The Atlantic, January 2, 2021, The Pandemic Disproved Urban Progressives’ Theory About Gentrification
From California to the Northeast, a funny thing has happened recently in America’s most expensive metropolitan areas: Rents have gone down. Ever since remote workers began fleeing urban cores at the start of the coronavirus pandemic—whether to the Hamptons or their parents’ basements—urban housing markets have been flooded with empty apartments. As a result, the prices that rental units command in certain large cities have dropped dramatically, to the tune of 18 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Seattle, and nearly 25 percent in San Francisco, according to a November survey by the firm Apartment List.
Gentrification is a notoriously slippery term, and the popular appeal of any attempt to address it depends largely on how one defines it. By focusing on supposedly unrestrained growth as its root cause, new progressive campaigns have revived a decades-old political coalition of renters, homeowners, and other interest groups whose origins lie in a different era of these cities’ histories. This unusually broad and largely inadvertent partnership was influential in bringing an end to the era of urban renewal, and it has the potential to be a potent force in urban politics for years to come. Yet this anti-growth partnership presumes that the interests of the landed and the landless are aligned—that a policy of more tightly regulated development can both generate wealth for those who own property and redistribute it to those who don’t. In the 21st century, when halting the rise of rents and property values in many large cities has taken a global pandemic, the logic that undergirds this movement deserves a critical look.