In a piece for The Atlantic, Jacob Anbinder challenges the popular thesis that new housing construction in historic neighborhoods causes gentrification, calling the concept misguided and pointing to declining rents during 2020 as proof.
Since the mid-20th century, housing activists and politicians have painted development as broadly detrimental to affordable housing, arguing that this “gentrification-industrial complex” is a key driver of displacement and rising housing costs. This “growth revolt” brought together stakeholders from across the political spectrum, pitting wealthy homeowners and low-income renters against developers. For once, “nature enthusiasts, architectural historians, homeowners, and rock-ribbed socialists” could all agree on something.
“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.”
The 1970s and 1980s saw the growth of design review boards, height limits, and other density restrictions that continue to shape urban development today. Anbinder argues that these cosmetic changes, which treat luxury construction as a cause rather than consequence of neighborhood change and gentrification, don’t acknowledge the true causes of rising housing costs. In his assessment, slow growth policies may have in fact exacerbated the current housing crisis by limiting the number of available units. The difference, he writes, is in ownership. “The telltale sign of a neighborhood in transition isn’t a yoga studio or a high-rise apartment building. It is an old rowhouse, meticulously renovated.”