Better Health Together was incredibly excited to sponsor P.E. Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, for a talk in Spokane on May 22nd. Thank you also to councilwoman Kate Burke for hosting and making it possible!
Gentrification has been a hot topic nationwide, and locally as Spokane is struggling with low housing vacancy, a growing and diversifying population, and changing neighborhoods. Land and buildings in depressed neighborhoods are bought up and “revitalized” by developers. As property values rise, the original members of that neighborhood are forced out and displaced by people with the economic advantage to afford these newer and more expensive units.
Often this is talked about as a natural and unavoidable economic cycle, but Moskowitz’s thesis is that gentrification is in fact the intentional act of turning cities into commodities, instead of places where people live. Gentrification is not a new phenomenon, it is as old as America, beginning with the forced displacement of Native Americans. However, massive gentrification began in the 70s when tax cuts for the wealthy took billions of dollars out of government, leaving shortfalls for programs that support healthy and vital communities. To attract wealth, cities began competing to attract big business and the middle- and upper-class workforce that comes with it. Think about the recent city bids to attract Amazon, even as Seattle is experiencing massive housing unaffordability and displacement.
We probably all agree that building parks, expanding public transportation, supporting local business, and investing in neighborhoods is a good thing and makes places more enjoyable to live. However, in an economically depressed neighborhood this kind of investment is often a threat to affordable housing and a sign that rents are about to rise. In this way gentrification also leads to a loss of community. How are families supposed to be invested in their neighborhood, schools, parks, and local businesses if growing them means they might not be able to afford to live there? How can people build a sense of community when they move every year as rents keep rising?
A 2016 report found that there is nowhere in America where low-income people are more likely to live in an economically growing neighborhoods, than in economically depressed neighborhoods. We cannot claim displacement is random—policies and procedures in this country dictate that your income and race determine what neighborhood you can live in.
The good news is there are policies that can help. Laws that cap how much a landlord can raise rent per year would help keep rents under control. However, there are also policies in place that give renters zero protection. Spokane has no cause evictions—meaning a landlord can give you 20 days notice to vacate for no reason (perhaps just to make room for a family that can afford to pay more). Other communities have passed policies requiring just cause, and more notice. Policies like these have been successful in other communities, and help keep rental rates and availability stable and protect renters.
Moskowitz closed the evening by reminding us all that no individual action will solve the housing crisis, but change starts with individual action. Educate yourself on the issues, engage your community, and together we can put pressure on policy makers to disrupt cycles of displacement and make our cities a welcoming and accessible place for all to call home.