The Part of Rent Increases That Really Is Rich People's Fault

(Since I'm planning to do most of my bigger, fancier, more original posts over at Planetizen, I'm gonna try to post a bit more commentary here. This'll kick things off nicely.)

Luxury London townhouses, from

I tend to be pretty defensive of rich people and developers when it comes to urban growth, since I think they're often blamed for things they really have no control over — specifically, the idea that they're responsible for increasing housing prices. Not to say they don't play a role, but the biggest issue is demand for housing. You can't really blame rich people for wanting nice homes, or wanting to live in the city, and you really can't blame developers for wanting to build things where demand is hot, because if they don't build then prices rise even more.

So when I read this Moneybox article on Slate, it seemed like a good opportunity to show off my progressive liberal bona fides and stick it to rich people for being jerks. Yglesias describes the problem:

Low income people in a gentrifying neighborhood see both new luxury construction and rising rents and it's difficult to persuade them that even more construction is the answer. But that's because we've so firmly shut the door on the idea of adding housing supply in the neighborhood that are already the priciest ones in town. Once the focus of the conversation settles narrowly on a handful of transitional neighborhoods, it's almost too late to have a sensible conversation. But you have a twofold limitation on supply. On the one hand, the total number of new units is capped so people only want to build luxury. On the other hand, new construction in the fancy neighborhoods is absolutely prohibited. 
So you get an apparent invasion of luxury buildings into poor neighborhoods and even more vigorous efforts to restrict supply. We can do better than this.

This really is an underrated problem, and something that really bothers me about politics, and particularly progressive politics that are supposedly concerned with the welfare of the less fortunate. Basically, we build up neighborhoods to the point where they get a critical level of rich-person immigration, and those rich-person immigrants then flex their political muscle to limit zoning and ensure that their neighborhoods can't change any further. It's a lack of this political power that often leads to the development of transitional neighborhoods, which I would argue is generally for the better, but ultimately we need better education rather than a mayor-knows-best approach if we're going to make real progress.

That "get mine and get out," or rather "get mine and keep everyone else out" approach reminds me of an article I recently read in LAist which perfectly describes how many people seem to think about gentrification in "their neighborhoods":

When people complain about gentrification, what they’re often saying is, “bring things back to the way they were when I first moved here.” There’s something a bit selfish about that, isn’t there?

Unfortunately the wealthy, unlike the poor, often have the resources to actually make that happen. It's a serious problem we need to address if we hope to have any credibility in the communities we'd deign to rezone and redevelop. "You guys are too poor and disorganized to fight it" isn't good enough.