Stopping Gentrification Is Half the Battle

The fight for livable cities for all people, and not just the well-off, is underway with living wage proposals passing around the country, but it is only half the battle.

On Monday, the city council of Pasadena, CA, where I live, voted to implement a $15 minimum wage by the year 2020, with cost of living increases in subsequent years. A coalition of religious groups, labor, community activists, and many others came together for this significant win. This is a great victory for working families and worth celebrating. At the same time, we have to put it within the larger context of rising housing costs that increasingly price out all-but-the-wealthy from neighborhoods. Gentrification can undo much of the good that fair wages bring.

Let's do the math: a person who works 40-hours per week at $15 per hour grosses $2600 per month. If affordable housing means not paying more than 30% of one's income on housing, that would mean finding a place that costs $867 each month. In the Los Angeles region, that is not a realistic expectation, to say the least. In fact, it has been suggested that you need to make $33 an hour to afford the average apartment in LA.

You may have noticed that much of all new housing construction in cities is geared towards "luxury housing." Thus, even with more of it, new housing is not being created for the benefit of low-income persons. We see this fight played out even amidst progressive religious institutions like Union Theological Seminary in New York with its plan to sell its "air rights" to build luxury condominiums above its campus to finance renovations. (For a strong critique of this and other failings of the liberal church, read Chris Hedges' article, or an excellent response from Union seminarian Yazmine Nichols.)

When squeezed by both low wages and high housing costs, what do you do? For too many, it means spending half or more of your income on housing. From downtown LA to Chicago's Loop, the Bay Area, much of DC, and NYC (plus countless others around the country!), gentrification exacerbates this pressure. When leases end or old apartments are torn down, the tension breaks with local peoples being forced out towards outlying areas. This results in "improved" neighborhoods - less so for existing neighbors and more for those who've "discovered" up-and-coming areas and can afford status prices.

Like with the rhetoric of discovery, as others have insightfully noted before me, gentrification is effectively a contemporary, localized colonialism. An area is seen from the eyes of outsiders as a profit opportunity, land is taken for the sake of privatized wealth-creation, and local communities are displaced in the name of progress.

People of faith and goodwill must find ways to listen to the cries of our sisters and brothers, both those experiencing low wages and those being pushed out of their communities. They are often the same voices, two sides of the same coin. To shrug and say, "That's just business," is to repeat the sins of generations past. As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has a right to housing. You just don't have a right to someone else's home. When we band together with, listen to, and learn from those whose backs are against the wall, we can win the other half of the battle for livable cities for all people.

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