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Agony Uncle: Am I contributing to gentrification?

Agony uncle
Illustration of Agony Uncle's advice about gentrification
Q: I’m working class and have recently moved away from the city I grew up in, as soaring rents meant I could no longer afford to live there. But prices are rising here too as incomers move in, many taking advantage of new possibilities to work remotely – and the resentment from longer term residents about the way this is changing the area is palpable.
Having experienced the effects of gentrification first hand, I now find myself on the other side of the divide. Should I feel guilty? I never wanted to become a gentrifier, but what can I do?
Out of Oakland

First, a question: What’s wrong with gentrification? Neighbourhoods change with the times, and can one really complain about a new deli on one’s street?

I say this not to be glib, but in order to be more precise about what’s going wrong, and how you can address it. The sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term ‘gentrification’ in 1964, observing about boroughs like London’s Islington that ‘one by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class… it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character has changed.’

Gentrification, then, isn’t just change, but the permanent replacement of the working class. And you don’t mention it in your own letter, so I won’t presume, but it’s worth noting that gentrification in places like Oakland has a markedly racialized dynamic, with majority white tech industry workers edging out historic Black and Latino communities.

The human consequences of gentrification are far-reaching. People are forced to set up their lives and families miles away from their roots, isolating them from their communities and support networks. And because renting a room in London or Los Angeles is a prerequisite in all kinds of careers from politics to the arts, the loss of affordable working-class enclaves means that civic participation and job opportunities become the preserve of the wealthy.

This is no natural phenomenon: it is achieved by eroding our social housing stock, allowing the rich to hoard homes as lucrative rentier assets, and removing protections like rent controls and squatters’ rights. It is a trend that will only be reversed by mass action which secures working class people’s right to the city.

Your first question is whether you should feel guilty about your move. I would point out that you are neither a winner nor a loser here, but one of many who have been shunted around by the vicissitudes of the housing market, with no hope of reversing this inexorable tide yourself. Nor are you, I suspect, likely to move along and live somewhere more ‘ethical’ on deeper reflection. Not least because your apartment would probably be snapped up by another gentrifier quicker than you could say ‘bone broth’, and nobody would benefit! Do not beat yourself up for settling somewhere that works for you.

But you should think deeply about your own place in your new neighbourhood and take control of those things you can change. It is possible to become paralyzed by guilt and shut yourself off from those around you in embarrassment. That would only worsen gentrification’s harms, as you shut the door to your community and accelerate the descent to an ever more disengaged, isolated city. Instead, ask yourself: how many neighbours would come to you if they needed emergency childcare or a ride to work? Do you even know their names? How often do you shop and eat at locally-owned businesses? Are you plugged into local campaign groups that defend tenants or push for progressive housing policy?

Gentrification can feel like an unstoppable, faceless process. But at its heart it’s about the displacement and disadvantaging of working-class communities. What’s done is done: now try to figure out how you can help the community around you and drive change towards a better city and fairer housing. Try turning your guilt into action.

Send your dilemmas to advice@newint.org

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