Saturday, February 13, 2016

Why developers love urban farmers: Gentrification, the law of unintended consequences and market forces at work

Gentrification is one of the most misunderstood phenomenons in American culture. It's a term that's derogatory to some and a very hopeful one for others who live in persistently blighted areas. The logic by some is a certain level of blight is 'charming' because it makes the area undesirable to investors or 'outsiders'. People who believe this are then in the unenviable position of having to balance how much blight is necessary and where does it go.

Then to show how enlightened, resilient, and sustainable they are urban farms and urban gardens are encouraged which leads to what? Less blight. A bland, unkempt home doesn't look as bad when surrounded by a garden or a farm. Welcome to what's called the Gentrification Paradox. Here is one explanation of this phenomenon from the Strong Towns blog. To put it very simply: some tactics to stop gentrification actually do the opposite. They make neighborhoods, towns and cities more attractive rather than less. 

There is a whole grab-bag of tactics to try and stop, or at least slow down, the gentrification process. There are attempts to increase the crime rate (or the perception of crime), encourage the homeless to a downtown or city parks, under-fund schools and child education efforts, city-wide upzoning, rent controls, etc. and all of these tactics are ultimately unsuccessful. Gentrification rolls on why? Because the process is market-driven and that's why developers love activities such as urban farms—they help to increase real estate value over time. 

In the City of Lake Worth is the Grey Mockingbird Community Garden (GMCG). This garden located at the Scottish Masonic Temple has greatly increased visitors and interest in the area not only due to the garden but also with their educational and entertainment activities. The case can easily be made that the GMCG is discouraging blight and encouraging gentrification. How many people have visited the GMCG and decided to look around the City and liked what they saw and either decided to invest in or move to Lake Worth? That is hard to gauge but it certainly has happened.

To hammer this point home is an article that was written by Scott McFetridge at the Associated Press titled, "Urban farmers find that success leads to eviction". Here is an excerpt:
     Now the thriving farms are being routed by another urban phenomenon: the hordes of people moving back downtown to live, which is turning green spaces into prime real estate. Plots where low-income residents raised vegetables, where community groups trained at-risk youth and where small garden businesses took root are being snapped up for construction of new apartments and townhouses.
     “You have to plant as if you’re going to be there 10 years, even if you know it probably won’t work that way,” said [Ali] Clark, a co-founder of Big Muddy Farm. She added, “It stinks to put in the time in an investment that doesn’t last.”
     The evictions are sad but inevitable, said Amy Brendmoen, a City Council member in St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently booted an urban farm from city land to make way for housing construction. Even the most robust farms can’t earn enough to compete with a real estate development.
With election season approaching in Lake Worth no doubt the word "gentrification" will be bandied about. Some politicians will be blamed for promoting it and others will be praised for trying to stop it which is all nonsensebut it does play well "at the door" leading up to election day. But know this: the seeds (if you will) for gentrification were planted a long time ago by people who were claiming to "save" Lake Worth. That will be explained in a future blog post.

One of the best articles ever written about gentrification, in my opinion, is by Megan McArdle. No one can doubt any longer that the City of Lake Worth is gaining in popularity with investors and others looking for a place to live, either an apartment or house. On the other hand there are those that lament the lack of 'affordable' or as some call "work-force" housing. The hue and cry is "can't the government do something?" Is there a solution? Here is an excerpt from the article cited above:
     What’s the solution, then? If the problem we’re trying to solve is “gentrification,” I don’t think there is one. I think we can at best slow it, and ease the transition for displaced people. But gentrification will stop when demand ebbs, and not before. [emphasis added] We’ve given communities a lot of power over what gets built near them, and there is no easy way to take that power back.
     Long time readers will hear me harkening back to a theme I've discussed before, in many contexts: modern government is slow. It is designed to be slow -- much slower than modern gentrification. That’s why gentrification is winning the race in cities from coast to coast.
In conclusion, if someone tells you that your commissioner, mayor, or state representative is responsible for 'gentrification' they are lying to you. They have no more control over market forces than anyone else does. Period.