In The New Yorker‘s 7/11 & 7/18 issue, Kelefa Sanneh questions the damage of gentrification and whether tenants have a political/human right to remain in their apartments. Troublesome as it is, given how strongly we attach to the idea of “home,” the guarantee of being able to stay in a specific neighborhood seems as dangerous as being committed to a single healthcare plan, school, or job. If it’s working for you, then it’s a positive thing–see the rent-stabilized people whose apartments we’re jealous of, because of how far below market-rate they actually are. Of course, the flip-side is that because we recognize how great a deal property can be, we sometimes choose to stay, whether it makes sense for us to do so or not–and whether or not it might create a burden on other people who might have even less mobility or choice in where to live than you.
This is moral calculus at its finest, but one idea that Sanneh gets at, is that “Arguments over gentrification are really arguments over who deserves to live in a city, and the notion of a right to stay put is sometimes at odds with another, perhaps more fundament right: the right to move.” Someone locked into a submerged neighborhood (literally, as in New Orleans post-Katrina, or figuratively, as in financially stuck–perhaps in Detroit, or Flint) needs affordable options for leaving. Those who don’t like what their neighborhood is becoming, whether because they don’t recognize it or are being priced out of local goods, should have viable options for leaving that doesn’t come down to a battle over “the right” to live somewhere, but rather a guarantee that we can find a comfortable place and community in which to live. The danger, of course, is that this creates a new type of segregation, in which the old are shuffled off to a community of retirees, while the young swoop in on their old, soon-to-be renovated abodes.
Is there a compromise between the two? The real truth of the article is that unbearable rent increases are a result of a limited supply, something exacerbated by an artificial market and those who cannot afford to leave their stabilized apartments. We must build more apartments so as to allow for more mobility, which in turn allows renters to negotiate for better terms, as opposed to always having to take the less of several, last-minute evils, all of which are ostensibly better than living on the street or renting a hotel. Ultimately, none of us should feel locked into a neighborhood because we “got in early” or “locked in a rate” and now don’t have other options; this tethers us to jobs, when in truth we might be far better creating new communities elsewhere.