“Responsible Development” Or Respectable Gentrification?: Exposing a Dangerous Myth

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The following article was written by Take Back The Bronx and was originally posted on Take Back The Bronx’s Facebook page. Please check out Take Back The Bronx on Facebook and the Bronx Social Center for more on the struggle against gentrification in the Bronx!

Judging from social media, most Bronx residents oppose gentrification and the recent efforts of developer Keith Rubenstein to rebrand the South Bronx “The Piano District.” However, many local activists and tenants support the idea of “responsible development”, which respects local culture and allows community input, as a viable alternative to displacement. If development takes place respectfully, the argument goes, it can benefit poor and working class communities, and gentrification can be avoided. But as nice as it sounds, “responsible development” is a myth—a dangerous one.

Responsible development usually brings different “stakeholders” to the table—developers, landlords, community non-profits (or NGOs), small businesses, local tenants and homeowners—to create development plans that guarantee housing units for different income brackets. Sometimes called “cooperative community development,” these strategies come in many forms, including mixed-income housing, funding for small businesses, and home ownership loan programs for people of color. They bring short-term benefits, and can soften the blow of gentrification. But with the same gesture, they pave the way for further displacement in the future. For example, research shows that mixed-income housing and home ownership loans fuel the expansion of market-rate rentals in surrounding areas, and ultimately drive poor and working class residents out.** Far from stopping gentrification, the responsible development paradigm makes it look respectable, by obscuring the class struggle raging below its surface.

When “stakeholders” sit at a table, they are already divided into two sides. On one side are landlords, developers, and financiers—capitalists—who use buildings and land for profit. On the other side are working-class communities of color, who need livable homes and affordable neighborhoods to survive. Our interests are incompatible, and continually come into conflict. But the responsible development perspective denies this reality. Politicians pander to us, accept campaign funds from the capitalists, and strike a temporary balance between our interests. The balance is always unequal: we get a shopping mall, a charter school, or a few nice apartments, while they pocket millions in contracts and rent. And it doesn’t stop there. To stay ahead, capitalists must use their profits to invest in further development, which leads to more policing, more dismantling of affordable housing, and ultimately MORE DISPLACEMENT.

Responsible development throws out our most powerful weapon—united, militant struggle—and aims for deals that erode our collective power even further. It puts our fate in the hands of our class enemies, and politicians who advance their careers by selling us a myth. No matter how nice capitalists seem at the negotiating table, they are ready to call the police to cleanse the neighborhood for middle-class residents, or evict us from our homes. We can never gain control over our communities by uniting with those whose interests depend on securing power over us.

Rather than falling into the responsible development trap, we need to strengthen the fighting power of poor and working class communities of color. We need to undermine the capitalists’ ability to execute evictions, extract rent, and build wherever they want. We need to take control of our housing, repair it, and run it ourselves. Ultimately, we need to do away with landlords and bankers altogether, and run our neighborhoods cooperatively and democratically—based on our needs, not their profits. Fighting for this will be a long and hard struggle. But by keeping in mind that the real goal is control over our housing, we can keep taking steps toward a better world, even as we fight to improve conditions in the short-run.

** See: Maya Dukmasova (2012), “The Problem with Mixed-Income Housing”, Online at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/05/the-problem-with-mixed-income-housing/ and
Laura Gottesdiner (2013), “The Great Eviction: Black America and the Toll of the Foreclosure Crisis”. Online at: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/black-america-foreclosure-crisis

FURTHER READING:

Brown-Saracino, Japonica, ed. (2010). The gentrification debates. New York: Routledge. Especially part II, “How, where and when does gentrification occur?”

Engels, Friederick. (1972). The Housing Question. Atlanta, GA: Pathfinder Press.

Lotta Continua. (1973) “Take Over The City!” Radical America, Vol.7 No. 2. Pages 79-113. Online at: http://libcom.org/files/1125403419845177.pdf

Prole.info. (2012). The housing monster. Oakland, Calif: PM Press. Online at: http://www.prole.info/pdfs/thm.pdf

Smith, Neil. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. London: Routledge.

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