They throw us out of our homes but we get ice cream

If there were any doubt that gentrification has come to my corner of Brooklyn, that was put to rest last weekend with the appearance of an ice cream truck. An ice cream truck painted with the logo and red color of The Economist. Yes, it was just as this reads. Free scoops of ice cream were being given out as a young woman with a clipboard was attempting to get people to sign up for subscriptions to The Economist.

Not that there had been any reason to harbor illusions about gentrification — the glass-walled, high-priced high rises sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm are merely the most obvious of multiple signs. The neighborhood where I live, Greenpoint, is notable as a Polish enclave, although a sliver along the East River was mainly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and artists two decades ago. In short, a place for people needing a (relatively) cheap (by New York City standards) place to live and which still possessed a working waterfront.

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

Not really the sort of folks who might be expected to read one of the two main flagships of the British finance industry. To watch, or participate in, an art parade, sure. That is the sort of procession one used to see. Or Mr. Softee, a local franchise with ice cream trucks (of the traditional sort) that played a jingle, over and over again, that had a way of getting inside your head, although not necessarily in a good way. One summer a Mr. Softee truck seemed permanently stationed on my block, leading me to write a poem on the uses of Mr. Softee’s ice cream other than eating and even as a talisman against an invasion of space aliens. As I said, the jingle has a way of getting inside your head.

But no matter how bizarre the sight of an Economist ice cream truck, there is nothing actually funny about gentrification. Not even a Financial Times ice cream truck in pink (although perhaps a little too close to the color of Pepto-Bismol for comfort there) would be funny. Systematic evictions, the wholescale removal of peoples, the wiping out of alternative cultures and the imposition of the soul-deadening dullness of consumerist corporate monoculture has become a global phenomenon.

Rent laws don’t help if your home can be torn down

This has accelerated to where not simply buildings are being emptied out, but entire complexes. In Silicon Valley, a San Jose apartment complex with 216 units is being demolished to make way for a luxury high-rise. The hundreds of residents there are protected from higher rents by local rent-control laws. But that law has a rather big loophole — the rent-controlled buildings can be torn down, and the residents kicked into the street with no recourse and no right to a replacement apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area as a whole lost more than 50 percent of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2013.

Gentrification literally kills — symbolized by the tragic death of Alex Nieto in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story brought to a wider audience in an essay by Rebecca Solnit, Mr. Nieto was a long-time resident of the Mission who was shot by police for being Latino in a local park — targeted because gentrifying techies, new to the neighborhood, decided Mr. Nieto was a threat and called the police, a tragic ending that was set in motion when a techie thought it amusing that his dog was menacing Mr. Nieto as he ate on a bench.

The Mission, as is well known, has long been a Latin American enclave. What is happening there, and in so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, is no accident. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Dictatorships of favored industries

There are interests at work here. The technology industry has a stranglehold on San Francisco, for example, its techies with their frat-boy culture rapidly bidding up housing prices and making the city unaffordable for those who made it the culturally distinct place it has long been. New York City is a dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries; the process of gentrification there has progressed through a mayor who snarls and can’t be bothered to hide his hatred for most of the people who live there (Rudy Giuliani), a mayor who covered himself with a technocratic veneer (Michael Bloomberg) and a mayor fond of empty talk but who is the Barack Obama of New York (Bill de Blasio). They follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch, who showed his humanitarian streak when he declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Despite the reasoning of a federal judge who two years ago overturned a San Francisco ordinance designed to slow down speculation in housing that accelerates exorbitant rises in rents, those rents do not rise without human intervention. Not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for all its low-income residents, according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, which also reports that only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households in the U.S. with incomes at or below 30 percent of their local median income.

The trend of rents taking up a bigger portion of income, although accelerating in recent years, is a long-term trend — one study found that rents have risen close to double the rate of inflation since 1938, and the prices of new houses at an even higher rate. Gentrification and the rising rents that accompany it are found around the world, from Vancouver to London to Berlin to Istanbul to Melbourne.

Just as markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest industrialists and financiers, allowing the “market” to determine housing policies means that the richest developers will decide who gets to live where. The vision of former New York City Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (enforced through policies kept in place by Mayor de Blasio) is of Manhattan and adjoining areas of Brooklyn becoming a gated city for the wealthy, with the rest of us allowed in to work and then leave. The most profitable projects for developers are luxury housing for millionaires and billionaires — interests coincide. Even when a local government makes a tepid attempt, under public pressure, to ameliorate the harshness of housing conditions, such as with San Francisco, it is swamped by the tidal pull of market forces.

This global phenomenon derives from a top-down global system, capitalism, under which housing is a commodity for private profit instead of a basic human right. A free scoop of ice cream really doesn’t compensate losing the ability to keep a roof over your head.

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Do rents really rise without human intervention?

It takes a lot of money to get people to vote against their own interests, and the real estate industry has plenty of money. Ideological obfuscation plays its part, too, and both contributed to a recent pair of defeats in San Francisco’s uphill fight against gentrification.

I happened to be in San Francisco in the days leading up to Election Day, and there seemed to be quite a lot of excitement over Proposition G, a modest proposal that would have instituted a tax on speculators buying and quickly selling tenant-occupied housing. “Yes on G” signs abounded and most, although not all, advocates I met believed it would pass. Why not? What renter could be against a law that might slow down, a little, skyrocketing rents? Nonetheless, the real estate industry poured $2 million into opposing Proposition G, outspending proponents 12-to-1, and it was defeated.

Only two weeks earlier, a federal judge overturned a law passed by the city government that would have forced landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years. An attempt to combat a steady upsurge in evictions, the judge nonetheless declared that skyrocketing rents aren’t the fault of landlords.

The rents go up all by themselves? Landlords by some lucky coincidence just happen to be the beneficiaries of some mysterious process outside of human control?

San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district (photo by

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

Ah, yes, the magic of the market at work again. The federal judge who handed down the ruling, Charles Breyer, has a reputation as a liberal. Yet he had no hesitation in grounding his ruling in orthodox economic ideology, largely echoing the arguments of the hard right, libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented the landlords. Judge Breyer went so far as to call the requirement a confiscation and “an impermissible monetary exaction.” But the law would not have stopped landlords from throwing tenants into the street so they could bring in new tenants who would pay more, merely ameliorate the cost to the evicted tenant.

Lawyers for the city of San Francisco argued that the two-year rent-differential payment would be “roughly proportional to the harm they impose on their tenants by evicting them from a rent-regulated unit and forcing them to seek new housing at market rates.” That is a real consequence, as the average San Francisco rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,100. It would require the combined salaries of 4.6 full-time jobs at San Francisco’s minimum wage to afford the average two-bedroom apartment there, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

More than 10,000 San Franciscans have been evicted under a state law, the Ellis Act, that enables landlords to “exit” the landlord business (although in many cases, they “re-enter” the business after the previous tenants are evicted). The Tenants Together study that reported that total notes that it actually accounts for a small percentage of Ellis Act-related evictions as many others are forced out by the threat of an Ellis Act eviction and do not count toward the official statistic.

Court says landlords who evict are bystanders

Judge Breyer, nonetheless, blamed “market forces” and that favorite right-wing bogey, rent control, for runaway rents. Landlords, therefore, are innocent victims. In his decision, the judge wrote:

“[The law] seeks to force the property owner to pay for a broad public problem not of the owner’s making. A property owner did not cause the high market rent to which a tenant who chooses to stay in San Francisco might be exposed, nor cause the lower rent-controlled rate the tenant previously enjoyed.”

There you have it: If you are in the way of a speculator or a developer wanting to maximize their profits, get lost. That is simply a more polite way to say what former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said as gentrification got underway there in the 1980s: “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Lost in these legal and ideological thickets are that landlords are cashing in on the sweat of others, including those they force out. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Organic cultures originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture are steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity.

Those organic cultures then became selling points to promote the targeted neighborhood, cashed in not by those who created it but by real estate interests. Local governments facilitate this process on behalf of developers, tempered by the ability of movements from below to slow the process.

The fallback position of the Pacific Legal Foundation, also adopted by the judge, was that the two-year rent-differential payment would be unfair anyway, because there was no requirement that the payment be used toward rent. The San Francisco city attorney pointed out that the recipient of such a payment would have no choice but to spend it on new housing. But the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney admitted that were such a requirement in place, it would have opposed the law just the same.

The city of San Francisco has announced it will appeal Judge Breyer’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “There should be no doubt that when a landlord evicts a rent-controlled tenant, the immense rent increase the tenant faces is the direct result of the landlord’s decision to evict,” the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said. A decision acknowledging that would be one grounded in the real world, rather than the phantasmagoria of orthodox economics and its insistence that “markets” are based in the clouds, beyond human touch. In the real world, the landlords, developers and bankers who profit are the real estate market.

A flood of real estate money

Two weeks later, Proposition G failed, with 54 percent against and 46 percent voting in favor. Prop G proposed a “speculation tax” whereby a buyer of a multi-unit property would have to pay a tax surcharge if the building were sold in less than five years; the charge would range from 24 percent in the first year to 14 percent between four and five years. After five years, there would be no such tax surcharge. Because it was designed to be applied only to speculators, the proposed tax had several exemptions, including all single-family buildings and any building sold at a loss.

A heavy barrage of landlord mailings, including false claims that all properties would be covered, was too much for housing activists to overcome. Nonetheless, in a survey of activist responses after the vote published on the 48 Hills blog, there seemed to be a consensus that the effort to talk to people in the streets changed many minds, came close to overcoming the real estate industry’s 12-to-1 spending advantage and set the stage for further efforts that could succeed. The author of this article, Gen Fujioka, policy director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, quoted Causa Justa/Just Cause organizer Maria Zamudio:

“In this election we made major gains in organizing working class immigrants, seniors, low-wage workers, parents, and tenants, firing people up around the demand that they, too, deserve to live in San Francisco. … While it did not win this year, Prop G was part of a larger [local] progressive narrative that did win [including a minimum-wage measure that passed]. That narrative, along with the tools developed and relationships built in this campaign, will be the foundation on which we can continue to grow.”

Another activist, Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, believes that a greater emphasis on community organizing would make a difference. Proposition G had been placed on the ballot by four members of the city Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council), rather than by activists collecting signatures, a strategy he believes should be reconsidered. He writes:

“Had the anti-speculation tax gone the signature route, activists would have recognized when the Title and Summary for the initiative petitions was prepared that the very popular idea of ‘stopping the flip’ did not translate well into a ballot measure. At that point a decision could have been made to alter it in some way as to either guarantee that the words ‘eviction’ or ‘speculator’ were included in the ballot question, or to seek to broaden the support base before going forward. … [T]he months spent talking to voters during the petition gathering process would have educated thousands about the issue. It would have insulated these voters from the big money attacks that created, and sought to provoke, confusion about what Prop G meant.”

The influx of technology-company employees may have also tipped the balance. It is difficult to speculate as I have no seen no surveys or breakdowns of the Proposition G vote, but it is possible that techies, many of whom absorb their corporate leaders’ libertarian political tendencies, voted in large numbers against. The group Techies Who Vote called on the technology industry to “exercise its electoral muscle” and vote against Prop G and progressive candidates who supported the measure.

Don’t mourn, organize

Organization is the only recourse against further gentrification, in San Francisco and elsewhere. But reversing the powerful moneyed interests that profit from it is no small task. A local organizer, Mike Miller, writing in CounterPunch, laments the fading of coalitions such as the Mission Coalition Organization that won many battles on behalf of tenants but was unable to coalesce into a force strong enough to reach neighborhood-wide agreements with landlord representatives. He writes:

“Regulation replaced organizing as the strategy to protect tenant interests—a voter-passed initiative created a rent control law, and a Rent Control Board to administer it. Electoral politics rather than mass, disruptive, nonviolent action became the means to enforce the strategy. Each, alone, is insufficient. ‘The market’ overwhelms them: too much demand for too little supply.

Unfortunately, there is no capacity now to negotiate with landlords, developers, lenders and others who profit from this run-amuck market. There is no longer a mass organization that might hurt profits and politicians’ careers by its capacity for boycotts, disruption, lobbying and electoral action.”

The inability to stop gentrification then has ramifications for surrounding areas. Across the bay, Oakland rents have risen 15 percent this year after rising 12 percent in 2013. Housing developments, with little affordable set-asides, are mushrooming in Oakland and evictions are increasing.

That, of course, is not merely a local phenomenon. The average net income from building ownership in New York City has increased 31.5 percent since 1990 — rents collected have risen faster than expenses. Nationally, real estate prices have been increasing faster than inflation since the 1960s. Thus it is no surprise the share prices of real estate investment trusts have more than quadrupled since early 2009.

This is the result of allowing “market forces” to control housing. The way out is for housing to be recognized as a human right, instead of a capitalist commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder. That, however, will require a different, better world.