Opinion | Gentrification is a problem for cities, especially when it ends

For most of my professional career, one consistent social issue has been gentrification. Even during the height of the Great Recession, when home prices were plummeting, gentrification seemed unstoppable. There was much to like about the urban renaissance that occurred with the influx of wealthy young professionals into urban centers, but there was also much to be said about displacement, visible inequalities between old-timers and newcomers, or racial There was nothing good about inequality or anything like that. This exacerbated ethnic tensions.

As a result, politicians, policy enthusiasts, and pundits have all spent a lot of time worrying about what to do about gentrification. They want reforms to permitting and zoning rules to make it easier for developers to build new housing, or subsidies for people who are priced out, or both. In retrospect, the amount of time we spent worrying about what would happen to our cities was surprisingly short. without it Gentrification.

But we are in 2024. I’m less concerned about gentrification than about so-called gentrification whiplash, the unpleasant situation that occurs when the headlong rush toward urban real estate suddenly stops or reverses itself.

This now seems like a realistic possibility in many places. That includes my own beloved DC, who is plagued by three major problems at once. Thanks to remote work, the demand for office space has skyrocketed. Demand for residential real estate has shifted to the suburbs as locations close to offices become less valuable. And crime continues to soar to new heights. In 2023, homicides in Washington, D.C., hit a 20-year high, and auto thefts reached levels not seen since 2007.

If this trend continues, people with money and options will do what they did in the mid-20th century and seek refuge in places where they don’t have to worry as much about being robbed or shot.

But the reaction from my local officials has been strangely indifferent. Violence has been a serious problem since 2020, but the number of arrests in 2022 has fallen by almost half compared to 2019, the number of prosecutions has fallen even further, and the D.C. Police Department’s operating budget has shrunk by nearly 13 percent. However, the number of police officers was declining to its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Year. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser finally pushed through a series of reforms this fall aimed at reducing crime.

So let me add a fourth problem to my city’s predicament. It’s the city workers who have spent years collecting a kind of hidden handout from gentrification that has made their jobs easier in many ways, and who stand to make the whiplash worse. We are facing the biggest urban crisis in 50 years, driven by politicians accustomed to playing on easy mode, the policy equivalent of driving without a seatbelt.

Over the past 20 years, if you’ve overseen a reasonably successful city like Washington, no matter what you do, the tax base continues to improve as rich people replace poor people. In 2006, when I moved to Washington, D.C., total tax revenue, excluding dedicated taxes, was $4.2 billion (about $6.3 billion in today’s dollars). In 2022, the city collected approximately $8.6 billion ($8.8 billion in 2023 dollars). Of course, the population has increased since 2006, but not by 40%.

On the other hand, those who immigrated needed less help from the government than those who were forced out. The newcomers didn’t need subsidized medical care or child care, and the city didn’t have to arrange tutors for children struggling with math. They were also far less likely to suffer from poverty-related hardships, such as substance abuse or untreated mental illness, or to develop related problems such as crime and child abuse.

We often talk about governments learning to do more with less, but cities that gentrify have learned to do more with less. . Educating and policing the wealthy middle class does not require as much money and ingenuity as providing those services to the general population. Being a marginalized community, the government didn’t have to be very good at many jobs. But when you look at crime statistics and test scores, those services actually appeared to be improving rapidly because the population was less deprived.

Of course, gentrification hasn’t actually solved many of those problems. It would only push them out and throw the most vulnerable people out onto the streets. But politicians appeared to be solving problems, creating an illusion of competence that may have fooled even the politicians themselves.

This has gone on for so long that people, voters and politicians alike, have taken it for granted. We have a progressive mayor, a progressive district attorney, and a progressive city council member who pursued laudable goals on the premise that no matter what we do, crime will continue to fall and public coffers will continue to overflow.

Now this illusion has been shattered. The ever-increasing demand for urban housing cannot be taken for granted, nor can the benefits that come with it. City officials can no longer rely on gentrification to move problems to another zip code. You have to be able to actually solve problems.

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