Gentrification is a major issue affecting many cities across the country. It is particularly acute in formerly industrial cities that are working to kick out poor people and transform the urban area into a playground for the rich. In the place of factories and warehouses come offices, tech companies, shopping centers, and startups. With these come luxury condos and rising rent, while the poor people are driven out of the city and onto the streets. In order to effectively fight back against gentrification it’s important to understand the underlying political and economic dynamics behind this disease plaguing so many cities.
Changes in the cost of rent in Oakland between 2000-2013. Since 2013, things have only gotten worse.
As rents rise, new developments for the rich and relatively well-off are cropping up in working class neighborhoods across the country. Working people are seeing themselves pushed out of areas they have called home, some for generations. New coffee shops, luxury condos, art spaces, fancy restaurants, and nightlife appear—but they are not for the locals. Instead this sort of development is being carried out for the “hip,” wealthier newcomers who want to turn cities into a playground for their enjoyment. These changes are supported by politicians who want to create more housing for the wealthy. With a lot of money to be made, local city governments protects developers’ interests by sending the pigs in to do their dirty work—evicting people and harassing the people even after they have been thrown out on the curb. The removal of working people from the community is just another part of redesigning the city to better serve the interests of the wealthy. These changes are deliberate and their effects are destructive to most poor communities. They drive working people out of an area altogether and push them further into destitution. Working people are under attack by more than just rising rents.
When business interests target a neighborhood for gentrification, they—in other words representatives of the rich, capitalist class, including the owners, the government, and their appointees—want the profits to start flowing in, and our asses to get the hell out. Of course, they don’t put it in these terms. Often wealthy companies moving into an area are presented as offering new jobs (though not for the original inhabitants). And new luxury housing developments often claim to offer “affordable” housing for working class people, paradoxically after many more units of housing for lower income renters have already been eliminated by their “development” initiatives.
Despite this progressive facade, the developers and related interests take many actions that hurt the people. Working people are often used to living in apartments in neglect, full of issues that landlords take forever to repair. And, when landlords think they can make more money with wealthier clients or by selling a building, the current tenants’ apartments are often deliberately neglected to the point of forcing them to leave. Landlords also use other tactics to force people out, like hiking rents by hundreds of dollars and selling out from under renters. As people are kicked out with nowhere to go, the city government often sends the police in to expedite displacement by force and threat of force. This is also part of the process of capitalist development known as gentrification.
Politicians and developers have many tools to disguise this process. They often make empty statements about how much they care about the people. They know to use icons and historical figures that people respect, in order to disguise their true intentions. Businesses sponsor art with revolutionary symbols or even give superficial support to a few progressive causes because, after all, a mural of a revolutionary or a token gesture in support of one is a lot less of a threat than the real deal. In the meantime, our situations get worse and worse. We lose our homes and our friends. And we are endlessly blamed for our own troubles, when we should be raising hell about these thieves who are destroying our lives and our future.
Throughout the history of this country the working class has repeatedly been forced to chase fleeting opportunities, including even migrating across the country during economic booms and downturns. The Black community in the Bay Area can be traced back to massive waves of migration that began during the early 20th century. This period known as “The Great Migration” saw many rural Black people move out of the American South into cities in the North East and later to the West Coast. Black folk looked to escape the intense racism of the Jim Crow South while also seeking new economic opportunities in Northern cities. New advances in the mechanization of agriculture forced many African Americans out of the South and cheap labor was in high demand in northern and western American cities.
The Bay Area saw a boom in the years following the Second World war. Black people from rural areas were attracted to the Bay, drawn by the prospects of jobs in factories, shipping yards, the ports and rail stations. As a result of these migrations, almost half of African Americans lived in urban areas by 1960. The numbers have risen since then, but the recent surge in gentrification has driven many Black people from urban centers to suburban slums.
At the same time as the Great Migration, several factors encouraged American whites to move out of certain neighborhoods in cities, into developments created on the periphery of major urban areas across the country. This phenomenon has been at times called, “white flight”, referring to the drastic exodus of white Americans from more ethnically diverse urban areas to more ethnically homogeneous suburbs. These moves were part of a project of the U.S. government that used realty companies and the media to entice white people to leave cities. Racist depictions of Black men as criminal predators who preyed on white women helped to fuel a frenzy of white exodus from urban centers.
Redlining in the Bay Area, 1937.
This was part of a conscious policy of the U.S. government to maintain and deepen segregation by new means. Middle class and some working class whites were offered loans and some new job opportunities elsewhere. The Federal government created new tax incentives and government assistance programs for prospective homeowners. By cultivating a culture of home ownership as part of the “American Dream” and providing many white Americans with access to credit for mortgages, huge profits were secured for banks and developers.
These policies, while portrayed as progressive reforms, often had explicitly racist overtones. Take for instance the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), created by Congress in 1933, and promoted by President Franklin D Roosevelt to cut down on urban foreclosures that had increased during the Great Depression. HOLC issued low-interest, long term loans to almost a million homes. However, in order to show which areas were safe investments, HOLC created “residential safety maps” and classified neighborhoods based on terrain, age of buildings as well as whether or not there was a “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.” Banks quickly copied the standards set forth by the federal government and refused to lend to people in areas considered “risky” investments, often a euphemism for poor minority neighborhoods. Similar practices continued even after the Second World War.
Clarence Thomas, a West Oakland resident and Black Panther Alumni, described how his neighborhood in Oakland changed during his life: “When we moved here in 1949, we were one of four Black households in the area, everyone was either Italian or Portuguese. Then by the time I was in high school, the area was almost 100% Black. Now, as of last year (2017), my mother’s house is once again one of four Black households in the whole area.” This description is an example of the general trend over the past half-century or so. Thomas also explained that when he was growing up, lack of access to credit and mortgages was a major barrier to home ownership for many Black people. Banks would flat out refuse to loan to Black people but as waves of Black migration continued into the Bay Area, white people were encouraged to relocate to the suburbs with the promise of cheaper, long term loans. In the wake of the post-World War Two economic boom, the U.S. went through a series of recessions and urban communities began to face higher unemployment.
Capitalists and politicians were particularly concerned about the impact ofrevolutionary organizing on Black youth in the urban slums.
At that same time an active labor movement was involved in strikes in cities across the country. The Black Liberation struggle was also experiencing an upsurge in Black ghettos in large cities. In response to this social upheaval in the 60s, 70s, and 80s many industries that previous employed working class Black folk began to move their factories from urban areas. This was part of a coordinated effort to stem the growing unrest and reduce the risk that the labor movement and Black Liberation Struggle posed to the profits of various capitalists. As a result of this exodus of factories and manufacturing, many city governments have pursued policies of “Urban Renewal” aimed at transforming cities into commercial centers and playgrounds for the wealthy.
As part of this process, many cities have worked to drive out poor people and “redevelop” poor neighborhoods into luxury apartments and upscale shopping districts. Given this reality, it’s important to see that the housing market does not exist in order to provide housing to the most people but to generate maximum profits for developers, financial institutions, and other capitalists. This relationship essentially creates a monopoly between large realty interests. Monopolies in the market drive up the price of housing as different realty interests increasingly invest more into luxury housing and collaborate to keep rents—and therefore their profits—rising. These monopolies and semi-monopolies are able to influence the government to provide them with innumerable measures (such as tax incentives, zoning permits, contracts from the government, bailouts of large companies) to ensure massive profits for these corporate interests.
As part of this parasitic relationship, large developers are continually buying more property, and converting existing housing into luxury units. Many of these properties will not even be occupied in the short term, but sit empty, used purely as “investments” to be sold or rented at a more opportune time. This trend pushes working people out of the market and inflates the price of housing. Under these conditions, real estate developers and property owners collaborate to restrict the supply of housing for working people in order to sell luxury developments at higher prices to wealthier buyers. Cooperation between these large capitalist interests allows them to reshape the city according to their interests.
Working class housing in general exists in the worst conditions. Working people must contend with the lowest job security, and often deal with daily harassment from police and predatory individuals. But even working class neighborhoods are not uniform; they are filled with different types of people. People occupy different social positions in terms of what kind of housing they can afford to live in or what jobs are available to them.
Often renters make up the largest sections of a working class neighbor-hood and the renters stand to lose the most as rents skyrocket and developers begin to speculate on property. In every case, working people have little to gain. One way of thinking is that a person must be actively renting a unit, or employed at a particular location for an arbitrary period in order to be labeled as a “tenant” or a “worker.” But for the working class, whatever position they are in is always tenuous and stabil-ity is often temporary, not permanent.
A West Oakland Encampment in 2017.
Given this instability and the pressures of gentrification, working people are often not able to pay their rent and many jobs have seasonal layoffs or positions that will not employ people full time throughout the year.
Working class people are effectively forced to choose their housing based on their monthly income and are particularly vulnerable to shifts in the housing market, as working people cannot simply earn more as prices rise.
Homeowners are in a different position as many of them do not pay rent, but instead have mortgages. Therefore as markets shift, they generally do not see a significant change in their monthly expenses (except for increases in property taxes). However, as gentrification intensifies in a city many homeowners are often pressured to sell their homes, generally for a fraction of the profits a developers stands to gain from reselling those homes for significantly higher prices. These buyouts target lower income homeowners, people that still have mortgages but may have trouble paying, or have other debts.
On the other hand, many business owners and other property owners have an incentive to work together with new developers and investors in a neighborhood. Development is often supported by local property owners in an area, because they believe that they stand to profit by the rising value of their properties. Local business owners hope to gain in various ways from an influx of wealthy people moving into a neighborhood. They often have a good deal to gain by gentrification in the short-term. However, they may later be out competed by larger businesses moving in and capitalizing off lucrative projects and profits from the wealthy clientèle that move in to the neighborhood.
In contrast to these business owners, most of the people have nothing to gain from gentrification, except a possible eviction notice in their mailbox. For working people this process is more intense and continues to push many out of communities across the United States long before businesses feel the crunch. All too often, working class Black and Latino communities are the hardest hit by displacement and gentrification. For instance, the Black population in Oakland has dropped from 46% of the total population in 1995 to under 17% in 2015.
Another important section of the population are the former renters. These are people that were once able to rent in a particular area but have been priced out of the area entirely. Some former renters are able to relocate to other areas and become renters again. Others are unable to make this transition. Finding new housing means often having to pay thousands of dollars upfront, including a security deposit as well as first and last month’s rent. In addition, many landlords run credit checks that penalize people with a history of debt and poverty. People forced out of their apartments also have to contend with new restrictions put forth by other landlords such as rules against pets, children, or even guests and visitors.
In recent years in the Bay Area, these and other factors have forced droves of poor people to turn to living in informal settlements, or in their vehicles. There are currently at least 55,000 people living in such conditions in the Bay Area. While not a majority of the working population, homeless people serve as a grim reminder that under our current political and economic system, working people are set up to fail. Contrary to stereotypes made in media that homeless people are entirely “drug addicted,” “lazy,” “or mentally impaired,” there are many working people living on the streets. While many work full time, others are not able to find work on a full-time basis. The sad reality is that in Oakland, as in many other cities across the country, one full time job is not generally enough to pay the bills. What’s more only about 30% of homeless people in Oakland report that alcohol or substance use pose a significant barrier to their daily lives. Much of the homeless popu-lation is disabled, and elderly. In Oakland, the homeless population has increased by at least 25% in the last two years. The large and increasing number of homeless people show how precarious things are for working people in this country.
The source of immediate oppression for the homeless is generally not landlords, but often is the cops and other city workers. When people find themselves out on the street, they are quickly confronted by numerous city ordinances that outlaw living outside or restrict how people can use public space. Additionally, city governments restrict working people’s access to public bathrooms and municipal services in general.
This often leads to informal settlements that can quickly becoming overrun with garbage and human waste. City governments often send out city workers, escorted by police to enforce city restrictions, laws which effectively amount to the criminalization of the poor. It is often city workers that act as the velvet glove of police harassment, confiscating property and displacing the homeless from their temporary shelters, all the while claiming to be simply “cleaning the streets.”
Real estate developors and city governments often create computer generated images to paint gentrification as an effort to “beautify” the city instead of the violent displacement of poor people that it is.
Working people must resist these attacks, and unite in the struggle against developers and the other capitalist gentrifiers. This struggle will be fought primarily by renters and former renters (the homeless and semi-homeless). There is a possibility of some lower income homeowners becoming a part of this struggle, but these efforts must be led by the working people’s interests (and not guided by the interests of the small businesses, home-owners, and middle class intellectuals). This interest is defined by the common reality of working people in this country and inter-nationally. Unlike capitalists and property owners, working people do not ultimately benefit from exploitation and oppression and therefore have a shared interest to come together and struggle for a better world. Renters have a higher chance of being kicked out than bought out, and working class renters are forced to live in the worst conditions.
Some business owners and landlords may realize their short term gain isn’t worth squeezing out working people. Larger business interests coming to such neighborhoods may even eventually endanger the interests of small businesses and landlords. But these owners tend to go back-and-forth between serving the interests of the people and serving their own immediate interest in profit. They cannot be counted on as reliable and consistent allies in our present situation. Resisting gentrification means organizing against the displacement of people from their homes, shelters, and the city altogether. This is only possible through unifying a broad mass of working people in resistance.
It is possible to do this even though the capitalist pigs and politicians are directing a coordinated effort to drive many working people out of their homes and out of many cities across the country. Once developers plan to “redevelop” an area it is almost inevitable that a large section of working people will be removed unless they unite in resistance to this displacement.
This is because the capitalists and politicians are focused on development for the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of people. This is evident in their construction plans that cater to those who can afford luxury apartments and the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy. However, while evictions and displacement happens quickly, they do not take place overnight. As cities shift from predominantly industrial to commercial industries, the wealthy and powerful still need people in the cities to work, but fewer and fewer workers are needed over time.
Building resistance requires organzing for a substantial amount of time in a particular neighborhood, and this means taking the time to talk with people and build relationships. Through discussions, it is possible to gain clarity on recent events in the area as well as the larger issues that keep people from coming together. Sharing experiences can begin to create a common understanding of the prob-lems in front of people. This unity is needed to break down the divisions between people and find ways to work together. To be clear, without any examples of how to fight back, people are unlikely to step out on their own. But demonstrating how people can come together, even in small ways, can change how people see a given situation. Such changes can help to clarify the basis for people to get organized and collectively fight back.
However, it is not enough to simply meet and talk amongst the people. The people must be challenged to see the problems right in front of them and to struggle against their oppressors. During conversations about key issues, it may be simple to speak about the problems at hand, but it is also very easy for the people to become overwhelmed by all the problems they face at a given moment. Working people are under constant pressure from their jobs, tenuous living situations, and other forms of oppression they face daily. What’s more, they often have to work even harder after losing their homes.
The need to keep themselves presentable while living outside, the added pressure of securing their belongings, and the constant threat of theft and police harassment often dominate the thinking of people living on the street. To move beyond the day to day, and instead focus discussion on the larger struggle, it is often necessary to be direct with people that the only hope we have to really change things is to come together in the struggle against our oppressors.
A recent protest at Oakland City Hall against displacement and gentrification in the area.
This requires that people understand that their individual struggles are not isolated from those of the people around them, but are instead part of the larger struggle against the oppressive reality of our society. In this way, people can help to address problems around them together. These can include things such as theft, trash disposal, or even the need to create social events and friendships in the midst of a tough situation. It is by working through these immediate problems that we build can build our unity, and increase our ability to fight back against larger problems caused by the actions of the rich and powerful.
As the police clamp down on poor people, brutalizing them at the behest of the rich, we must find ways to come together to fight back. Even if it is just a handful of us at first, we can be an example that inspires others to take a similar stand. We will lose the most by not fighting back.