The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

* * *

1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

  • The report explores gentrification in the context of the region, not just one city. People concerned about gentrification in Oakland often fixate on Oakland alone and blame new arrivals from San Francisco for our housing woes. This report shows that gentrification is sweeping through the Bay Area as a whole and, by implication, that some of those arriving from San Francisco have been pushed out and deserve solidarity (not condemnation).
  • Development Without Displacement substantially validates the idea that it is possible to stop gentrification. Although denunciations of gentrification are everywhere, many who complain about it portray it as something inherent in the tech industry, or white people, or hipsters, or human arrogance. When framed in this way, it becomes impossible to stop—that is, unless you can rid the world of the tech industry or white people or hipsters or human arrogance. By contrast, this report shows that gentrification is not an unassailable monster but the result of specific policies that spread through time and place in a particular way. If we can end these policies, we can end or at least curb gentrification.

Three shortcomings

The report has some limitations as well. Although they do not negate its virtues, they are worth bearing in mind.

  • Its aims are too modest. It focuses on stopping or limiting displacement, but not on creating housing justice per se, and backs away from demands that are characteristic of radical housing movements. For instance, it does not call for making housing a right, for land seizures, or for the redistribution of wealth. Of course, we need to stop displacement in order to create housing justice, but stopping a wrong and creating a right are different things. Doing one does not necessarily imply or lead to the other. For its sake, this report simply does not push or point toward more radical social changes.
  • Although it calls for some non-market-based approaches to housing such as land trusts and limited equity co-ops, it largely accepts the idea that housing is a commodity and that it will be distributed by the market. As such, it basically embraces the market economy, which is the source of our housing problems. This also points to a future in which unequal access to housing will be a norm: if housing is a commodity, then it only goes to those who have enough money to buy it.
  • The book uses terms like community and self-determination too loosely. The word community appears throughout the book, usually many times per page, and occasionally multiple times in a sentence. (Here is an extreme example: “By advancing a vision of human development that is based on true community development, this report makes clear that community organizing, collective power-building, and community self-determination must be the foundation for any strategy to prevent or reverse gentrification and displacement.”) These terms entered political discourse during the protest movements of the 1960s and, as such, have a radical or oppositional ring. However, the vision advanced here is quite tame: it focuses mainly on getting cities to regulate the housing market more rigorously. It would be good if the report’s rhetoric and policies were more closely aligned.

* * *

Development Without Displacement is part of a tradition of books on cities authored by lefty activists. For instance, a similar work appeared locally about a decade ago: Towards Land, Work & Power: Charting a Path of Resistance to U.S.-Led Imperialism. This text also offered an analysis of the Bay Area’s political economy, but had some distinctively Maoist hues that are absent here. Another Californian (but non-local) antecedent can be found in The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City by Robert Gottlieb et al. The idea makes sense: analyzing your city can be an integral part of changing it.

This report creates a platform for deeper discussions of gentrification than have been customary and thus potentially more effective responses to it. Its diagnoses of the problem are more compelling than its solutions, but that is common on the Left. At the very least, it lays a foundation upon which we can start to confront some of the nuances of the housing crisis and the political implications of the policies that we deploy to address it.

I suspect that some readers of this post may think it inappropriate that I have highlighted deficiencies in Development Without Displacement. Aren’t I doing the enemy’s work by pointing out some of the publication’s shortcomings?

I don’t think so. To respond to the waves of displacement and gentrification sweeping the region, we need to do more than organize protests: we also need to create a housing movement that nourishes our critical abilities, our capacity to distinguish good arguments from weak ones, and to debate political goals. Such strengths are a precondition of social transformation. In fact, one of the things that makes this report so valuable is that it provides such fertile ground upon which to cultivate them.

We can anticipate a lot more discord in the years ahead: our sense of what the region ought to be and what it actually is are unlikely to come together any time soon. This, among other things, will keep people writing and talking.  Thanks to this publication, this reflection and dialogue will take place at a higher level than it would have otherwise and we will be better poised to one day bring the ought and the is into alignment.

~ Chuck Morse