There's an ancient Indian parable called the Blind Men and the Elephant. It was most famously introduced to the West in verse by 19th-century poet John Godfrey Saxe. It describes a group of blind men who set out to determine the nature of an elephant, but arrive at vastly different conclusions. One man, touching only the trunk, concludes that the elephant resembles a large snake. Another, reaching out and finding the elephant's ear, concludes that it is more like a fan; the man who touches the leg likens it to a tree, and so forth. None of them produces an accurate mental picture of the whole animal.
The parable illustrates that people who have only incomplete knowledge of the world (which is to say, all of us) can arrive at vastly different and incompatible conclusions. These conclusions may be justified based on the information we have taken into account, but we need to be open to the possibility that we aren't picturing the whole elephant — that other people's partial knowledge can supplement our own partial knowledge and make us wiser.
A lot of conversations about the problems of our cities and towns are intractable, in part, because their participants are examining different parts of the elephant.
Who's Ruining the City This Time?
In Washington, DC, a group of residents, led by civil rights attorney Aristotle Theresa, is suing the city for gentrification. Specifically, they allege that the District has discriminated against its low-income and African-American communities because it has actively sought to attract high-income millennials in the "creative class" (a term coined by sociologist and urban theorist Richard Florida to describe white-collar knowledge workers in industries such as technology and media) through development incentives and placemaking initiatives. The suit claims that those initiatives are directly responsible for the displacement of the city's poorer, longtime residents, whose needs are not served by expensive new housing.
That DC has undergone dramatic gentrification is not in question. That the one-time "Chocolate City" has lost black residents — 11 percent between 2000 and 2010 — even as its total population has grown is also established fact. Lastly, it is without question that DC suffers from appalling racial and socioeconomic inequality: the typical white household in the area has a net worth 81 times that of the typical black household. Eighty-one.
But this lawsuit makes me think of the Blind Men and the Elephant in the way it seems fixated on one facet of gentrification, one relationship among the many that contribute to the process. The 82-page complaint, at numerous points, uses language (such as describing neighborhoods as "slated for destruction") that implies that the city's gentrification has a neat, tidy cause: the actions of local government.
This lawsuit reflects a villain-centric mentality pervasive in a lot of discourse about urban change: Someone is ruining the city, and we're going to tell you who the bad guy is. Peter Moskowitz titled his sweeping 2017 anti-gentrification polemic How To Kill a City. Indicted for the murders are elected officials, real-estate speculators and developers, and ultimately, neoliberal capitalism itself. Just this month, Harper's ran a long-form essay by Kevin Baker about New York, called "The Death of a Once-Great City." Its take is similar to Moskowitz's: New York is losing its soul to unsustainable rents and a "predatory monoculture" of chain stores where distinctive local businesses once were.
Many of Baker's observations ring true, but his diagnosis of the problem comes up short: he is intensely focused on vacant pied-a-terre condos for the ultra-rich, describing project after project in detail. New York, per Baker, is turning into "a city of glass houses where no one’s ever home." This is overstating the case. The city's most recent Housing and Vacancy Survey finds that about 10% of all New York City housing units are vacant (including those under renovation or available for sale or rent). The city has a rental vacancy rate of 3.63% overall, and under 3% for all units that rent for less than $1,500 a month. Sounds like most people are home.
(For context, vacancy of about 5 percent is widely considered to represent a healthy market. Higher vacancy favors tenants, while lower vacancy favors landlords, who can take advantage of tighter competition for apartments to hike up rents.)
Gentrification is often understood by its critics as a conspiracy perpetrated against marginalized people by a self-dealing power elite. But this mindset isn't limited to gentrification critics. Wealthier anti-development activists motivated by environmental or quality-of-life concerns use similar rhetoric for their own ends. Typically, it's that developers, or local governments in thrall to them, are forcing unwanted growth on an unwilling citizenry. "More than a million people in SF? Did anyone ask you?" is the title of a blog post by Zelda Bronstein, a prominent Berkeley, CA anti-growth activist, in response to population projections for the Bay Area. At a recent street fair in Minneapolis, I walked past a table of activists handing out ominous pamplets to inform me that a vague "they" behind the city's recent draft comprehensive plan wanted to "bulldoze our neighborhoods." (This was in reference to a proposal to allow 2- to 4-unit buildings on most residential streets.)
By and large, the problem with these critics isn't that they aren't reacting to real concerns. The problem is that they have nothing viable to offer as to what we're supposed to do about it. And a major reason they have nothing viable to offer is that they have misdiagnosed the problem on a fundamental level. In an effort to tell a compelling story, they have characterized what is actually a complex system of institutions and incentives as, more simply, a conspiracy of malevolent actors.
As soon as you adopt the frame that your city's problems are about powerful villains being villainous, real progress is likely to be elusive, and simplistic solutions are going to sound seductive. We just have to make The Developers stop ruining the city. Or make Big Tech stop ruining the city. Or make Private Equity stop ruining the city. Or make Elitist Planners stop ruining the city. And we'll accomplish all of this using the might of the people through legislation, taxation or the courts.
Peter Moskowitz's book is a great example of how this "good guys / bad guys" frame can even hurt otherwise nuanced arguments made by thoughtful people. How to Kill a City is worth reading and at many points provocative and insightful, but it ultimately falls into this trap, because of its myopic frame of gentrification as something that developers and investors do to cities to "kill" them. Without a deep analysis of the motivations of those actually moving to gentrifying neighborhoods, Moskowitz is unable to offer incremental solutions to the problem, only a generalized critique of capitalism and housing markets.
When pressed, many activists seeking to forestall urban change call for massive amounts of investment in the communities on the losing end of change — build unprecedented amounts of affordable housing, for example. This isn't necessarily a bad answer, but you've got to come up with the resources from somewhere, and I've seen few such arguments that actually make a convincing attempt to do the math.
Nor does the "Throw money at it" solution address the macroeconomic forces that have led to staggering disparities in wealth not only within cities, but between cities. We have moved toward a "winner take all" economy in which highly talented young people and knowledge-industry employers increasingly concentrate in a small handful of places. Aaron Renn has observed that a quarter of all Ivy League graduates are in three cities: New York, Washington, and San Francisco. More than half of 2018 Harvard grads are settling in New York, Massachusetts, or California. The reasons are complex and self-reinforcing.
In this context, the DC complaintants' allegation that the principal cause of DC's gentrification is certain city officials' enthusiasm for Richard Florida's economic development theories is farcical. Closer to a principle cause is that a lot of people want to live in DC. Ask why they want that, and there are all sorts of rabbit holes one could go down. But I doubt any of the local government actions called out in Aristotle Theresa's lawsuit would make a list of the top ten reasons.
The problems are real. But solutions are elusive because there are more moving parts than most of us are willing to admit. It's ultimately incoherent to frame the behavior of a complex system like an urban housing market through a narrative of powerful actors conspiring to shape the city in a certain way. That narrative denies agency to thousands, or millions, of individuals whose decentralized decisions, orchestrated by no central figure — who lives here, who buys, who sells, who rents, who comes, who stays, who leaves — are the actual substance of urban demographic change.
If you're talking about growth or decline or gentrification of any sort, and you're not talking about the motivations and incentives facing these individuals, you've already misunderstood the problem.
You Don't get to Dictate your City's Exact Future
The notion that it's even possible to dictate the demographic future of your community without unleashing unpleasant and unpredictable consequences is misguided in the first place.
That doesn't mean there aren't powerful actors with vastly disproportionate ability to affect the incentive structure facing individuals. There certainly are. The urban form, and indirectly urban demographics (Whose needs does the city cater to? Who can afford to partake in it?) are profoundly influenced by the actions of major developers, local governments (including through less obvious mechanisms such as subdivision regulations and parking policy), and federal entities such as transportation funding and housing finance agencies.
An earthen berm can alter the flow of a river. Build the Hoover Dam, and you can massively alter that flow. But one thing you won't change: the water is going to go somewhere. Urban planning policies and investment priorities are like a dam, and the market— that web of decentralized decisions, all of which affect and are affected by each other — is the river. Prepare for complex problems if you mess with it.
That doesn't mean you never should. The market doesn't have moral agency. It isn't God. It doesn't automatically lead to a just or equitable or socially optimal distribution of resources. But it is a complex system. If you're going to mess with it, do so with humility, and in ways where downside risk is limited.
Our discourse about urban change is, more often than not, lacking that humility. We don't acknowledge that each of us is touching only one part of the elephant. Many popular framings conspicuously include one cause and one proximate effect, and a bunch of other stuff is outside the frame. This leads to simplistic solutions.
The person who says "There are too many people here already. Just stop all this overdevelopment!" is looking at the building of homes as the root cause of growth, rather than as a result of the economic forces that drive growth and make it profitable. To them, developers are the ones visibly, obviously changing the landscape around them in a way they don't like. This analysis envisions a community which, in the absence of those construction cranes, would stay just like it is now.
Outside that person's frame are the would-be occupants of those homes that go unbuilt: the Michigan or Ohio retiree contemplating becoming a Florida snowbird, or the Californian eyeing a bit more elbow room in Idaho or Nevada. As individuals, they don't pull powerful strings. But collectively, they do. By putting ourselves in their shoes, we can guess at what would happen if we stopped building in places where demand is high. If they're wealthy enough, they buy a house anyway — bidding up the price for others who want one. (The Sightline Institute's "Cruel Musical Chairs" video, while a simplification, attempts memorably to capture this dynamic.) Maybe some move to the next community up the road, with less restrictive growth policies. Maybe they displace a local, who becomes a "super-commuter" from Stockton to San Francisco, or Poinciana to Orlando. Maybe any number of more complicated, domino-effect outcomes.
The person who says "It's supply and demand, stupid. Just build more housing!" is also describing only one part of the elephant, and oblivious to other parts. This framing treats the supply of housing in a place as malleable, but the demand function — the number of people who would ideally like a home there at a given price point — as fixed. But it's not fixed. Supply can induce new demand — for example, from current residents who live with roommates or parents who would move out if they could find cheaper rent. How will such residents respond if "we" build more? How will aspiring residents respond? How will developers respond? Will they stop building as soon as rents start to soften? How about overseas investors? How will local wages respond?
There's a lot to like about the YIMBY movement, and an elegant, straightforward appeal to groups with names like "Neighbors for More Neighbors." But there's a reason YIMBY responses to the objection, "Show me a once-unaffordable city that has actually added enough housing supply to become broadly affordable," are unconvincing to many critics. I've never seen a satisfactory answer. Places like Tokyo that have succeeded in maintaining affordability provide valuable lessons, but the existence of Tokyo doesn't provide a useful road map for turning San Francisco into Tokyo. Good luck with that.
The person who says, "The problem is that developers are only building high-end housing" has a frame in which a developer builds a home and attaches whatever price tag they can get away with. The effect of new housing on the price of old housing is outside their frame. I've been stared at uncomprehendingly by more than one person when I've suggested that building new, expensive housing can reduce upward price pressure on older, less expensive housing. I've suggested something that's outside their mental model for how housing prices work. It's a different part of the elephant.
The person who says, "Just get rid of zoning!" also has a lot missing from their frame. The person who says, "Just tax the rich!" is likely not accounting for all the secondary and tertiary effects of that decision. I'm sure my own mental model is missing some big pieces. Tell me what they are in the comments.
If your answer is "Just do this one thing, and we'll save the city from the people who are killing it," I can tell you with great certainty that you're not picturing the whole elephant.
I'm not lambasting simple-minded people for their simple-mindedness. The reality of a complex system is that no one can picture the whole elephant: it's beyond the capacity of the human mind to hold all those variables and their second, third, and higher order domino effects in our heads at once.
We all, out of necessity, use simplified conceptual models to think about complex systems. And those models will always exclude some variables from the equation — our mental pictures will leave something important outside the frame.
We can, and should, learn from each other's partial knowledge. But the experience of grappling with complexity should also be humbling. And the lesson it has to offer us is that process should matter more than outcome in how we plan for change.
It is impossible to simply direct a complex system to a desired outcome. Your city planners aren't doing that. Developers aren't doing that. Private equity firms aren't doing that. It literally cannot be done. Build a wall, dig a moat, pass a law: you're not going to make the water behind the dam disappear.
This is NOT an argument for throwing our hands up. You can affect the growth patterns of your community through policy, often quite profoundly. You can affect who gets to live in your community through policy, often profoundly. DC didn't lose 30,000 black residents in a decade by unpredictable accident — it was a quite predictable consequence of many forces acting upon the city. Some of these forces were within local policy makers' control. Some weren't.
This is NOT an argument for letting those we've chosen to lead us off the hook when they don't serve us. This is not even an argument against filing a lawsuit against DC for gentrification. As a political tactic, it might prove to be smart — it's a way of demanding a platform to call attention to some very pressing problems.
I don't, however, suspect that the suit's more expansive claims will prevail, and they shouldn't. To single out DC's municipal government for blame for causing the city's gentrification implies that they could have prevented it with better planning priorities (even in the face of the same national and global economic forces), and there is overwhelming reason to doubt that.
What can we do?
What can we do, if we can't dictate that the future of a city will look just how its current residents want it to look?
We can implement democratic, participatory, grassroots planning processes, to a far greater extent than we do now.
We can focus our planning energies on small bets: incremental experiments that provide short-term feedback without committing us to large, long-term sunk costs.
We can practice what Nassim Taleb calls the the via negativa: one by one, eliminate potential sources of fragility and perverse incentives in the system, instead of piling on more.
We can pursue policies whose explicit goal is to allow cities to adapt on the basis of real market feedback and the disaggregated decisions of many individuals. This means the next increment of growth and change must be available to every neighborhood: no place should be finished. Gradual evolution is the best inoculation against cataclysmic change.
Finally: Be humble. Remember that you don't see the whole elephant.
(Top photo by Mike Maguire)