“Wherever the creatives go, the developers will follow.” With this simple statement, the Guardian newspaper's architecture critic, Oliver Wainwright, introduces an in-depth, multi-part look at the issue of gentrification. Wainwright’s dissection of this global issue not only confirms his status as the most articulate and steely-eyed architecture critic working today, but also asks us to look at the conundrum central to architecture today: Wherever and whenever something improves in our built environment, it is to the benefit of the haves and often excludes the have-nots.
We have gone a long way, in other words, from both the ideals of Modernist architects to build better social housing and work environments, and the ground-up movement of artists, bohemians, and other social rejects or immigrants occupying what was left of Modernism’s grids to create lively and collaborative communities in urban environments. We still build modern apartment and office buildings, but they are generally for the rich and, as Wainwright indicates, if the renovations and squats are successful, those who did the hard work of renovating are invariably kicked out as soon as they succeed.
What is to be done? Wainwright points to various laws and regulations that try to fix the problem through constraint, including restrictions of raising rents in Berlin and a new, 15 percent surcharge on foreigners buying housing in Vancouver. The latter appears to have been particularly effective, causing a market that was severely overheated to plummet in the course of a few weeks.
We continue, however, to live in a capitalist economy. The problem with stopping the engine of gentrification is that doing so also stymies the good work of fixing up buildings, making neighborhoods more lively, and providing both employment and housing (let alone small business opportunities) for the gentrify-ers and pioneers as well as construction workers and baristas.
For all that gentrification seems to be everywhere, the focus its success elicits turns us away from the fact that it is a phenomenon that happens in isolation; the series points out that even in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, where average house prices are over $2.4 million, a huge amount of work still needs to be done on dilapidated or under-utilized structures. Islands such as Manhattan are largely gentrified, but drive through the endless stretches of Brooklyn and Queens around this glittering core and you can see miles of poverty and structures that could use a great deal of care and refurbishment.
Wainwright’s solution is an old fashioned one: tax increments on land values. First proposed by the English social reformer Henry George at the end of the 19th century, its logic is that an owner should enjoy the improvement of his or her living or working condition that results from new construction or renovation, but the community should benefit from the improvement that work generates in the public space around it. As Wainwright says:
The biggest question is whether such taxes would return to the community. Even if you find a way to make the taxes local, they would still benefit a city or town in general, and the reality of politics is such that the increment might go to increasing services in neighborhoods where wealthier people with more political clout reside. A hyper-local tax would be the answer, but we have few mechanisms for keeping public revenues that close to their source.
Certainly Wainwright’s suggestion is a step in the right direction, although I can imagine more radical solutions: the right to squat, with occupation turning into ownership, contingent on continued residence; direct payments to urban pioneers; gentrification by the government with guarantees to local residents; and most radically of all, the building of better housing and amenities for those who need them most, paid for out of tax dollars, no matter how they are raised.
Wainwright raises all the right questions, but the solutions remain beyond the realm of either architecture or architecture criticism. We can see what is possible and what is good, but to implement true change, we will have to turn to social action. It is up to architects to use their knowledge and skills to provide the models, and to work as citizens to make them effective.