Photo by eightprime on Flickr.

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book.

Ward 3 Vision is organizing a talk with Ross on Thursday, June 12, 7 pm at the Tenley-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Then, have a drink with Ross, Ward 3 Vision members, and others at Public Tenley, where you can buy a signed copy.

In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, ... tenant advocates often fall back on a purely defensive approach and oppose new construction in the neighborhood. This strategy rests on a seemingly straightforward logic.

Real estate prices are always a matter of location—buildings are expensive because they’re near expensive buildings—so keeping out new buildings, which will always charge a higher rent than the older ones around them, helps keep housing affordable.

The means of stopping development is a political coalition of tenants and nimby homeowners. This alliance is surely an odd basis for left-wing politics, but a school of academic theory justifies it as such. The idea is that neighborhoods are defending themselves against an exploitative and nearly all-powerful “growth machine.”

The fuel that drives the machine is profit, derived from the excess of the “exchange value” realized when land is redeveloped over the “use value” enjoyed by its current residents. This logic dovetails nicely with the greedy developer mantra of more conservative suburban homeowners.

Growth machine theory has the merit of focusing on the exercise of political power, something that is glossed over in much establishment writing about land use. It explains, moreover, why urban renewal and downtown expressways were so hard to stop in the 1950s and 1960s.

But the theory is less useful in current circumstances. For one thing, it exaggerates the power of the growth machine. Developers would surely, if allowed, build their high-rises in prestigious close-in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe, and Georgetown. Condos would be easier to sell there than in the run-down areas where local governments now let them build.

For another, the concept of use value misconstrues the motivation for resistance to growth. Nimbys acquire higher status by means of conspicuous waste; what zoning protects is not the use of land, but its disuse.

A variant of this theory that emphasizes the role of lower-income neighborhoods as centers of resistance to capitalism is popular among neo-Marxist writers. Aiming to understand the global forces behind recent economic trends, they focus on the role of banks and real estate developers in urban change and downplay the role of individual gentrifiers. The single-family zoning of suburban homeowners has little relevance to their concerns and is often taken for granted.

The focus on gentrification shifts the political base for affordable housing. Tenants themselves do not mobilize on the abstract issue of future land use as they do for the immediate protection of rent control. Meanwhile, support grows more intense among the gentrifiers themselves—for some grass-roots advocates of affordable housing, opposition to gentrification begins with a desire to keep the neighborhood just the way it was when they moved in. Sympathy for low-income residents comes only afterwards.

At their worst, local struggles against gentrification have less to do with the poor than with protecting the brand image of poverty in a newly hip neighborhood. Local activists seize on neo-Marxist theory to denounce all change as the evil machinations of the multinational elite. Here there is an echo of pro-sprawl libertarians like Randal O’Toole and Joel Kotkin. One group hails nimbys as enemies of the urban cultural elite; the other welcomes them as partners in the struggle against global capital.

Either way, the rhetoric serves a similar purpose. It provides a rationale for alliances that would otherwise be hard to square with the locally fashionable political ideology.

Identifying gentrification as the underlying issue brings the issues of transportation and development to the fore. Other things in poor neighborhoods keep wealthy newcomers out too—crime and bad schools, for example—but it is hard to argue for their preservation.

An activist may think, as one Chicagoan told an interviewer, that crime helps keep his neighborhood from becoming “too nice,” but few long-time residents agree. Targeted instead are light rail lines and new buildings on vacant land. In themselves they displace no one, but as triggers of change they seem as threatening as condo conversions and they are much easier to stop.

For tenants, who certainly have a direct concern for affordability, coalitions with nimbys lead to a dead end. Changing city neighborhoods cannot be preserved as low-rent refuges unless the demand for urban living is soaked up somewhere else. New urban downtowns would have to be built in the wealthy areas where CEOs live and jobs cluster.

But the alliance with nimbys makes it impossible to challenge snob zoning within the same political jurisdiction. And by legitimating resistance to change, it reinforces the status quo elsewhere.

The wealthy inevitably play the exclusion game more effectively than the poor. Pent-up demand is funneled into the surviving remnants of an older urbanism. The price of the existing housing stock soars.

This dynamic of gentrification has gone furthest in San Francisco, where soaring housing costs accompany tight building limits. The best-paid jobs are in Silicon Valley office parks, so reverse commuters’ cars crowd the streets of once-poor neighborhoods.