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Exile on H Street

I’ll begin by laying my cards on the table. I lived in Washington, D.C. from 2010 to 2013. For almost all that time, my apartment was either in Columbia Heights or Mt. Pleasant—neighborhoods that have recently seen an influx of upwardly mobile young people.

Wherever I lived, my rent never exceeded $1,000. This gave me a bit of disposable income, which I often spent at places like nice coffee shops and farm-to-table restaurants. And yes, during that time, I called the cops once, to report a brutal group beating happening in the lot behind my apartment.

Is there such a thing as a “good gentrifier”? Was I one of them? And if the “good gentrifier” exists, does being one have more to do with cultural values or economic power?

In a barnstorming essay in Jacobin, D.C. resident Gavin Mueller answers the first question with a resounding no. If a “good gentrifier” is a gentrifier who doesn’t really contribute to gentrification, he and I agree: While there are many nice gentrifiers, there are no good ones. But what seems to upset Mueller just as much as gentrification itself is liberalism’s inability to conceive of the problem properly. This is where his analysis, and his dichotomy between culture and economics, falls flat. Casting “liberal yuppies” as the face of a city’s ills is convenient because it places blame on an already-hated class. But the gentrification game ensnares all of us, no matter our income, and no matter how aware we are of our roles in the process.

I don’t deny the fact that, during my time in D.C., I was a part of an invading army. All the same, it’s clear to me that we should view gentrification not as a Manichean class struggle, but as a web of conflicting incentives, woven from scarce resources and growing inequality. Mueller openly scorns the word “complicated” in his piece, but gentrification is complicated. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better equipped we will be to fight urban displacement.

Mueller is right about many of the basic dynamics of gentrification. Racism and classism, today and throughout history, play a huge role. After sixty years of government-backed suburban sprawl, an increasing preference for “traditional urbanism” has turned Jane Jacobs’s vision of a fine-grained urban fabric from an aspiration into a commodity. (Though I’d argue that the solution here isn’t to paint Jacobs as the patron saint of displacement, or the predecessor to “Rudy Giuliani with his nightstick”—but rather to enourage more Jacobs-style neighborhoods, since people clearly like living in them.)

After discussing Washington’s history of entrenched segregation, Mueller spends much of the piece talking about gentrification as a function of homeownership. Condos are a convenient metaphor for a city’s becoming unattainable for all but the wealthy. The mere act of owning valuable urban property, Mueller says, “sutures a professional class, of liberal and even progressive beliefs, to the rapacious capitalist expansion into the city.” But in D.C., the wheels of gentrification tend to begin turning long before the condo towers go up. The true shock troops—the first ones on the ground when gentrification happens—are people of far more modest means: renters.

Washington, D.C. is, after all, a city where the homeownership rate is only 42 percent, versus 65 percent nationwide. The most immediately relevant number for people who are wondering if they can afford the city is its median monthly rent: $1,600 for an apartment in 2012, according to The Washington Post. In Columbia Heights, a neighborhood that has come to embody D.C.’s gentrification, Trulia shows median rents of around $1,400—per bedroom, not per apartment. With my lowly budget of $1000 per month, I’d now be hard-pressed to find an apartment in the same area.

The last few years in Columbia Heights have also seen a glut of new luxury condos; on a recent trip back, I barely recognized any of the buildings along a bus route that I used to ride several times a week. But despite all the new digs along 14th Street, the homeownership rate in Columbia Heights is a paltry 35 percent. The bulk of the neighborhood’s gentrifiers aren’t owners—they’re people who can afford to pay high rents. Their economic capital priced out the cultural capital of the first wave of gentrifiers—writers, baristas, activists, etcetera. And that first wave, in turn, went to neighborhoods inhabited by people with neither cultural nor economic capital: the working poor like janitors and sales clerks, and the flat-out unemployed.

One such neighborhood is the H Street Corridor, where Mueller lives, and which, he notes, “Forbes magazine…has labeled the sixth-hippest neighborhood in the U.S.” The neighborhood’s current incarnation began when the same entrepreneur behind the Adams Morgan district opened a series of bars and restaurants in this stretch of the city. Median rents there are considerably lower than in Columbia Heights or U Street. Because of the area’s proximity to Capitol Hill, the zoning is also tighter, which means that there are more row houses and fewer chances to build luxury condos.

But the biggest factor contributing to H Street’s lower rents is probably that it’s a pain to get to. The nearest Metro stop is a twenty-minute walk. The neighborhood is getting a streetcar, a project that many urbanists and transit enthusiasts have assailed because the streetcars won’t have a dedicated lane. But even if the streetcar is bad transit planning, it will raise rents in the neighborhood. We know this because something similar happened in D.C.’s recent past. Soon after a new Metro station was completed in 1999, the surrounding neighborhood experienced rapid gentrification. That neighborhood was Columbia Heights.

Does this mean that we should oppose public transit extensions, because they inevitably make a neighborhood more attractive and therefore raise rents? Mueller doesn’t say. Given the lives, time, and money that increased usage of public transit can save, to do so would be a classic “cut off your nose to spite your face” move. But the narrative that “gentrification is class warfare, not culture” leaves little room for these nuances.

The truth is that people live where they can afford to live, and if high-income renters choose to buy urban property, it’s not necessarily because they’re looking to paint the town white. Equally likely, it’s because renting is a bottomless sink of money, landlords are a bunch of thieving bastards, and if you can avoid dealing with them, it makes your life immeasurably better.

Wealthy owner-occupiers are a symptom of gentrification, not a cause. By the time condos go up and houses get sold to young professionals, a neighborhood has likely already been infused with capital—first the cultural, and then the economic kind—and been “flipped,” so to speak. If anything has the potential to stop urban displacement, it’s not a polemic against “gentrifiers” and “liberals”; it’s a radical rethinking of the relationship between landlords, tenants, and the state.

This transformation could take the form of stricter legal penalties for absentee or abusive landlords, or a name-and-shame campaign. Or far, far stronger anti-eviction protections than any U.S. city currently has. It could involve overhauling the tax code so it doesn’t subsidize homeowners, or expanding the housing supply in cities with restrictive zoning regimes, like D.C.’s. Work—piecemeal, insufficient, important work—is being done on all these fronts. Even the mildest proposals are causing the real-estate lobby to cry foul. So why bait liberals when you can bait slumlords?