“Planning is a way of knowing the World as well as a way of remaking it.”
So writes Samuel Stein in his new book, coming out tomorrow, called “Capital City – Gentrification and the real estate state”.
The book lays bare the workings of the “real estate state”, especially as it relates to New York City. It also sheds light on the way in which city planners are caught between a motivation to make cities better for the public, and the demands of the market to inflate real estate values. Real estate is now a $217 trillion dollar industry, forming sixty percent of global assets.
Real estate interests have always had significant sway over the shape of cities, Stein acknowledges. What’s new is the extent of the sector’s influence over the political process, as other sectors like manufacturing have declined.
Along with this trend, homeownership in the US has declined and the cost of renting has gone up. The rent burden – the percentage of income that tenants put towards their housing – is now an average of 44 percent in black neighborhoods and 48 percent in Latino neighborhoods.
At a recent book launch event Stein and speakers from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx discussed the implications of the real estate state in New Yorkers’ daily lives – in neighborhoods from Mott Haven to Crown Heights – and what’s needed to challenge processes of gentrification.
While there is no silver bullet, Stein writes, urban social movements can take the lead in diagnosing the problems, organizing for state action to address them and imagining alternatives. And they must bring planners along.
There’s a strong sense that momentum is building.
Raquel Namuche of Ridgewood Tenants Union said she has drawn energy from the powerful local mobilization, led by women of color, that confronted Amazon over its plans for a second headquarters in Long Island City.
Esteban Girón of Crown Heights Tenants Union highlighted the very real chance that New York State will pass groundbreaking rent reforms this year, with the new make-up of the Senate that is more representative of tenants’ needs. “The answer for me is the rent laws,” he said. “Universal rent control, end the vacancy bonus and vacancy de-control, and make preferential rents permanent…just to start with.”
This growing State-level advocacy encourages Stein. He recognizes the challenges in building a strong movement of tenants – despite their huge numbers – that unifies across different housing types, and different challenges.
“Making sure that upstate and downstate issues don’t get treated differently, that we don’t do something that helps homeowners who are struggling to hold onto their homes but do nothing for tenants or homeless people…to make sure that it’s all dealt with is really hard to do,” says Stein. “It’s going to take a lot of power and mobilization, but it’s heartening to see it coming together.”
Read more and take action: The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance