About two weeks after I began to write this series, the mural pictured in the photograph appeared underneath a train trestle a few blocks north of my home. I do not know who created it or why. If I were to guess, I would suggest it was initiated by a housing activist as a form of protest against the changing landscape. (If anyone in Chicago reads this and knows who created this, please let me know).
Then someone pointed out to me the mural could be read as an advertisement. I had not seen it that way, but gentrification is driven by capitalist market forces. One of the causes of gentrification is speculative buying. This happens when a buyer purchases a home because they believe neighborhood property values will increase, leading to increased equity and personal gain. This person thought a realtor could have created the mural to attract prospective homeowners. A simple statement on a mural highlights the complexities of gentrification.
I have not been unaware that construction of affordable housing has its own unique challenges. It is practically impossible to build affordable housing in the United States without the use of tax credits, federal funding, grants, or other development incentives.¹ When we bought our first property, my perspective on the difficulty level of an individual contribution to a potential solution was somewhat simplistic.
Our property is a three-flat, which has been a form of affordable housing in Chicago for generations. These multi-unit buildings are oversized single family homes split into small apartments. In gentrifying neighborhoods, multi-unit properties are at high risk of being de-converted into single family buildings, if not torn down to be replaced with a more modern luxury single family home. I had lived in rental apartments in multi-unit buildings for over a decade and appreciated how affordable my prior private landlords kept the rent. When we decided to purchase our first home, we thought we might be able to do the same for someone else.
Like many multi-unit properties in Chicago, our building is over one hundred years old. In the past four years of ownership, we have paid for an expensive major electrical issue, multiple furnace replacements, sewer system issues, and other costly repairs. As the property values in the neighborhood have increased, so have property taxes. There are costs to maintaining an old building.
When we had a tenant vacancy, we quickly learned that the moderately priced rent was unaffordable for residents who were actually from the immediate neighborhood. And we had more interest than expected from young professionals with good credit, stable income, and a roommate with which they could split rent. Our unit was a financial stretch for anyone who wanted to stay in the neighborhood, but a bargain for those who could live almost anywhere they wanted.
Despite this, we have been able to preserve our rental unit’s relative affordability thus far. Our current tenant was forced to move from her home of thirty years when her landlord sold the building, a story we found all too common among prospective renters. We hope we can continue to maintain a well-kept, moderately affordable unit. But even though our objectives were counter to the process of gentrification, our entrance was part of a broader sociological reality over which we did not have control.
The book Gentrifier explains “The gentrifier is a social, political, and economic actor…While economics has traditionally overprivileged choice, critical sociology must not respond to this error by failing to interrogate individual choice. Indeed, gentrification does not occur because middle class people decide to be gentrifiers. But deeming all things structural allows middle-class residents to ignore their own agency.”² Gentrification is a systemic issue, but this does not absolve us of an examination of individual participation. When we are middle class and we move into a neighborhood undergoing an acceleration in development, we must identify ourselves as gentrifiers.
Personal relationship to place and community is consequential in urban neighborhoods experiencing gentrification. When the economic principle of utility maximization is exercised in the home-buying decision, we find new residents moving into a community because they can get larger, nicer space for their purchase dollars.
The people already there have the potential to turn our addresses into our communities, rather than merely the location we park our cars at night. But our neighbors are not part of the calculation when a housing decision is fully economically driven. We see this show up in a variety of ways; like when new residents rally to block affordable housing, complain about loud music from a late night family celebration, or call the city when a neighbor violates a building code rather than lending a helping hand. Even when intentions began well, new residents are not always willing to accept an unfamiliar socio-cultural dynamic.
Merely being physically present in a place does not connect a person to the location. Relationships do. It is now possible to live our lives completely isolated from geographic neighbors, even though we share public space with them. And yet, place experienced with others can give us personal identity and common ground on which to unite. Long-time residents in formerly disinvested neighborhoods understand this. They sit on their front porches, while new residents gather with friends in their backyards, out of sight from neighbors.
The expansion of community that technology affords, especially for those of upwardly mobile potential, is not without repercussion. When we have someone nearby to call in a time of crisis, we gain a sense of emotional stability. When we share with those around us, we begin to belong to our place. Global networks are too broad to be meaningful; our impact is where we are present. A luxury home cannot substitute for relationships, even for the wealthiest among us. Yet our collective decisions still prioritize one over the other. Space does not belong to any individual person; it belongs to all of us.
This concludes the current series on gentrification.
Read Parts 1–5
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again: Part 5
Technology Changes the Equation
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again: Part 4
Community is People and Place
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying: Part 3
The Suburbs Are Historically Significant
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again: Part 2
White Flight is My Story
My Neighborhood is Gentrifying Again
Three Times in Ten Years is Too Much
²Schlichtman, John Joe, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill. Gentrifier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.