In December of last year, Bloomberg magazine declared Brooklyn the least affordable housing market in the United States. The median home price in the borough is approximately $610,000. To live there, a prospective Brooklyn resident would need to spend roughly 98 percent of the median income of borough residents to afford payments on such a property. This is, of course, a problem—not just for residents there, but for those of us who want to stay in New York after graduation. We can take solace in one thing, however: Manhattan is only the third-most expensive real-estate market in the country, behind San Francisco and Washington D.C. Small victories.
So what are we to do? I love New York, and while I'd love the kind of paycheck that would let me live in a brownstone in the hippest part of Brooklyn, I, like most people immediately out of school, will probably be looking at something more sensible: a basement in the most boring part of Bushwick.
And yet, this approach—searching specifically for low-cost housing, regardless of the neighborhood—seems egregious to many. I hardly go a day without hearing someone on this campus talk about gentrification. Articles discussing it appear at least weekly on sites like Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic. It has become culturally hip to criticize those who move to new neighborhoods and, by virtue of moving there, change the composition of the area. Understanding gentrification—and opposing it—has become a source of cultural capital. It has become part of a lexicon of hip, liberal, self-consciousness. If one cannot avoid the alleged immorality of participating in gentrification, one can at least be self-aware about it.
Of course, we should be having discussions about the nature of gentrification, given the current state of real estate and inequality in both New York and the country. It's important to question the ethics of a private institution like Columbia when it uses eminent domain to force people out of their homes. It's also important to critique a system that allows millionaires and billionaires who don't reside in New York City to buy up property like candy. Gentrification, in a broad sense, has some serious consequences. It changes the fabric of historical neighborhoods, often disrupting or eliminating the previous culture or community that inhabited the neighborhood. It displaces those who can least afford to move, and forces them to move further and further away from their workplaces, saddling them with moving costs, commuting costs, and hours lost in travel.
However, change can sometimes be a good thing. As Cristian Zaharia pointed out last week, the beauty of neighborhoods is that they are fluid. A claim that neighborhoods should remain static in the face of history is a claim for cultural stagnation. Nevertheless, to dismiss the concerns that many have regarding the effects of gentrification is to be willfully ignorant.
Still, while we can all acknowledge the problems that gentrification poses, we need to discuss the issue with more nuance than we do on this campus. Gentrification is a systemic problem rather than a problem of individual agency. Everyone wants to move to New York because it is, with apologies to other American cities, the greatest city in the United States. So you have a massive influx of people into what is geographically speaking a tiny and already highly populated city. In addition to the general competition for space, you also have hordes of wealthy people, both American and foreign, who want to buy up land in the city for both personal and commercial use, further increasing competition, and sending prices in the city skyrocketing. In the background, we have stagnant wages, enormous wealth, and income inequality, which prevents people already living here from keeping up with price increases, and forces new migrants to the city and recent college graduates to move into neighborhoods they wouldn't have previously considered living in.
The result is a deeply unfair system in which New York becomes a playground for the wealthy, whose demands trump those of others simply because of money. Yet, while this process is unfair, it is not necessarily true that those participating in it are all "immoral." For most people, it's just a matter of finding somewhere affordable to live.
There are some real policy questions at the heart of gentrification: How do we reduce inequality? How do we develop America's other cities to the point where we can reduce migration to New York? Moreover, there are a number of cultural ones as well: to whom does a city or a neighborhood belong? Do those who get there first inherently own a neighborhood? How do we differentiate between cultural destruction and cultural integration?
These are big questions, and I do not have answers to them. I do know, however, that in trying to answer them, the language of morality and blame will not serve us well. What makes this problem so difficult is that, much to the chagrin of many on this campus, there are few true villains in this situation. For every billionaire in Brooklyn, there are 10 college graduates with crippling student loans. It's a complicated issue, but as long as we think of it as a moral issue involving moral agents, we'll never be able to solve it.
AJ Stoughton is a Columbia College junior majoring in American studies and English. He is the vice president of the Roosevelt Institute, and the editor-in-chief of The Columbia Review. Judson River Valley runs alternate Mondays.
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