Are Planners Partly to Blame for Gentrification?
In his new book Capital City, Samuel Stein contends that real-estate interests have co-opted urban planning and made planners complicit in gentrification.
The world’s real estate is worth an estimated $217 trillion, making up more than 60 percent of global assets. Even though three-quarters of that amount is tied up in housing, it hasn’t translated to secure shelter or prosperity for many: U.S. homeownership levels hit a 50-year low in 2016, and that same year, 37 percent of all home sales in America were made to absentee investors.
With Wall Street-backed Invitation Homes (owned by the Blackstone Group) now serving as the nation’s largest landlord of single-family homes—snapping up many of the same properties that were foreclosed on a decade ago—it’s hard to recognize the promise of home ownership as a tenet of the American Dream. Not that renting is much easier: Average move-in rents in the U.S. have more than doubled over the past two decades.
These challenges raise an obvious question: What can be done? Although many urban planners want to solve the housing crisis, redevelopment projects that garner millions or billions of dollars of public subsidies force them into compromises, argues Samuel Stein in his new book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (Verso, $17.95).
For Stein—a doctoral candidate in geography at the City University of New York, an instructor at Hunter College, and a trained planner—the question of planning is front and center to understanding our current economic order as experienced in city life. CityLab asked him about the rise of real estate, radical planners, and how would-be planners should approach the role. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
How do you think the rise of real estate and the fall of industrialism, which needed low land costs and affordable housing for workers, are changing the relationship between planners and the population?
It’s definitely getting harder for planners to be responsive. In the growing concentration of money in real estate, planners are becoming less responsive to everyday people, and they don’t have a separate group of capitalists, industrial capitalists, barking at them for an entirely different set of demands.
Why do you emphasize the significance of planning in increasingly unequal urban areas?
In the U.S. context, planners are under-appreciated—not just as individuals, but the act of planning is underplayed. I think it’s important for anyone to figure out what’s going on in their city, and why their housing costs are so insane, and not to blame it all on planners, but to use them as a way in, as a way to understand the relationship between capital, the state, and the working class.
In the growing concentration of money in real estate, planners are becoming less responsive to everyday people.
You have a chapter dedicated to the real-estate career of the Trump family—not just the president, but also his father and grandfather. Why do you think their story helps explain the current dynamic of real estate and politics?
Now that he is the president, it’s all the scandals and daily outrages that we tend to obsess over. But I wanted to remind people that it’s not just the abstract real-estate capital that’s gaining in power. It’s manifested in the number-one position in our political hierarchy.
You discuss a legacy of radical planning, which taught activist planners that “while they may be alone in their workplace, they are not alone in their workforce.”
There’s been a history of insurgent planners for a long time, with a few different models rising up in the ’60s and ’70s. There was Planners for Equal Opportunity (PEO), which was trying to link urban planners with the movement against urban renewal. There was the Planner’s Underground, which was a bit more militant movement of planners who were sneaking out information about what their cities were doing to activists and writing anonymous testimonies and letters to the editor.
The Architects’ Renewal Committee of Harlem is an interesting history, where planners were actively building up the capacity for working-class folks in Harlem to imagine what self-determination would look like in spatial terms. And then you get the Planners Network, rising out of [PEO], as an organization of left urban planners that could stand in opposition to the American Planning Association. That one is still around, and I think it’s an important resource for planners who want to think outside of the constraints of neoliberalism and their particular job.
I think there is still a role for this kind of activist urban planner, not just outside the system, but in it. People have to organize, and not just do it personally, in their free time, but do it collectively, in part so you can get out of the groupthink that’s imposed on planners. When you work inside of the system, you tend to be told that certain things are impossible that are actually just undesirable for people in power. I think it’s important for planners who think differently to get together outside of work and think and strategize about the ways they can be resources to the movements that are challenging their bosses.
What would you tell people interested in the field of urban planning as they consider that work?
I would encourage them to always think critically and not get discouraged. I think there’s a strong pragmatic strain in planning, which can be valuable, if it’s about translating radical ideas into an actionable program. But it can also be a dampener on radicalism and visionary thinking, and even utopianism, which is useful too in knowing where we’d want to be if we could.
I encourage people to hold onto those impulses, and to find others who think the way they do, or who challenge their own thinking. In isolation, the system swallows us, but collectively we can imagine a better way to do urban planning and connect to the social movements that are challenging them. The trick there is not to impose the strictures that are imposed onto us as professional planners, but instead to be a resource to those movements in aiding them in their success.