The Parallels and Uncanny Similarities between USA’s and Malaysia’s Gentrification Policies

Excerpts from:
Gentrification, Displacement and New Urbanism:The Next Racial Project*
University of Missouri-Columbia

Wave three emerged in the 1990s and continues to the present day. In this wave, gentrification becomes a part of “New Urbanism” (Smith 2002), a development strategy that uses colorblind neoliberal free market ideologies to justify its policies. This shift separates cities and individuals from the state by eliminating state subsidies for housing and urban development. New Urbanism has two immediate consequences; first, it forces U.S. cities into an era of global city-to-city competition for capital–the creation of the “World-City” (Villanueva et al. 2000) — and, second, it forces individuals to fend for themselves in a “free market.”

This third wave of gentrification claims to reduce sprawl by bringing people back into the center city. However, the reality of the situation is that third-wave gentrification produces cities that are colonized by white people through “mixed-use zoning,” a development trend in which the colonizers target neighborhoods that have been previously occupied by economically disadvantaged people of color.

It is, in a sense, a type of social engineering, a racist project that carries out global urban apartheid under the name of colorblind neoliberal development. This implicit character allows for the persistence of property-led economic development in the name of the free-market and equal opportunity. Considered critically, this wave represents the attempted geographical extermination of particular target groups, including immigrants and marginalized minority urban dwellers that are considered disposable and not tied to the community. A United Nations report (2005) has recently stated that neoliberal development policy creates a situation of modern urban apartheid, especially in the face of increasing Gross Domestic Product.

Although there is supposed to be enforcement of rules that require low income multi-family dwellings to be in the gentrifying areas, “the best and highest use” nonetheless becomes loft apartments, small businesses, and service jobs in place of even the lightest industry that formerly employed the low income and minority populations.

Wolf-Powers (2005) argues, at least in New York City, that this trend is encouraged through neoliberal development policies create a situation called “property-led” economic development in which property owners are made the most powerful actors. In this process developers are encouraged, through colorblind neoliberal zoning and tax ordinances, to create a neighborhood full of “the best and highest uses.” When this trend begins, landlords will break zoning laws with the (correct) assumption that they will get special exception permits from the planning and zoning committee.

New Urbanist policies have generated more positive economic outcomes for cities than past gentrification policies have ever been able to accomplish by focusing on this “best and highest use.” However, the consequences of this policy on the resident (and frequently minority) populations have barely received attention, despite the cities’ receipt of reports from residents of gentrifying communities who wish to outline their own visions for the development of the neighborhoods in which they reside.

Unfortunately, as detailed by Davila (2003) and Wolf-Powers (2005), this is better characterized as a trend of paying lip service to the local community. While taking development advising reports from the community is a step forward in the urban development process, it is far from a final and all-encompassing democratic development solution. The biggest issue thus far is that the city has simply used these reports in order to justify applying colorblind neoliberal development policies to a community and offering development contracts to particularly wealthy powerful land owners and businesspeople.

The end result is for the city to take control, TELL everyone what is best, and make prescriptions based on the opinions of the planners and developers without ever fully justifying the policy or considering the destructive consequences for people that already live in the soon-to-be gentrifying neighborhood.

While the rhetoric of creating a multi-class, multi-race, and industry/service mix sounds wonderful, the end result once again becomes, not surprisingly, property owners doing as they please and breaking the developmental path that all others must follow.

Abuse It and Lose It

Affordable housing and home ownership programs and relocation assistance are often used as mitigating tools for potential displacement by private developers.

Mixed-use communities have been justified as benefiting to the poor, and proponents state that the poor have been segregated with no role models, and therefore, without motivation for change. Gentrification in these terms is a type of moral crusade to save the poor.

Residents, however, claim that plans have been falsified and they fear that the land that has been set aside for public housing will be sold to the highest bidder. Former tenants of public housing have sued housing authorities over claims of displacement, and although residents are told replacement housing will be provided, it is has not been offered on a one-to-one basis (Columbia Daily Tribune, October 12, 2005). Most areas are subsidized for 15 to 20 years (10 years in New York) and then sold off to developers, possibly resulting in further displacement of the poor, but at a slower rate.

The neighborhood of West Town, located in Chicago, has also experienced a shift in composition over the past decade. The area was primarily white before a period of white flight beginning in the 1960s, when it was transformed from a primarily white area to a predominately Latino area, incorporating other racial groups as well. As jobs have recently shifted to white collar and service sector jobs, whites are now returning to West Town and the area’s white population has increased from 27.4% in 1990 to 39.39% in 2000. Coinciding with this shift is a decrease in the Latino population from 59.0% in 1990 to 46.85% in 2000. During this period the average West Town property price has escalated 83% and the median price has doubled.The escalating property prices affect property owners who are seeking to remain in the area and results in a forced dislocation if the property taxes become unaffordable. For example, between 1995 and 1996 property taxes rose 117% in the West Town neighborhood (Natalie Voorhees Center 2001).

These efforts are often accompanied by “urban cleansing” in which the city attempts to revamp its image through the creation of “quality of life” ordinances aimed at controlling less desirable populations. Wyly and Hammel (2003) determined that “gentrified enclaves claim a prominent place in elite housing markets where municipal policy incorporates provisions to cleanse the city of certain people and behaviors (p. 9).

Keepin’ It Clean
Homelessness and Aesthetics in the New Urbanism

The actions related to gentrification have been directly related to displacement and, at times, results in homelessness. Areas that are frequently targeted in redevelopment are also areas comprised mainly of minorities and lower income residents who are often without the financial means to afford increasing rents and secure new housing if forced out of their homes. The treatment of low income residents in gentrified areas is analogous to the treatment of already homeless populations.

Redevelopment plans do not consider the outcomes for low income residents who are residing in these gentrifying areas: how will they afford new rents, how will they subsist, and if they cannot, where will they go, and how will they get there?

The main concern of the gentrifiers is with the transformation of space rather than the lives of people. Although there are regulations requiring replacement of low income housing on a one-to-one basis, as well as assistance in replacement housing for displaced residents, the truth about the enforcement on these polices is unknown. The lack of planning and enforcement of policies results in displacement for some and homelessness for others.

Lee et al. (2003) determined that high rents boost homelessness, determining that homelessness is not related to the size of the community but place-specific characteristics of the housing market. Homelessness is related to a decline in affordable units which limits the housing options of low income renters; price inflation (as well as other raced issues such as lending and discriminatory rental policies) has resulted low income minorities facing difficulties in home ownership and increased competition for rental units. Urban renewal and gentrification accelerate this competition by converting rental units from low income to mid and upper level income rental units.

The solution to rising homeless populations has not been a proactive one in which the city has attempted to assist these persons toward subsistence, but rather one of spatial extermination. The main concern of indifferent policies toward homelessness is to render the displaced invisible, without regard for their well-being and survival.

Policies targeting the survival behaviors of the homeless have been enacted nationwide. Behaviors frequently cited are sleeping, urinating or defecating, and bathing in public spaces (Mitchell 2003). It is important to note that the homeless have no alternative place to perform these activities.

These policies are related to cities’ attempts to create a sanitized space with the goal of attracting new development and tourists who are shielded from the realities of homelessness and poverty.

Gentrification projects reflect an equivalent desire towards aesthetics, creating the look of an economically stable and aesthetically pleasing community requires ridding the space of poverty stricken areas and persons. As with homeless policies, redevelopment projects have reflected a similar lack of planning.

The interest is neither in maintaining nor assisting these populations, but in the extermination of these populations through unjust redevelopment, displacement, and lack of replacement housing. Residents are left to their own devices as to how to maintain their current, though increasing unaffordable, housing or to attempt to locate affordable housing in an era of increasing rents. The goals of redevelopment have in mind the removal of poverty stricken areas and the residents that inhabit them from both the city and from sight.

Aesthetic concerns are related to globalization. The streets are being cleansed of those left behind by globalization and other economic changes (Mitchell 1997). The homeless and urban poor are seen as threats to capitalism if they remain visible because they are constant reminders of capitalism’s failures, thereby producing a need to remove evidence of poverty from sight (Amster 2003). The Disneyfication of public space creates a clean and sterile community in which the poor and homeless are unwanted.

The rise of tourism promotion of the “World City” is important in the decision for cities to begin redevelopment projects. Downtown areas are being revitalized in order to attract new business, high income residents, and tourism to boost the economy. In relation, attempts are being made to expel the unattractive elements and relieve the features of urban decay (Aguirre and Brooks 2001). Elements of the city that are not considered positive to economic growth are excluded from the benefits of development or are simply evicted, creating a disadvantage for low income minority groups and opening opportunities for the incoming middle and upper classes.

The people within a neighborhood become characterized as undeserving lazy minorities who have already been given too much public assistance (Omi and Winant 1994) and the space they inhabit becomes characterized as misused and abused (Smith 1996).

In order for this “abused” space to be able to offer a positive contribution to the city, the space must be “saved” by middle class altruists (read: gentrifiers) who will “heal” the space by improving its appearance and increasing rents.

Lose It, Then Move It or Displacement

In the past, gentrification consisted of higher income white residents replacing lower income African Americans in the city center. This trend is no longer clearly black and white and now includes a variety of ethnicities as gentrifiers. The adverse effects of gentrification, such as displacement, still fall heavily on the shoulders of minorities as in the past.

Consequences of gentrification are the involuntary or voluntary displacement of renters, homeowners and local businesses, increased real estate values, increased tax revenue, deconcentration of poverty, changing cultural fabric of the community, changing leadership and power structure of community, and an increased value put on the neighborhood by outsiders (The Brookings Institution 2001).

Residents may be displaced within the neighborhood by moving from their original residence to an apartment within the same neighborhood with a lower rent, doubling up with other families and combining households to maintain their place and afford rent, or simply paying more than the standard 30 percent of income reserved for rent (Wyly and Hammel 1999). This type of displacement is inward as the resident does not leave the neighborhood.

Displacement also occurs outwardly when the residents are pushed out of the neighborhood, they are no longer able to afford the rents, and cannot find replacement housing within the neighborhood, thus becoming urban refugees.

Eminent domain which is the governmental power to appropriate private property for public use, has been used recently to take private homes and businesses and replace them with more profitable developments, exemplifying “the best and highest use” principle noted by Smith (1996).

A central question in these practices is: what is considered public use that would entail the condemnation of these areas and who is defining this? Courts have cited a growing tax base for the community as the public use needed in order to seize these properties (Mansnerus 2001). Areas are condemned through the claim of blight and then transferred to private redevelopers.

There have been growing contestations to these practices of using eminent domain to seize private property. Law professor Marci A. Hamilton filed a petition on behalf of tenant owners of an office complex who lost their building after it was condemned as blighted. After it was condemned, the building and lot were scheduled for demolition so that a new site for the New York Times could be built. Hamilton claimed that “the purpose of transferring private property to another, more powerful and ‘connected’ private owner” was not the original intent of eminent domain law (Dunlap 2003).

This case exemplifies the lack of power that residents and small business owners have in resisting the power of redevelopment by mega-developers in their areas. Although cases have been on the rise, there has been little success by residents in retaining their private property. Residents are typically given compensation for their displacement, although typically not an equivalent sum for the value of the property.

Although there have been contestations to these actions, residents are limited in their ability to legally battle the state over the right to their property primarily because of a lack of political and legal power and the financial capacity to pursue their frustrations.

As stated before, the losers in gentrification are often minorities and the economically disadvantaged.


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