Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Let’s Talk About “Market Rate” Housing, and Anti-Gentrification Strategies….(part one)

It was a pleasant, and even casually magical,
walk around the lake with an ex-housemate.
We spoke about philosophy
and tried to synchronize the terms
on how to talk about the process
we could agree is “gentrification”
for worse or even better—

We spoke of the meanings, the logics,
of market values and those who set them
and then we were interrupted by loud laughter
of friendly people loitering in the public park
by the lake where the city had just banned BBQ…
“no fire”---okay, maybe because of the drought
“no loud noise”---some other reason for that.
The gentrifiers, of course

And as we pass another apartment building
I read about recently where the tenants
woke one day to find the $1090 a month
they paid for a one bedroom
was now going to be $3900.
A feeling not too dissimilar
from surveying the rubble after an earthquake
especially for the folks who had lived here 20, 30, even 40 years
back when it was still $500 a month,
a feeling not too dissimilar
to being Columbused….

So this is the backdrop that intrudes
upon our lovely philosophical conversation
about market rates.
Assumptions are floated:
“Market rate housing is simply the price
the free market can sustain.”
“Building more market rate housing
will actually bring prices down.”
Skepticism rises—that’s what they say
but the evidence seems to prove otherwise.

But let’s backtrack first and try
To get our definitions straight.
“When some say ‘market rate’ housing
they really mean luxury housing.”
“One man’s ‘luxury housing’
is another man’s ‘affordable housing.’
The term ‘luxury housing’ shines glorious for some;
for others, it waves its odious banner of exclusion.
It’s an emotionally charged word.
So too, “affordable housing” shines glorious for some,
but for others shines an odious banner of regulation.
Perhaps the term “market rate housing” splits the difference,
finds an agreed upon common ground,
even a golden mean, in the science of economics
(albeit an economy abstracted from ecology).

A beanie could serve as a good example:
You buy it for $10
but enough other people are willing to spend $20
that ‘market rates’ could dictate its prices being raised.
Less people will be able to buy it,
but you’ll make more money per customer so that don’t matter.
You could even appeal to their need for exclusion
and call it a “luxury beanie,”
maybe get the Indonesian slave labor to sew on
an extra decorative amenity.
So, if $20 is the new market rate
perhaps some other entrepreneur—
maybe a local worker-owned collective—
could undersell the beanie conglomerate
and still make enough of a profit
selling for maybe $11 dollars
               (can’t quite turn a profit
                 selling it at the old rate of $10
                 since it’s expensive to start a new business
                 especially with no start-up loan)
and serve the needs of those
who otherwise would be tempted to shoplift      
            (though it’s harder to shoplift on line).

This could work, but it’s exceedingly difficult
for any new business that serves this need to begin
as a direct result of government policies
biased towards existing multi-media conglomerates
who set prices and expect people to march
to their computer-generated drummer….

To make a long story slightly shorter,
I distrust the logic that’s often justified as “market rate”
especially when I saw the way it was used
as synonymous with “luxury” by the developers
who are trying to buy the city-owned land
on East 12th we just walked past (gestures in the air)
to build that “market” and/or “luxury” condo.

In the use of these terms
the variable words “market” and “luxury”
clearly were united against the word “affordable”
(which was an updated version of ‘low-income’
whose connotations had fallen into ill-repute
during the last 3rd of the 20th century)
and the word “affordable” has also been
subject to Orwellian double-speak

“Affordable to whom?” remains a question
(pause, if you will, to think of the debate
over ‘affordable’ in Obamacare).
After all, a rich suburban may say,
of a ‘low-income’ neighborhood,
“I can’t afford to live there; I might be shot!”

Of course, income must be taken into account….
And if I were mayor….
“Would you ban the building of market-rate housing?”
No, but I would demand a strict accounting
that takes the income of the neighborhood into consideration
when making its calculations.
“But that would require regulating the market.”
“Governments used to do that more,
and it’s no accident that that was the heyday of—
or the closest America ever got to—
the ideal of the middle class I think kids are still (mis)-educated about
(even if it no longer applies to reality as it used to).

“Yet some regulations may be seen as siding
with some people over others….”
“That argument reminds me of the corporate media’s war against “handouts”
and “entitlements” or, in more extreme forms, Nestle’s CEO’s declaration
that water is a privilege not a right (and he’s got the muscle to back him up!)….
while the truthful phrase “corporate welfare”
Is consigned to the ghetto of footnotes and clever facebook memes

Besides, the current system clearly is set up to side with some people over others too, the people who don’t live here over the people who do (or did); the myth of some neutrality beyond the class struggle in today’s privatized public policy just seems false to me….

“You’re flying off the handle here. A glut of $3900 apartments inevitably starts competing with each other, and the market of tenants starts to shrink so the price of rents inevitably has to come down. Simple as that….”

“It seems, at best, it would bring it down only from a price that was over-inflated in the first place, a price imposed (certainly not democratically voted on) from some outside colonizers of this municipality.”

So, while you’re working on the answer to that one, my mind drifts to thoughts of what I would do if I had any power to change things, if we had the ear of the mayor, or at lest a strong voice on city council, in dealing with the Housing Crisis….it’s certainly hard to find poet-types to talk about it….