On Gentry, and Gentrification

The Fenty vs. Gray mayoral race here in Washington, D.C. has brought to light old feelings about the g-word. That word that every city planner, journalist, and city resident cringes at: gentrification.

The big-G banks on the idea that Gentry - folks with new Masters degrees, a new job, and a big checkbook - will line up to buy condos that cost as much or more than a home would, all for the charm of living in the city. It banks on all of the Gentry choosing not to move into or in some cases moving out of the suburbs into inner cities and in doing so transforming (read = eradicating) either poor or struggling neighborhoods.

The idea sounds gross, and the practice is by and large gross. But it's also more complicated than we think.

The Gentry that the fancy new "multi-use" housing developments are built for don’t really exist. None of those structures have offered a return on the investment needed to build them; hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into them, yet development upon development lays unoccupied. Half-finished. Failed.

And that’s because middle class people - not the upper class Gentry - are the ones moving into big cities across America. These people are assumed to be Gentry, but they're not. The Left howled and whined when the new commercial development in Columbia Heights was built here in Washington, D.C., claiming that the area's residents, mostly Latino, couldn't afford Target, a gym, Best Buy, or...Payless. That turns out to be untrue; that Target (the Macy's of the masses) is the only store in the District that is actually diverse in terms of race and class, and that Washington Sports Club is the only one in the District to have a sizable amount of Central American immigrants as members.

While it was well-intentioned, the Left's argument there was actually a racist one; Latinos are seen as "disadvantaged" American consumers only because they are assumed to be so. But when businesses come to their area, Latinos participate like any other consumers.

And so works the "invisible hand" of the market:  the consumer base for Target is large, as Target is low-priced, but the consumer base for half a million dollar lofts is very small. And amongst the young hipster adults moving into cities, it's even smaller. I mean, let's face it: hipsters are broke as f***. They make property values go up as people move in to try to live like them, but they themselves can't keep up with those prices.

What made a dirty port city known for manufacturing, shipping, and schlepping into the "New York City" of Carrie Bradshaw-awe are the broke-ass artists and writers who defined Broadway, the Village, and Brooklyn from very small, rented rooms. The big new lofts of Williamsburg, NY and the Arts District in Downtown LA were built for (hipster) Gentry, but the hipsters who create work there can't afford them. (And if they can afford a $400,000 condo, then they're not hipsters. They're attorneys in skinny jeans.)

I have friends in Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C. who had to get on affordable housing lists to buy a "gentrified" condo because "people like them" (read = college grads) were assumed to be able to make those price points, but in real life, "people like them" who work in non-profits make less than plumbers and elevator repairmen.

Plumbers and elevator repairmen buy homes in the suburbs whose prices aren't over ninety percent dependent on subsidies, loans, or the kind of ballooned mortgage structure that caused the housing collapse in the first place.

So while the Gentry do gentrify, loft by loft, they don't in the kinds of large numbers needed to make the policies of people like Mayor Fenty even work. When Fenty catered to those he thought wanted to improve the city by "gentrifying" it, he was actually catering to nobody. The Gentry bought cheap in quiet ol' Virginia, and those who vote early and often in the District live along the Anacostia River.