From California to the Northeast, a funny thing has happened recently in America’s most expensive metropolitan areas: Rents have gone down. Ever since remote workers began fleeing urban cores at the start of the coronavirus pandemic—whether to the Hamptons or their parents’ basements—urban housing markets have been flooded with empty apartments. As a result, the prices that rental units command in certain large cities have dropped dramatically, to the tune of 18 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Seattle, and nearly 25 percent in San Francisco, according to a November survey by the firm Apartment List.
The cause of the drop should hardly be surprising. The pandemic has radically decreased demand for big-city living while also increasing the quantity of available apartments. Yet this basic fact, plain for all to see, flies in the face of much received wisdom about the factors that cause urban housing prices to go up or down. Among some leftists and liberals alike, as well as the politicians who court them, the idea that developers of pricey apartments and condo buildings are to blame for high housing prices has long been an article of faith. In this telling, new luxury housing is the reason that former working- and middle-class neighborhoods in their cities have become fancy enclaves. (“You know exactly what a gentrification building looks like,” read a recent viral tweet.) Fighting the construction of such housing would not only reverse the trend of unaffordability, but from the perspective of politicians and activists would also demonstrate support for working-class residents in the process. Since the spring, the pandemic has prompted a steady flow of stories about how urban life will change forever. But COVID-19’s most lasting impact on cities might be in helping put to rest this most persistent of myths about the relationship between housing supply, the cost of living, and that four-letter word of urban politics: gentrification. Not only is it a simplistic analysis that absolves nearly anyone who isn’t a developer of responsibility for the problem, but in portraying new housing as the proximate cause of gentrification, it exacerbates the very housing crisis it seeks to solve.
Choose any major city in America with a high cost of living, and you’ll find that the suspicion of new housing is pervasive in local politics. On a sunny day in early September 2020, for example, Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, stood at a lectern in a park in Upper Manhattan and launched his campaign for mayor. As an elected official of 27 years, he has telegraphed his desire to hold the city’s highest post for some time. But Stringer’s speech was notable for the way in which he positioned his campaign: not as the safe mainstream choice, as one might assume for a politician with his credentials, but as a revolution of the people against the powerful. Nowhere was this framing clearer than in his description of how he would change the trajectory of real-estate development in the city. A Stringer administration, he said, would mean “no more giving away the store to developers” and “an end to the gentrification-industrial complex.”
Gentrification is a notoriously slippery term, and the popular appeal of any attempt to address it depends largely on how one defines it. By focusing on supposedly unrestrained growth as its root cause, new progressive campaigns have revived a decades-old political coalition of renters, homeowners, and other interest groups whose origins lie in a different era of these cities’ histories. This unusually broad and largely inadvertent partnership was influential in bringing an end to the era of urban renewal, and it has the potential to be a potent force in urban politics for years to come. Yet this anti-growth partnership presumes that the interests of the landed and the landless are aligned—that a policy of more tightly regulated development can both generate wealth for those who own property and redistribute it to those who don’t. In the 21st century, when halting the rise of rents and property values in many large cities has taken a global pandemic, the logic that undergirds this movement deserves a critical look.