: A lax stance towards overcrowding students in apartments generates windfall rent profits and accelerates the process of gentrification towards an enlarged student ghetto. Additionally, over-crowding creates public health risks and risks associated with fires, earthquakes, and structural failures. Progressives should lead the charge to deny landlords the option to overcrowd students into apartments. 

Plan investment:Not all speculative investment is bad! Berkeley should welcome speculators even while preventing them from crushing established communities and economies. Progressives should convene the community and innovative experts to map out profitable investments that would enhance rather than shove aside incumbent residents. 

Spotlight economic development: Believe it or not, Berkeley has a (dusty, neglected) master plan for economic development that goes well beyond enabling the most destructive forms of real estate speculation. Progressives should lead a renewal of public attention to the need for a diverse economy characterized by maximizing wages, not corporate profits; an economy that rejuvenates Berkeley's historically vibrant grass roots entrepreneurial spirit. 

Drag speculative stakeholders to the table: Berkeley's major landlords and property owners need to come out from the shadows and work with progressives to develop a plan to move forward. 

Agitate for neighborhood preservation: Short-term rentals (e.g. "AirBnB") and in-law unit add-ons need to be balanced with a renewed call for neighborhood preservation or else, before long, our "residential" neighborhoods will be overbuilt and flipped to become de facto commercial districts with unstable tenancies and a sharp increase in absent owners. 

Shine a spotlight on City planning staff: Staff's lack of transparency and controversial actions have raised questions of corruption: Is the planning department functioning in appropriate pursuit of Berkeley's master planning and policies? Or has it gone rogue, a revolving door of favoritism, manipulating rather than empowering resident participation, and exposing the city to ever greater liabilities? A thorough investigation and perhaps a short moratorium on development permits is called for. 

The most important thing.... Progressives must find a way out of their shrinking bubble of party allies, office staff, and key donors. The people most absent from long-term city planning at this juncture are the majority of residents. Progressives should take the lead in raising public awareness and building public engagement.