Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Gentrification in the Mission District

(mural in San Francisco's Mission District, swiped from

One of the key principles of the new urbanism is neighborhood diversity, defined by Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton (The Regional City, 2001) as "mix[ing] different kinds of people and activities in close proximity and provid[ing] places for them to interact" (ch. 2). (Their other core principles are human scale and preservation.) Neighborhoods containing people of different races, social classes, occupations and sexual orientations have more vitality throughout the day, a greater sense of community, and more public involvement. Randolph T. Hester (Design for Ecological Democracy, 2006) urges designers to overcome "shortsighted interest-group divisions" so cities "can be formed as wholes rather than balkanized" (ch. 7). Balkanized, as opposed to diverse, neighborhoods lead to concentrations of poverty which are dangerous and constrict opportunity, and enclaves of the well-off which lead to social isolation and ecologically-damaging car dependency.

The goal for lower-income neighborhoods, such as Mound View, Wellington Heights and the Taylor Area in Cedar Rapids, not to mention downtown, ought to be what I call "gentle gentrification"--attract jobs and people of means to these areas without pushing out the people who already live there. Andres Duany and colleagues (Suburban Nation, 2000) cite some "time-tested" methods of diversifying upper-middle-class neighborhoods, including row housing, mixed-use buildings, granny flats and "location-efficient mortgages," while distributing public or affordable housing as sparsely as possible (ch. 3). Hester notes resistance to such integration, mostly but not entirely from the well-off, and urges planners to "arm the citizenry with an understanding of the critical importance that increased diversity plays in making human habitation resilient" (p. 199). Our fate is collective, suggest these writers, however much we might want to buy our way out of it.

Where gentrification has occurred, however, it has rarely been gentle. When well-off people rediscover an urban neighborhood, the influx tends to drive up housing prices such that it becomes no longer affordable for less well-off people to live there. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that the classes mix uncomfortably, if indeed they do at all. The latest tales are from San Francisco, which seems to be the new Silicon valley. Well-paid employees of high-tech companies like Google and Twitter are moving into urban neighborhoods like the Mission District (Gonzales, Goode and Miller). Stories abound of residents impacted by the new arrivals, most touchingly a 97-year-old woman who received an eviction notice because the apartment building in which she lives is going to be converted into upscale condominiums. There are other complaints about the newly-arrived acting rudely, and rowdily disrupting the neighborhood's annual Dia de la Raza parade.

At its simplest level, what's happening in the Mission District is an illustration of how economic marketplaces work. In a free market, the price of any good reflects (1) how much demand there is for it and (2) how much of it is available. When demand for a good increases, as happens when a residential area becomes trendy, the price goes up to the point ("equilibrium price") where there are just enough willing buyers to purchase the available supply. Others who want the good but can't afford the new equilibrium price now find themselves "priced out" of the market, even if, as in some of the San Francisco cases, they've lived in the neighborhood for many years.

The San Francisco example is complicated by a number of factors that may not apply elsewhere.
  • Rental prices are controlled, though in California controls can be evaded if the property is removed from the rental market and offered for sale. 
  • The City of San Francisco is unusually crowded. 
  • One of the letter-writers to the print edition of the New York Times referred to a metropolitan growth boundary, which would have the effect of constraining supply of housing; according to the law of supply and demand that would put upward pressure on prices, not to mention limit options for people priced out of their old neighborhood. However, it's not clear to me how strong the growth boundary is. Calthorpe and Fulton, while advocating and defending steps taken by Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle (ch. 6), list San Francisco among those "superregions" struggling with regional issues (ch. 7; see also Hester ch. 9). There has been regional planning since the 1950s, they say, but it has been "ad hoc, decentralized and incremental."
  • Very few cities have to deal with a sudden influx of millionaires, while about 1600 San Franciscans entered that charmed circle when Twitter went public last month.

New urbanists argue that there are public interests in neighborhoods that are vibrant and diverse, not to mention relatively stable, and in restricting metropolitan sprawl, sufficient to justify some government policy action. University of Southern California Professor Kevin Starr notes about San Francisco, "There has to be some kind of public support to make sure you don’t just have a city of the very wealthy, but people to make the city run.... You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers” (quoted in Goode and Miller).

The experience of San Francisco and other cities raises disturbing questions of whether market forces, social forces, and unintended consequences of public policies conspire to make those goals unattainable. If that's so, the poor lose out no matter what's done.


Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000)
Richard Gonzales, "As Rent Soars, Longtime San Francisco Tenants Fight to Stay,", 3 December 2013,

Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller, "Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City," New York Times, 24 November 2013,

Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006)

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