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Understanding and fighting gentrification: A revolutionary orientation

Jan 6, 2022

Photo: "STOP GENTRIFICATION: graffiti in Turin (IT), multi-story car park Porta Palazzo." Source: Wikicommons.

Introduction

Cities across the U.S. are rapidly transforming. “Gentrification-style” luxury developments are replacing neighborhood landmarks and low-income housing. Sky-high rents are pushing poor residents increasingly further from city centers. These trends are symptoms of gentrification, the process by which poor and working-class people are driven out of their communities due to an influx of capitalist investment in their neighborhoods.

Gentrification is not always defined in these terms. Some cite cultural explanations, from the kind and number of amenities (like coffee shops, bike lanes, etc.) developed in an urban neighborhood to changing social norms around “lifestyle choices” (like not having children), defining gentrification as a result of individual consumer preferences. Or they might define it as the result of collective consumption patterns, which happens in arguments about “gay gentrification.” Some define gentrification as a process of white people moving to Black neighborhoods and pushing long-term Black residents out of major urban centers such as Washington D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia. Still others merely accept that gentrification is a “natural” and unavoidable phenomenon. In general, these groups view gentrification as a short-term problem to be corrected by policy tweaks, such as reforming residential zoning laws, or “better” individual choices [1].

Instead of individual or even policy choices, Marxists understand gentrification as a process that is fundamentally caused by the laws of capitalism—as part and parcel of its regular cycle of capital accumulation—coupled with racism and other forms of oppression. In this article, we explain the underlying forces that produce gentrification by turning to Marx and Engels before covering more recent research and organizing around the topic. At the end, we discuss the practical implications of a revolutionary understanding of gentrification.

Housing under capitalism and the foundations of gentrification

The starting point for any discussion about housing under capitalism is commodification. In capitalist society, housing—like essentially everything else—is produced primarily as something to be sold for a profit. Its use-value (i.e. providing shelter) is subordinated to its exchange-value (how much it can be sold for). This is why millions of people in the U.S. lose their homes to eviction or foreclosure each year, while at the same time, there is an abundance of vacant housing: because the vacant housing will remain in the hands of capital until it can return a sufficient exchange-value.

The driving motive of capitalists is not simply to make a profit, but to indefinitely maximize profits. This leads capitalists to concentrate their investments in the industries and geographical regions that are most profitable, while simultaneously extracting from or neglecting other areas. Due to the competitive nature of capitalism, if one capitalist finds a profitable area, others will soon follow to compete in the same region, market or industry. In time, the competition between capitalists will drive down the rate of profits made in the respective area, and capital will flow out of the now saturated area to seek out new areas for investment.

The development of capitalist cities exemplifies this phenomenon. In the process of industrialization, capitalists invested in building up the means of production such as factories and machines in urban areas, increasing their capacity to produce and sell more commodities. As mentioned above, the movement of capital influences the movement of people. As capitalist investment concentrated in cities, workers did as well. Many moved from rural areas characterized by underinvestment into the cities to pursue employment [2].

Between 1820 and 1920, the percentage of U.S. residents living in cities increased from 7.2 to 51.2 percent. In Capital, Marx describes a similar process playing out in England in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, writing, “the more rapidly capital accumulates in an industrial or commercial town, the more rapidly flows the stream of exploitable human material, the more miserable are the improvised dwellings of the labourers” [3].

Marx notes the poor living conditions for workers and sketches a process we would call gentrification today in this passage:

“The intimate connexion between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, reveals itself only when the economic laws are known. It is otherwise with the ‘housing of the poor.’ Every unprejudiced observer sees that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding heaping together of the labourers, within a given space; that therefore the swifter capitalistic accumulation, the more miserable are the dwellings of the working-people. ‘Improvements’ of towns, accompanying the increase of wealth, by the demolition of badly built quarters, the erection of palaces for banks, warehouses, &c., the widening of streets for business traffic, for the carriages of luxury, and for the introduction of tramways, &c., drive away the poor into even worse and more crowded hiding places. On the other hand, every one knows that the dearness of dwellings is in inverse ratio to their excellence, and that the mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit or less cost than ever were the mines of Potosi. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and therefore of the capitalistic relations of property generally” [4].

Here, Marx makes critical points about housing under capitalism that are still relevant today. He describes extremely unsafe and exploitative housing conditions for workers in cities. Homes are crowded and neglected as landlords profit from rent payments while reinvesting little or none of that rent money into maintaining good housing conditions because that would interfere with their profitability.

The conditions were so bad that government officials in Great Britain uncharacteristically encroached on the rights of capital by implementing housing sanitary codes, not out of the kindness of their hearts, but because they feared the spread of disease and other social risks. This is what Friedrich Engels found in his study of England: “Every great city has one or more slums, where the working class is crowded together” in “a separate territory… removed from the sight of the happier classes” [5].

Second, Marx describes an early form of gentrification. Because capital continued to concentrate in cities in pursuit of expanded profits, workers were forcibly displaced from their homes to make way for urban “improvements.” As Marx notes, these were not improvements in the living conditions of workers, who remained heavily exploited, but improvements in the environment for capital to expand.

Capitalism and gentrification in the modern era

While the fundamental phenomena of commodification and uneven development under capitalism remain relevant to housing today, the context in which gentrification occurs has changed. As capital saturated cities with development in its likeness throughout the 19th to early 20th century, it created barriers to future development. Geographer Neil Smith showed that the gentrification in the mid-late 20th century resulted from capital’s need to expand productive capacity. The result was suburbanization–or the moving of production and housing outside of the city, where land was cheap and available. Capital migrated to new locations where it could pursue a higher rate of profit and took many workers with it. As a result, the value of land in cities decreased while the value of land in the suburbs increased.

Smith formulated the theory of the “rent gap,” which is the difference between current ground rents and the potential ground rents capitalists and landlords could gain through redevelopment. The rent gap explains how, in the U.S. during this period of time, capital moved from the city to the suburbs and back again. Gentrification happens when the rent gap is wide enough to cover the costs of redevelopment with enough of a profitable return when the rents are actualized, and is not confined to cities.

Much of capitalist redevelopment occurs in the “built environment:” buildings, streets, bridges, warehouses and other infrastructure. This development requires “a large investment of capital for a long time” [6]. Once capital investments are made, the built environment needs to remain for decades in order to return sufficient surplus value or profits to justify the investment. Whatever is built cannot be demolished and still return value. The built environment is valorized piecemeal as commodities are transported on roadways, wages are transformed into rent and mortgage payments, etc. However, as the built environment is used up over time, it is also devalorized [7].

Photo by Ted Eytan. Source: Wikicommons.

The circulation of capital through buildings takes much longer than other commodities. Capitalist cities were first produced not “on a capitalist basis at all, but rather at communal or state expense” because there was not sufficient capital to invest for such a long period [8]. Today the state is still a major force in urban development. The state not only authorizes gentrification but also subsidizes it. For example, during the “Urban Renewal” of the 1950s and 60s, at least 300,000 households across the country were forcibly displaced so that their homes could be demolished to make way for redevelopment by capital. The federal government financed both this so-called “slum clearance” and the private developments that replaced these working-class homes. Today, federal and local governments sell valuable public lands to private developers for pennies on the dollar. The state guides gentrification through legislation and zoning policies, tax breaks, grants and other incentives, while moral grandstanding about “urban blight,” with ongoing policing and repression [9].

Because there is a finite amount of land in every city, once a city reaches a certain level of development, opportunities for profitable development become rarer. At a certain point, capitalists can no longer profitably invest in redeveloped neighborhoods, although this does not mean that capitalists and landlords stop profiting from cities. Having already invested capital in buildings and infrastructure, they are happy to profit from “mines of misery,” refusing to invest in maintaining these developments. In the long term, this leads to deteriorating conditions in many urban neighborhoods and even entire cities, with housing in disrepair and infrastructure crumbling. A new cycle of development and disinvestment occurs:

“Capital flows where the rate of return is highest, and the movement of capital to the suburbs along with the continual depreciation of inner-city capital, eventually produces the rent gap. When this gap grows sufficiently large, rehabilitation (or for that matter, renewal) can begin to challenge the rates of return available elsewhere, and capital flows back” [10].

This is the cycle of development, divestment and reinvestment that produces gentrification. Neighborhoods that have long been neglected are euphemistically targeted for “redevelopment” or “revitalization.”

National oppression and gentrification

Yet capital’s flight from U.S. inner cities is only understandable in the context of white supremacy and national oppression.

To escape the racist Jim Crow apartheid structure, Black people migrated from the Deep South to urban areas in the North. Yet rather than finding decent jobs and freedom from racist segregation, “these migrants entered the capitalist economy at the lowest rungs, and repeatedly were the first to suffer from de-skilling and layoffs” [11]. Many were kept out of white-dominated unions, which had, by this time, been purged of communists.

Black people were also excluded from Federal Housing Administration programs and others that provided affordable home loans to soldiers returning from World War II. In New York, for example, the 17,400 homes built were only accessible to white people.

This helps account for the urban nature of the hundreds of Black Liberation uprisings throughout the U.S. in the 1960s-70s, from Watts to Harlem.

As the technological revolution began displacing increasing numbers of workers, capital forced chronic unemployment on Black neighborhoods. Interlocking economic crises produced a recession in the 1970s, while the massive outsourcing of industrial labor threw even more workers—especially Black workers—out of factories.

To counter the growing unrest of Black and other oppressed peoples, the U.S. ruling class consolidated around a “law and order” response to repress political rebellions. The narrative they constructed equated “crime with political dissent” and “laid the basis for an enormous buildup of the state’s repressive powers” [12]. Black revolutionary organizations and Black workers were targeted and turned over to the growing mass incarceration apparatus.

The devaluation of urban rents coupled with racist repression explain the gentrification processes in U.S. urban centers that started in the late 20th century and that continue to this day through, for example, zero tolerance policing. This strategy builds on the “Broken Windows” thesis of 1982, which was published in a liberal magazine. The theory maintains “that the key to crime reduction was for the police to focus on nuisance crimes, like vandals breaking windows” [13]. The notion here is that minor crimes like graffiti or loitering will, if unchecked, lead to larger crimes.

The exemplary institution of what was eventually called zero tolerance policing was inaugurated by NYC mayor Giuliani and his chief of police, William Bratton, who “vowed to ‘clean the city’ of the ‘scum’ that apparently ‘threatened’ decent people walking down the street.” While it masqueraded as a crime policy, “it is a social cleansing strategy” in reality [14]. The “values” they articulated were clearly racist and anti-worker, as evidenced by the disproportionate numbers of working-class and people of color arrested for minor violations. Such policies are now enacted in New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Brazil and elsewhere.

Even after almost a decade of Black Lives Matter protests and rebellions, zero tolerance policing like “stop and frisk” are still policy go-tos for conservatives and liberals alike. Democratic NYC Mayor-elect Eric Adams, a former police officer and the city’s second Black mayor, ran on a campaign promise to resurrect the secret police unit involved in stop and frisk. On November 11, 2021, he said he was following through with that promise [15]. In an op-ed for the New York Daily Post, Adams said that “stop, question and frisk is a perfectly legal, appropriate and constitutional tool, when used smartly” and called it a “necessary tool” [16].

Gentrification and the housing instability and increased state repression that accompany it, radically heighten the oppression workers of oppressed genders, sexualities, nationalities, and abilities face. As Yasmina Mrabet notes, “women often tend to be the leaseholders and are first in line to be subjected to mass evictions. Women with families have difficulty securing safe, habitable, and affordable housing due to the elimination of family-sized units” [17]. The National Center for Transgender Equality found that 20 percent of transgender people in the U.S. faced anti-trans discrimination while finding housing, over 10 percent have been evicted because of their gender identity [18]. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of transgender youth subjected to homelessness increased by 88 percent [19].

Just as we cannot understand gentrification without national oppression, we cannot understand national oppression without capitalism (and vice versa). In other words, gentrification is not merely the result of racist structures and attitudes–which is evident in the fact that it is a global phenomenon and often involves interracial households. Instead, in the U.S. it is white supremacy and other forms of oppression coupled with capitalism that produce and reproduce gentrification.

The fight against gentrification: Theory, tactics, and strategy

This Marxist theory of gentrification has strategic and tactical implications. It clarifies that individual “gentrifiers”—the relatively more financially well-off workers who might move into gentrifying neighborhoods for various reasons—are not the drivers of this process and are not correct targets of organizing efforts. This is not to say that particular individuals or institutions—like real estate brokers, land developers, banks, the cops, etc.—escape responsibility and evade our struggle. It is rather to say that our ultimate aim is not to transform individuals but to transform society as a whole, and therefore create the possibility of a new kind of social being.

Photo: Eviction protest organized by Cancel the Rents. Source: Liberation News.

This analysis provides us with a starting point to effectively fight. A systemic process like gentrification can only be combated through the collective organization of working-class communities that directly confronts capital and its lackeys. This takes many forms, including, disruptions of luxury development planning processes, struggles for reforms like rent control which restrict the rights of capital, takeovers of abandoned buildings and vacant lots before they are redeveloped, and eviction defense actions that keep families in their neighborhoods.

Increasingly popular in taking rights to the city away from workers are so-called “sit-lie” ordinances that prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks during evening and night hours so that homeless people cannot camp there. Organizers across the country have successfully defeated such ordinances and others, like those that criminalize distributing food to workers in need in certain parts of the city.

Eviction defense teams are forming across the country to protect homeless neighbors from losing access to their encampments. In Manchester, New Hampshire, a local coalition of organizers has successfully prevented 11 evictions in seven months, while in Atlanta, Georgia, organizers recently prevented an illegal eviction by slumlords Betty Rose LLC, and in Providence, Rhode Island protesters camped outside the State House to demand housing for all [20].

These intermediate collective struggles can provide working-class people with some protections, combat the alienation that is increasingly common in gentrifying neighborhoods through the relationships forged in these struggles, and prove to the working class the power of collective action. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these struggles unite our class together in head-on confrontations with capital. Here, the antagonistic, exploitative nature of capital is clearly exposed and windows for socialist consciousness to grow open up. These are some of the building blocks for a socialist revolution that will ultimately put an end to gentrification and the general misery of housing under capitalism by transforming housing from a commodity into a human right!

As Engels noted in 1872, capitalism can never solve the housing question. It can only ever “move” it around, a response that takes the form of gentrification and displacement. This is because “the same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also” [21].

Private property is at the bottom of gentrification, capitalism and white supremacy, none of which can be reformed out of each other. In essence, then, addressing each requires establishing new kinds of ownership: collective and common ownership. As Michal Murawski notes, “the city… constitutes the key site of the making and unmaking of socialism” and “the primary mechanism, which enabled the construction of the socialist city… was the deprivatization of the proprietorial structure of the city” [22]. Ownership–who has the right to use and exclude and on what grounds–is absolutely fundamental to the struggles against capitalism and racism.

Thus, while we struggle to cancel the rents, end all evictions and foreclosures, end racist police terror and mass incarceration, and provide the right to housing–all of which are attainable within capitalism–we cannot believe that these measures are enough. To truly solve the housing question and end gentrification we need a socialist revolution that will produce cities and towns, housing and parks, transportation networks and other amenities, for their use-value to the masses and not for their exchange-value for the bosses. Gentrification is not a static reality but a continual process, and it is up to us to stop it.

References

[1] This is not to say that these factors are irrelevant, but rather that they do not explain the underlying forces of gentrification. For example, Lawrence Knopp argues that gentrification cannot be linked to gay communities in any general way. See Knopp, Lawrence. (1990). “Some theoretical implications of gay involvement in an urban land market.” Political Geography Quarterly 9, no. 4: 337-352.
[2] We see this logic and phenomenon in the “enclosure of the commons” in England, the birthplace of modern industrial capitalism. These acts were part and parcel of primary accumulation of capital which created the economic conditions that forced rural workers to leave their farms to seek industrial wage labor. The rural workers were delinked from their former means of production and to do this the ruling class used the state to capture land (and resources) to lay the basis for the commodification of land and thus housing built on that land.
[3] Marx, Karl (1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1): The process of production of capital, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers), 661.
[4] Ibid., 615-616.
[5] Engels, Friedrich. (1845/1984). The condition of the working class in England (London: Penguin), 70.
[6] Marx, Karl. (1885/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol 2): The process of circulation of capital (New York: International Publishers), 233.
[7] Marx refers to the production and realization of value as “valorization.”
[8] Marx, Capital (vol. 2), 233.
[9] See Mitchell, Don. (2020). Mean streets: Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital (Athens: University of Georgia Press).
[10] Smith, “Toward a theory of gentrification,” 546.
[11] Puryear, Eugene. (2013). Shackled and chained: Mass incarceration in capitalist America (San Francisco: Liberation Media), 46.
[12] Ibid., 66.
[13] Ibid., 108.
[14] Smith, Neil. (2001). “Global social cleansing: Postliberal revanchism and the export of zero tolerance.” Social Justice 28, no. 3: 69.
[15] Evans, Dave. (2021). “Mayor-elect dismisses Black Lives Matter threats of riots if NYPD unit resurrected.” ABC 7, 11 November. Available here.
[16] Adams, Eric. (2021). “How we make New York City safe: Mayor-elect Eric Adams explains why we need stop and frisk and proactive policing.” New York Daily News, 28 November. Available here.
[17] Mrabet, Yasmina. (2018). Not just rich people and cafes: Toward a socialist understanding of gentrification.” Breaking the Chains, 27 December. Available here.
[18] The National Center for Transgender Equality. (2021). “Housing & homelessness.” Available here.
[19] National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2020). “Transgender homeless adults & unsheltered homelessness: What the data tell us.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 24 July. Available here.
[20] For examples, see Liberation Staff. (2021). Manchester, NH: Homeless community at The Bucket resists 11th eviction in seven months. Liberation News, 13 June. Available here;  and Ford, Derek. (2020). “Indianapolis movement defeats ruling-class attack on the poor.” Liberation News, 19 November. Available here; and Binder, Max. (2021). “Protesters sleep in tents outside Rhode Island State House, demand housing.” Liberation News, 05 December. Available here.
[21] Ford, Derek, and Curry Malott. (2020). “Engels on the housing question: Wishful thinking vs. real solutions.” Liberation School, 27 March. Available here.
[22] Murawski, Michal. (2018). “Marxist morphologies: A materialist critique of brute materialities, flat infrastructures, fuzzy property and complexified cities.” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 82, no. 1: 19.

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