22 Nov 2017

The winners and losers of skyrocketing rent

Geerte writes*

Two months ago, citizens of the Amsterdam Kinker-neighborhood called for a protest against the enormous gentrification within their area: ‘bring musical instruments like whistles and honks, so we can make as much noise as those tourists always do.’’ Upon hearing such stories, Kay Hymowitz’ claim that ‘“gentrification” has become an increasingly dirty word' is not very surprising. Hasn’t the on-going growth of coffee bean stores and cocktail bars taken over neighborhoods like the Kinkerbuurt, transforming them from a working-class neighborhood into an overpriced hipster paradise?

Yes. However, like most urban processes the story of gentrification is not merely one-sided. It is a sign of economic growth, with several positive impacts on the urban environment. Citizens of newly improved neighborhoods tend to be economically better off than before gentrification, ‘live with less violence, and have better educational options for their children.’ Logically, these impacts benefit some, and leave others behind. As a result, gentrification is also severely impacting Amsterdam’s demographic environment, with many families finding themselves unable to afford the ever-rising rent. A recent research shows that of the families in Amsterdam who welcomed their first child in 2012, 40% had left the city by 2017.

Following these developments, Hymowitz presents her main argument: at least ‘gentrification has winners and losers. Urban decline makes losers out of everyone.’ Yet this statement seems a bit too easy. Naturally, if gentrification versus urban decline really is a binary choice, no one will try to make a strong case for the second option. But there is a lot of middle ground to be discovered. Thankfully, the world has provided the Amsterdam government and its citizens with several examples of protests, policies, or patron saints to slow down gentrification.

New York, US: Citizen Protests

Referring to New York’s government as ‘engines of gentrification,’ the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) organised a march in September this year, targeting ‘gentrification, racism, and police violence.’ Many people attended, yet both participants and bystanders wondered whether a protest was the most effective way to fight for their cause. For as a 23 year old man observed: ‘money talks, they can protest all they want.’‘‘

Berlin, Germany: Policy Protection

Another way of slowing down gentrification is an implementation of certain government policies. The Berlin government has designed ‘mileuschutz laws,’ that should prevent landlords from imposing ‘expensive renovations that would effectively price out the current tenants.’ Over 30 areas in Berlin are now protected by the mileuschutz law, but it didn’t take landlords long to find a way to creep through its judicial holes. In response, Ms. Werner, a tenant association member, ups the stakes: ‘we think the transition from rental to condos should be forbidden totally.”’

Mexico City, Mexico: Patron Saint

As New York and Berlin show, the anti-gentrification movement is in desperate need of stronger material. Hence, In Mexico City, in an area ‘bounded by muffler shops on one end and a craft beer garden/gourmet food court on the other’ stands a small altar. Inside resides Santa Mari La Juaricua, a ‘patron saint of resisting gentrification.’ Created by artists Sandra Valenzuela and Jorge Baca, Santa Mari La Juaricua has her own prayer:

‘Blessed mother, saint, and daughter
Save me from eviction, from rising rents and property tax
Save me from greedy landlords and corrupt developers
Save me from gentrification’

No one can be sure of the exact effects of Santa Mari La Juaricua’s prayer on gentrification, but several people strongly believe in her powers: ‘some even swear that the saint has performed miracles.’

Which anti-gentrification attempt would fit the Kinkerbuurt best? It's up to you, Amsterdam.

Bottom line: Kay Hymowitz argues that, unlike its alternative of urban decline, gentrification at least produces losers and winners. It often positively impacts many aspects of the urban environment (education options, safety, economic vitality), yet simultaneously leaves many citizens behind. In New York, Berlin, and Mexico City, people are trying to limit its speed in several ways. Perhaps they can inspire Amsterdam’s frustrated citizens.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)