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America’s gentrification problem will require a large-scale solution

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

October 6, 2017

American cities are struggling with the dual issues of gentrification and homelessness. Google defines gentrification as “the process of renovating a district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” It results in higher rents and cost of living, forcing the neighborhood’s original residents to move out in search of a cheaper place to live. Gentrified neighborhoods typically become wealthier, whiter and younger than they were before they were gentrified.
The issue of gentrification feeds into increasing homelessness in American cities. Rising prices in gentrifying neighborhoods can drain residents of their income before forcing them out. This makes it challenging for the residents to find an affordable place to live, sometimes leaving them homeless.

The classic example of gentrification in America is that of New York City. NYC notoriously has some of the highest rents in the country, especially in Manhattan. Housing costs have been rising gradually throughout the previous decades, making the city unaffordable for many of its inhabitants. The increasing cost of New York apartments feeds into the city’s growing homeless population. According to Coalition for the Homeless, in the last 10 years, the number of New Yorkers sleeping in homeless shelters has increased by 75 percent. In 2017 alone, this number has increased by 39 percent.

The rising level of homelessness in New York becomes more problematic when one realizes many of the apartments in the wealthiest portions of New York are empty. The New York Times reports that in the portion of the East Side “bounded by Fifth and Park Avenues and East 49th and 70th Streets, about 30 percent of the more than 5,000 apartments are routinely vacant more than 10 months a year because their owners or renters have permanent homes elsewhere.” This trend persists in other neighborhoods, where many of the city’s most expensive buildings consist mostly of investment properties, without permanent or even seasonal residents.

The existence of widespread investment property ownership is not bad on its own, but in a city with over 61,471 homeless people, the number of unoccupied properties is egregious. Also, without these empty properties, many of the large luxury buildings in the city would not exist. The space required to build these pricey complexes could instead be used to construct more affordable residences that would attract residents rather than investors.

The compounded issues of gentrification do not exist exclusively in New York City, but are happening to some extent in many of America’s growing cities. Many of these municipal governments and anti-homelessness organizations have made attempts to reform housing policy in a way that protects residents from gentrification-catalyzed homelessness.
One idea implemented by Charleston, South Carolina, is the imposition of higher taxes on secondary homes than on primary residences. This has potential to decrease the number of unaffordable homes in the city by disincentivizing the building of high-cost properties meant to exist solely for the purposes of investment.

Another potential solution is to require that luxury apartment buildings dedicate a certain portion of their apartments to affordable, lower-income housing. New York City has put this idea into practice by granting several tax incentives to developers who set aside a certain portion of their market-rate properties for lower-income New Yorkers. The idea behind this policy is that living in higher-income neighborhoods will facilitate upward mobility in the New Yorkers living in the rent controlled apartments. While this policy might work well for the few New Yorkers who get to live in the rent controlled apartments, the increasing level of homelessness in New York City shows the policy is not doing enough.

Another much more radical solution to gentrification in these cities would be to legalize squatting in buildings that remain unoccupied year-round. Squatting is the illegal practice of living in an unoccupied building without paying rent. While legalizing squatting would surely provide a shelter to many struggling urban residents, as well as disincentivize the buying of investment property in cities, it’s not an implementable solution.

On one hand, owners of investment properties, without legal recourse to remove squatters from their properties, might resort to illegal or violent means if they want the property to remain empty. Additionally, unoccupied buildings aren’t guaranteed to have water, hear, air conditioning or electricity. Legalizing squatting in owned but unoccupied buildings would constitute an unsustainable, poorly maintained solution to homelessness.

There is no easy solution to gentrification and related homelessness. However, any meaningful, long-term solution will have to involve some sort of sweeping change to urban housing markets. A good solution will have to disincentivize the purchase of empty luxury investment properties. Additionally, it will have to provide a form of affordable housing to a city’s homeless and housing insecure populations. Either way, if cities like New York want to decrease their homeless population, they will have to implement more broad and radical reforms that meaningfully change the housing market within the city.

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