Halting Construction Is A Terrible Way To Fight Gentrification

Alexandria is nice. More people should live there. They could if they built more houses.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Robert McCartney writes in the Washington Post that the waves of gentrification that have hit low-income neighborhoods in DC are also spreading to inner-ring suburbs. It’s an excellent observation, but his way of framing the issue is unfortunate:

In place of the brick, three-story garden apartments such as Santiago’s, the developer, JBG, is going to erect more than 5,000 units of much more expensive properties.

JBG has agreed to preserve or build 800 lower-cost units as well. But that still eliminates affordable apartments for 1,700 families. […]

Unless our region finds ways to preserve low- and moderate-cost housing in its center, we’re going to see an accelerating exodus of lower- and middle-class people to the outer suburbs. That risks damaging our economy, by making it harder to fill service jobs, and worsening traffic.

If it’s economical for JBG to replace 2,500 low-priced apartments with 800 low-priced apartments plus 4,200 expensive apartments that’s telling us that there’s high demand to live in this location. If it were impossible for JBG to do the project, in the very short term Santiago might get to stick around a little longer. But the workings of supply and demand wouldn’t halt. One way or another, if there’s demand for the location prices are going to rise. By replacing 2,500 units with 5,000 units we in the longer run increase the total quantity of people who can afford to live in the area.

Santiago’s real problem isn’t so much that his home is being replaced by a denser development as that not enough homes in the region are being replaced. When you have enough construction, you get filtering rather than gentrification. Lower-income people move into dwellings that used to house rich people but that aren’t shiny and new any more and don’t have the most up-to-date fashions. When you don’t have enough construction, you get rich people moving into poor people’s houses and installing granite countertops. If every single square mile inside the Beltway changed its zoning to allow for a doubling of residential density, then there’d be plenty of houses for everyone. If instead your affordability strategy is based on trying to preserve individual units as “affordable” even in the face of rising demand then inevitably lots of folks are going to end up out in the cold.