How Liberals Quash Housing Development by Getting Gentrification Wrong

Kristin Richardson Jordan, Harlem’s City Council member, seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of a 917-unit development, One45, proposed by developer Bruce Teitelbaum for a location on West 145th Street in New York.

Even with the developer’s latest pledge that 40 percent of the units in the twin towers would be affordable, Ms. Jordan was apparently unsatisfied—in fact, insulted—that the proposed development was not comprised completely of affordable, rather than mixed-income, units, referring contemptuously to Mr. Teitelbaum’s offer as merely “11th-hour breadcrumbs.”

Maintaining a concentration of poverty has no positive benefits for a neighborhood and specifically works to dissuade middle- and upper-income residents from moving into the area, including white ones, whose presence in Harlem will inevitably result in better public services and schools, upgraded businesses, and an enhanced quality of life.

Ms. Jordan may wish to condemn Harlem to being a monoculture of poverty, entrapping its poor, mostly black residents in an intergenerational trap of decaying real estate, dangerous social pathologies as a result of poverty, and a general cultural and physical stagnation, but no one—including Harlem’s poorest residents—should believe that this outcome is either inevitable or desirable.

Housing for the nation’s poorest citizens is the responsibility of the government and taxpayers, not private real estate developers like Teitelbaum who may wish to do the right thing by offering a portion of One45 as affordable housing but whose main concern is, and should be, maximizing a return on his investment.

Private developers cannot, and should not, be expected to meet the affordable housing demands of society without significant help from government—especially for the poorest of renters, the precise group Ms. Jordan wants to protect. That assistance has taken many forms but can include tax abatements, zoning variances to achieve greater density and extra units, rent subsidies, loan guarantees, or other incentives frequently offered to developers trying to balance the expectations of local officials with their own need to profit from their endeavors.

Rather than condemning such gentrifying neighborhoods to a state of perpetual stagnation—characterized by distressed residential and commercial tracts, declining property values, and widespread poverty—does not a new model of economic growth hold more promise?

That is the very question that Ms. Jordan should have considered before she rejected—without thoughtful analysis—the wide-ranging, comprehensive upgrading in the social and economic conditions of Harlem to which a development like One45 can productively contribute.

For now, the One45 deal seems to be dead in the water. Jordan’s intransigence and delusionary approach to development—which held out for a development in which all, not some, of the units were for Harlem’s poorest residents and were absent of any market-rate units that would attract tenants with mid- and upper-level incomes—has seemingly now resulted in no affordable units likely to be built on the site. Instead, Teitelbaum is now proposing building market-rate units and a storage facility on the parcel, something he can do by right and without any approvals or concessions from the Council.

What is the lesson for City officials and housing activists here? No sooner had One45 been discussed than activists and Ms. Jordan started their not unpredictable protests against expansionism, displacement, and, worst of all, the dreaded “gentrification” that might define Harlem’s future as the inevitable result, they believe, of developments like this.

But characteristic of their complaints is a misunderstanding of what actually happens in a gentrifying community, how, despite bringing significant change to the social and economic fabric of the community, the process of gentrification will actually result in positive, tangible benefits for Harlem’s 320,000 residents. For a community perennially wracked with poverty, disenfranchisement, and despair, this is an end result that, one would think, all would embrace.

But in their zeal to protect residents from an ‘invisible hand’ they do not trust to produce positive benefits, Ms. Jordan and her allies, as they have in numerous older urban cores undergoing change, warned of a skewed housing market and evaporating affordability. In fact, gentrification does not put new pressure on housing markets and create scarcity; and an upgrade in the quality of life in neighborhoods serves as a catalyst for overall growth and development.

How does that take place? Market conditions that encourage the building of new housing have a two-pronged benefit for the community: as new housing is created and neighborhood residents who had been renters become renters of new units, their old housing is freed up for a whole new group of renters who either move from less desirable units (freeing up more units) or come into the neighborhoods for the first time. Thus, gentrification, by making a community attractive to investors, actually enables many renters to move up the housing ladder into presumably better apartments, without displacing tenants and by making their old units available for yet another set of renters below them.

Ms. Jordan’s claim that One45 would cause displacement of existing Harlem residents is equally flawed, particularly since the site presently includes no housing units at all (meaning demolition would not destroy existing units) and that the latest round of negotiations had resulted in the developer promising that of the 915 total units 150, 40 percent of the total, would be income-restricted units. Even though this offer of 40 percent of affordable units is more generous than the 30 percent stipulated in the City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, Jordan made the stunning demand that one hundred percent of the units be affordable; in other words, she is ignoring the positive benefits that every city planner knows flow from mixed-income projects and wants to create a version of public housing, another housing project, built and paid for by the private sector instead of taxpayers.

That unwise demand may play well with Ms. Jordan’s constituents by it flies in the face of good public policy and the realities of incentivizing private developers to do the right when building housing for renters of modest means.

It may be convenient for community leaders, student groups, and activists to make a villain out of gentrification as their way of fearing a future in which their advocacy for the chronic poor is rendered irrelevant by the rising tide of economic growth.

In fact, the disingenuous cries for the ‘preservation’ of the present inner-city communities by activists and some neighborhood leaders have to be looked at as a way of preserving their own influence over the business of poverty, oppression, and victimhood.

What benefit is there in impeding a massive and wide-reaching improvement of the entire economic and social structure of a community? Isn’t this precisely what neighborhood leaders have called for since the Great Society?

Isn’t this the end result they would all wish for their disenfranchised constituents? Rather than condemning Harlem to a state of perpetual stagnation—defined by broad tracts of public housing and widespread poverty—wouldn’t a new model of economic growth and upgraded housing choices hold more promise?

That is the very question that City Councilors, housing activists, and Harlem’s neighborhood leaders should consider before they hobble a project that can improve the social and economic conditions of their community.

They can continue to mistakenly characterize gentrification as a perverse process of social and economic Darwinism, accusing, as they do, developers of being motivated solely by greed, or they can make an honest assessment about the critical and substantive benefits realized by all residents of a community undergoing positive change: jobs, better municipal services, decent places to live, thriving commerce, and the hope that a whole community can start stepping out of poverty once and for all.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” Voltaire once observed. In Ms. Jordan’s perfect world all housing would be affordable, but now, because of her intransigence, there will be no new low-income rental units built and no good for Harlem’s neediest residents. There’s an important lesson there.

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.
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