Donna Mossman remembers the day, back in the 1970s living with her parents in an apartment in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., that water cascaded through the living room wall. Looking back, that was a life-defining moment.
That water incident happened in a rent-controlled apartment building that the owner allowed to go into such disrepair that her family and other tenants were compelled to move out, with the expectation that they would return once the building was refurbished. But that was not to be; the newly renovated apartments were financially out of reach for the former residents. “I vowed that day that I would never allow that to happen to us again,” Mossman says.
Mossman channeled that experience into the creation of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, which fights illegal displacement and rent overcharges, uniting the collective power of tenant associations in more than 40 apartment complexes in Brooklyn.
Mossman tells her story in a video released on Tuesday, “Degentrify America,” part of the “Take 5: Justice in America” documentary series for the SundanceNOW Doc Club. The video is directed by author and filmmaker Nelson George, and is part of a series by executive producer Joyce Deep that seeks to highlight such hot-button political topics as the plight of the working poor, gun violence, bail reform and how voting rights are being threatened in some states.
In the video, Mossman makes clear she does not see the call to “degentrify” in terms of opposition to new residents coming into communities like hers. “Here’s the problem with gentrification,” she says. “You’re coming to a neighborhood, and you’re building up that neighborhood. That’s fine. But why do you have to displace the people who already live there?”
That is a question that cities generally are not grappling with well. That was made evident by a recently released report by the Pew Research Center that looked at the dwindling middle class in metropolitan areas.
“From 2000 to 2014 the share of adults living in middle-income households fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined,” the Pew report said. “The decrease in the middle-class share was often substantial, measuring 6 percentage points or more in 53 metropolitan areas, compared with a 4-point drop nationally.”
What most of these cities saw was the rapid growth of the wealthy and a continuing layer of deepening poverty. Cities are becoming microcosms of widening wealth inequality, with the median income of lower-income households slipping in 221 metropolitan areas.
From New York to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., gentrification has played out as a zero-sum game – developers place a bet on a forlorn neighborhood, a few prospective homebuyers bite, a “buzz” develops and the snowball begins – one big enough to make the neighborhood unaffordable for those who have hung on through the hard times.
Another recently released study, this time by the Furman Center at New York University, identified 15 gentrifying New York City neighborhoods and found a sharp decline in the supply of affordable housing in these neighborhoods. “In 2000, 77.2 percent of recently available rental units in gentrifying neighborhoods were affordable to households earning 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI),” the report said. “By 2014, that share had fallen to less than half.”
In Washington, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute released a 2015 report that chronicled what it called “the virtual disappearance of low-cost private housing across the city,” even as “the District’s economy has left nearly half of its residents with stagnant incomes.” Two-thirds of households earning less than $32,000 a year in the city spend more than half their income on housing, the report said, as do a third of those who earn less than $54,000 a year.
Often, as was the case in much of Washington, public infrastructure investment was a significant development catalyst – with negative side effects intertwined with the benefits. Just as the construction of the Capital Beltway in the 1960s accelerated suburban sprawl beyond the city’s borders, and the decay of the city’s downtown retail core, the completion of the city’s Metro subway system helped make central city living more attractive for a new generation of people who did not want long drives to work and detachment from a newly budding urban night life.
But that investment was not coupled with an effective plan for protecting the supply of affordable housing, especially in an economy in which wages were not rising for low-wage and middle-class workers. In fact, the notion of an overarching federal “urban policy” that supports the efforts of cities to grow in an inclusive, balanced way – with both sound solutions and adequate resources – has been missing since at least 2001, when President George W. Bush took office and took up the conservative assault on key urban development and housing programs.
After eight years of cities basically being left to fend for themselves, President Obama made some moves to reverse course, even creating a White House Office of Urban Affairs. But by 2015, Obama administration officials had gotten a “mixed” grade in a Washington Post news story. “Amid a nationwide urban renaissance, poverty and inequality are dire,” the story said. Symbolizing the inertia, even the urban policy office had by then been downgraded. Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett was quoted as blaming Republican congressional obstruction for the lack of progress: “What has been frustrating has been the congressional Republicans’ focus on a top-down economic strategy rather than the middle-class economics the president has proposed.”
Without much support from Washington, residents like Donna Mossman are organizing like-minded people in their neighborhoods to ensure that a rising tide of wealth flowing into their communities does not wash them away. But they should not have to fight on their own. For years, Republicans have hacked away at funding for housing and urban development programs that could fund new affordable housing projects and could create jobs for the underemployed. At the same time, as the “Degentrify America” video demonstrates, deep-pocketed real estate investors get to bid up prices for urban properties and have their profiteering subsidized through the tax code. No wonder the rich are getting richer, the poor are mired in quicksand, and the middle class is being swept aside.
At the heart of the Take 5 video’s provocative title, “Degentrify America,” is a demand for the 2016 political campaign: City revivals in which the fortunes of all people are revived, not just the wealthy few. That has to be a national priority, fought for as vigorously in the halls of power as it is being fought for in the streets.