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Part of Number 7 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


Aristotle Theresa, a 39-year-old civil rights lawyer in Washington, DC, sues his city for $ 1 billion. He claims that the city government has ignored the opposition of its customers, who are lower-income residents, while deliberately & # 39; creative & # 39; has sent economic workers to the city. Theresa says the city has deliberately put its neighborhoods at the center by changing zoning laws to build an abundance of studios and one-bedroom apartments.

Sitting in the kitchen of his home in Anacostia, a predominantly African-American DC neighborhood east of the river, where the poverty rate tripled with that of the rest of the city, he explained his frustration about towering house prices.

"Our housing no longer makes sense," he said. "If you subsidize people who earn $ 140,000 a year to live in an apartment," he said, referring to a proposed and now dead, municipal staff housing initiative, "that makes no sense. You lay the floor and it's not sustainable." "


Aristotle Theresa at his home in Anacostia.

Aristotle Theresa near his home in the Anacostia neighborhood of DC. Theresa is suing the city for gentrification.
Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Theresa believes that much of the development and displacement that happened to DC is initiated by the city: that DC had a vision for transformation, a vision that would embrace the promise of the so-called & # 39; creative class & # 39; economy and that would necessarily disadvantage and eventually push out of middle and working class people, mostly African-Americans.

Everywhere in the city, a completely different resident, this developer, claims the same essential point: this unwavering growth is getting out of hand and cannot last.

Justin Pierce is a 43-year-old real estate investor who works in the DC region and occasionally writes about housing for the Washington Post. He is a self-described & # 39; country boy & # 39 ;, an ex-marine from Utah.

"I came to the company thinking that the prices of the houses should be determined by the income of the community," he said sitting in the lobby of an apartment building his company built in Arlington, Virginia, where millennials sit on couches and a design -kombucha machine is displayed. "I still like to take that into account," he said. “I keep that in my arithmetic. But the prices are simply no longer justified by that math and it becomes really difficult to calculate the value. "

Pierce is increasingly struggling to understand his real estate projects on the metro. The prices of non-renovated houses have risen too high, the profit margins are too small. Markets across the country are being raised & # 39; by developing dollars at a time when we, economically speaking, might be entering our natural relapse cycle, he says.

The public has long been aware of the negative effects that gentrification entails, often for residents such as urban renewal: a certain type of person with a certain financial status, with a certain pedagogical pedigree and cultural tendency, moves to an economically depressed part of the city; prices are rising, cultural shifts and relocation are taking place, usually along racial and economic lines.


The Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, DC.

The Anacostia neighborhood.
Evelyn Hockstein / Washington Post / Getty Images

But now the high costs – and the psychological stress they cause – are rising up the economic ladder, until even residents like Theresa and Pierce feel it. And the idea of ​​unlimited growth, which promised to renew urban centers that have been exhausted by a generation of flights to the suburbs, has migrated from major cities such as Washington, New York and Los Angeles to smaller cities such as Nashville, Tennessee and Kansas City, Missouri.

For twenty years in this grand experiment, residents are resisting what all this growth has brought about: high rents, displacement and an immersion in the character of their cities. In some American cities, pressure has begun to hit the people who have primarily encouraged this urban development, the people who are trying so hard to attract city after city.

"I think the government's policy is leading the whole," said Theresa. “While previously the mechanism was to move people destruction, when there was segregation, I think the mechanism is to move people now construction, building something that is totally out of place with the community. "


The essence of Theresa's case lies in Washington's explicit plan to attract technology and knowledge workers, designers and artists, and others labeled by urban development theorist Richard Florida – who would later designate the term – as the & # 39; creative class & # 39 ;. The idea behind the growth of the creative class is that inflows of upwardly mobile young people and culture based on "Bohemia" will trigger development in depressive parts of the city. It has been seventeen years since Florida published The rise of the creative class, and cities continue to take this position.

The 2007 press release announced the launch of DC & # 39; s Creative Economy Initiative states: “Hiring people, spending money, attracting tourism, facilitating home sales, promoting existing businesses and bringing new businesses to cities. The creative economy has become an important sector of the modern city. "

(The city council filed a motion to reject Theresa's case, arguing that the lawsuit could not support "conspiracy claims." The case was sent to a magistrate for a report and recommendation; Theresa and the municipality await the outcome. )

Plans to attract these professionals naturally say little about where service providers and workers' families living in these urban centers will go.

This basic pattern of rejuvenating city neighborhoods by chasing this class of employees – usually by supporting the growth of new businesses that appeal to young professional cultural tastes – can be seen in cities and metropolitan regions throughout the country.


Protesters gather to protest against the arrival of Amazon offices in Long Island City, New York, in the fall of 2018.
Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images

Review of the book by journalist Peter Moskowitz How to kill a city, writes the Atlantic Ocean: "In every city there are specific problems and circumstances that have helped the process, but it is striking how similar the choices of politicians, managers and developers and their impact on the poor across the country are. Gentrification, in each of these cities, dismantles and displaces existing neighborhoods and communities to make way for new residents who are usually whiter and always richer than those who lived for them, and the same choices seem to be made over and over again. & # 39;

In superstar markets such as LA, the issue of relocation and development has become a cause of wringing. Los Angeles is working on a multi-year effort to change the destination code. In the Boyle Heights neighborhood, a plan is underway that will affect housing construction and bring a new "Innovation District" near when Boyle Heights is struggling with anti-gentrification protests, "according to LA Times.

In New York City, the rezings – or changing the purpose of a zoned area from, for example, residential to commercial real estate – from East New York, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Downtown Far Rockaway and Inwood under the control of Bill de Blasio also gave way to fear of higher prices and relocation. Recently a member of the Queens Council said the rezings mainly treat low-income New Yorkers as & # 39; guinea pigs in poorly designed experiments & # 39 ;.

In Chicago, where a re-use was also made to allow for more growth and a longer, denser construction (known as upzoning), it was shown that the changes & # 39; no effect & # 39; on the housing supply, while & # 39; housing prices rose on the plots and in projects that were upzoned. ”

This pattern has increasingly spread from large to small cities through a kind of economic capillary action. Re-use has become a hot-button topic for many Nashville residents, where a city development plan called "Nashville Next" was supposed to regulate growth. But the African American communities are still seeing enormous gentrification.

"Banks used to routinely refuse gushing or simply refuse home loans to blacks in red-lined neighborhoods because it was considered a poor financial risk," wrote Peter White in the Tennessee Tribune. "The practice was widespread and clearly discriminatory. The opposite is happening now. Banks are quite willing to provide building loans to people who want to build in older black neighborhoods, and to provide home loans to people who want to buy what they build. "

And there are plenty of such home buyers. As Washington, DC developer Pierce put it, "the newer generations seem to have a different mindset. They don't seem to be as scared as the older generations, & # 39; Oh, & # 39; you know, & # 39; this is a rough area. & # 39; That was the kind of thing that stopped the equalization in the past: & Hey, here is the way, and you don't want to be on the other side. & # 39; But now it is: & # 39; Hey, I could save 200k to be there. & # 39;


Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the smaller cities that encourages growth. The photo shows a new hotel as part of the extensive (and expensive) Nashville Yards project of the city.
Robert Alexander / Getty Images

The list goes on. In South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg captured heat for his data-driven bulldozing of vacant and abandoned homes to enable new construction in African-American neighborhoods. In Baltimore, which has one of the highest percentages of gentrification in the country, DC's "spillover" has brought sky-high prices and displacement that affects not only African Americans, but whites. In other cities of similar size, the specter of the & # 39; Opportunity Zones & # 39; by President Trump and raises the question: who benefits? It goes without saying that this pace of change and the extent of the rotation invariably result in socio-cultural tension.

In an interview, John Archibald, a Pulitzer award-winning columnist for Alabama Media Group, spoke about racial dynamics in Birmingham, Alabama, and how large-scale divestment followed by rapid redevelopment affected the soul of the city.

"When the 80s arrived, the white flight really started," he said. "By 2000 there was a loss of much of the population and a lot of economic stability … there was a lot of corruption, a lot of negativity, a lot of sense of damnation and gloom that really hovered over the city."

But around 2010 things started to change. "They built a large park in the inner city, some restaurants received some acclaim, and then with the legalization of craft beer, you know, it seemed to be a kind of incentive," he said. “There was a renewed sense of civil pride that had been missing for a while. And so some whites began to withdraw to the city, creating both economic opportunities and tension. "

While empty lots are swallowed up and transformed by a stream of mainly white gentrifiers, the question "who will share in the coming prosperity" raises the question. Two years ago, the city even set up a task force to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification.


That unwavering growth not only affects poor and middle class urban residents. My wife and I recently searched the housing stock in Washington, our hometown, for most of the year. What we found was staggering. An otherwise quite large terraced house in the once impoverished Bloomingdale neighborhood was clumsily divided, each condominium going for $ 750,000. An extremely narrow, turret-shaped mansion on an old street in Petworth, the second floor not quite flat, a cool $ 690,000. A cute bungalow with a beautiful lawn in isolated Brookland – nothing to walk to, no shops or cafes – $ 625,000. "The previous owner paid something in the 300's just four years ago, can you believe it?" Said our broker.

No I can not. Nor can many of my friends in DC who are part of these new professional class gentrifiers, or who work in the bars and restaurants that suit them.

Few can afford to buy a house or start a family. Almost everyone finds the rent stifling. Many are talking about moving. Some already have that. In DC the past 10 years has turned around after neighborhood. Enormous new developments with billions of city financing have been built. The character of the city has changed – once known as Chocolate City because of the majority of the black population. Amazon HQ2 will soon be coming to Crystal City in Northern Virginia, a short drive from DC, and there will be more change.


Job seekers stand in line for an Amazon Career Day event.

In Arlington, Virginia, the location of new Amazon offices, job seekers are ready for a career event in September 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images

So where do mobile ads go up when they start to be priced? They look for less expensive neighborhoods, where the relocation cycle continues. "Now people are looking at Anacostia such as:" Oh, this is a place to come, "said Theresa." And so the government is now starting to inject capital into the area, while not before. … But all the real estate, the places where people live who have these depressive values ​​- so that people could live here and have houses and businesses in the first place – that all goes through the roof. There is no incremental progress. & # 39;

Everyone is affected by the loss of community, said Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at the New School, who studies how social systems affect mental health, and in particular gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood of DC, as well as in Orange, New Jersey.

"When the benefits of strong communities are lost," she said, "it takes a long time to create a community that has the social structure to benefit the individual, and we have done these (redevelopment) projects so often and displaced people so often that they cannot reorganize. And what we have created at the community level in the United States are many individuals running around, but not in strong communities. And that is almost everything. "

Theresa also talked about the loss of community when cities chase young professionals.

"When I examined Richard Florida, I learned all kinds of things," he said. "If you read his work, his actual articles, he says there are different types of communities," close-knit "communities and" communities with low social value ". And what he says is that communities that are good for the economy are communities with a & # 39; low social value & # 39; to be. Plug and play communities. You just come in, you just go in, nobody needs to know who you are, you can share your workspace, nobody interrogates you. & # 39;

Conversely, "places that are bad for the economy are places like Anacostia," said Theresa, "where people want to know who your cousin is, you know?"

For its part, Florida said that the idea of ​​a "creative class consciousness" was somewhat contradictory.


Promotional material during an Amazon Career Day event.

Promotional material at the Amazon Career Day event in Arlington.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images

"If you look at creative classes, these are universally the most liberal and progressive places on the planet," he told Vox. "But I think what happened is that the creative class has been pretty selfish. It looked at these neighborhoods where it can colonize and live a better life without taking into account its neighbors."

Florida itself argued that the creative class had a stronger sense of & # 39; class consciousness & # 39; must develop and realize that the pressure that they are now starting to feel has stifled others.

"The problem comes with the creative class," he said, "but if you look at the numbers, the amount of money that the creative class – even artists and cultural creatives – have left after paying for housing, even in super cities, is still reasonable. It's the low-income service class, the 45 or 50 percent of employees who work in retail, office, hospitality, tourism, personal services – they are the ones that are really being destroyed. "


Certainly, many cities are starting to register the challenges of unequal development. Some have set up task forces to deal with gentrification. Others have tried to implement inclusive zoning. For mega cities such as DC or LA, who have already made their bed, this can be an exercise in uselessness. But in smaller markets there could be hope.

The relationship between the young professional gentrifiers, the service class and staff housing was high on the list of concerns for Lara Fritts during her tenure as director of the Department of Economic Development for Salt Lake City, Utah.

Like Boise, Idaho, Salt Lake has seen a huge influx of technical employees – people earning 81 percent more than employees in other industries in Utah – and with that a huge peak in house prices.

"Your service employees, your creative class, your artists, that's what makes your city cool, right?" Fritts said to Vox. "It's the cool factor." And that cool factor, the cultural lifeblood of any creative class economy, cannot sustain itself if there is no housing that care providers can afford. San Francisco has become so expensive that restaurant workers are fleeing the city, and it has changed the way the industry focuses on customers.


Salesforce Tower in the center of San Francisco.

Billion dollar technical giants such as Salesforce, whose tower in San Francisco is depicted, have made the city one of the most expensive in the world for residents.
Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

Fritts helped oversee the depositing of municipal funds in affordable housing projects in Salt Lake City. "In total, we have spent $ 44 million dollars in affordable homes over the past three years, and that yields more than 2500 units," she said.

"I think we are now waking cities up," Florida said about the need to insure affordable housing in fast-growing cities, "and it is analogous to the time that took place in the early 2000s when cities "Oh, we can attract the creative class; oh, we can revitalize; oh, we can become centers of innovation and technology."

It remains to be seen whether this wake-up call, or lawsuits such as Theresa, or the kind of political organization that prevented Amazon from coming to New York City, will be able to get rid of the negative effects, the pain and the fight. guide national unequal development. Or maybe the market takes care of it.

"I think there is already evidence that it is slowing down," said Pierce, the DC area developer. “You can already see that some of these houses have stagnated. They wanted $ 600,000 for them, but now they are at 540 because they are trying to get the house sold. They are not jerked the way they were for a while. "

"Prices will fall," said Theresa, "especially in black neighborhoods. We've already seen the slowdown in development in DC … and, you know, DC lost people last year."

Pierce predicts a decline in real estate. "The runaway train stops, eventually – abruptly," he said.

Vinnie Rotondaro is a writer and owner of a small company based in Washington, DC.

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