6.26.2007

Urban Housing

As an urban Christian, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about
poverty in American cities. It is certainly a multi-dimensional
issue, but today I'd like to focus on just one aspect: housing.

I am always surprised to hear how high homeownership rates are in poor
urban neighborhoods. I think it's because I equate owning a home with
having wealth. And in fact, for most Americans, it is synonymous:
homeownership is more economical than renting, it qualifies you for
various tax write-offs, and you can borrow against the equity to do
things to further increase your wealth.

Yet somehow, far too few urban poor are enjoying the advantages of
homeownership. There are some who will tell you that the problem is
me and other yuppies who have moved from our suburban upbringings into
inner cities, and in doing so have unleashed that evil yet
hard-to-define phenomenon known as "gentrification." However it is
defined, the mechanics seem to be that our introduction into a
neighborhood, replete with any home improvements we make and any
purchasing power we bring with us, causes property values to rise,
"forcing out" old-timers who can no longer afford the property taxes.

(To be sure, shame on any of us who "take over" a neighborhood, in
terms of stripping it of its history and authenticity in the name of
more parking and easier access to Starbucks and Borders. As a
life-long student in the Jane Jacobs school of urban planning, I
always hope for a refreshing mix of old and new whenever neighborhoods
evolve over time.)

And yet, I find it not a bit odd that the thing most Americans want -
for their houses to appreciate in value - is the very thing many urban
poor people are taught is a bad thing. After all, there are a number
of mechanisms people can use to extract their new equity for purposes
of meeting any increase in property taxes. Having an asset that is
now worth more than what you paid for it also gives you choices: to
sell and buy another house, to start a business, to increase your
standard of living. In other words, such an appreciation is
synonymous with the kind of mobility that almost everybody in this
country strives for.

How is it, then, that people are told otherwise and led to believe it?
Could it be that there are people out there who benefit from
economically poor and immobile people staying poor and immobile?
Might politicians prefer a voting bloc that is stable and loyal,
rather than a constituency that is educated and mobile? Might banks
prefer neighborhoods to stay low-income so they can fulfill their
legal or social obligations to invest in such places, rather than see
entire neighborhoods increase their collective wealth?

Even worse and more damning, might people like me, who purport to care
about the urban poor, harbor a perverse self-interest in keeping the
urban poor right where they are, both geographically and economically,
so that we can continue to stroke our own subconscious need to be
their advocate, their hero, their defender? The urban poor gaining in
wealth, in mobility, in choices - would that be what we've been
working all this time for, or would that undo our carefully
constructed notion of who we are and what we're all about?

Needless to say, I consider many arguments against gentrification to
be paternalistic, self-serving, and counter-productive. Don't get me
wrong: we still have a lot of work to do. People need to be educated
about financial management and financial tools. Banks need to be
educated about working in urban communities. Politicians need to be
educated about policies that actually help the poor.

And all of us need to be better informed, and more vigorously put into
motion, such that we're working with the urban poor to improve their
neighborhoods, even and especially if that leads to marked
appreciation in property values. For stagnant home prices simply
freeze people where they are, and perverse self-interest
notwithstanding, that's not what we want happening in our low-income
neighborhoods.

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