Photo: "STOP GENTRIFICATION: graffiti in Turin (Italy), Porta Palazzo multi-storey car park." Source: Wikicommons

Private property is at the foundation of gentrification, capitalism and white supremacy, none of which can be reformed by themselves.


US cities are transforming rapidly. “Gentrified-style” luxury developments are replacing neighborhood landmarks and low-income housing. Increasingly, sky-high rent prices have pushed poor residents away from city centers. These trends are symptoms of gentrification, the process by which poor and working-class people are pushed out of their communities due to the influx of capitalist investment into their neighborhoods.

Gentrification is not always defined in these terms. Some cite cultural explanations of the type and number of amenities (such as coffee shops, bike paths, etc.) developed in an urban neighborhood to change social norms around “choices of style types” (such as not having children), defining the gentrification as a result of individual consumer preferences. Or they could define it as the result of collective consumption patterns, which appear in arguments about “gay gentrification”.

Some define gentrification as the process of white people moving into black people's neighborhoods, in the long run pushing black residents out of major urban centers such as Washington DC, Chicago and Philadelphia. There are still others who accept that gentrification is a “natural” and inevitable phenomenon. In general, these groups see gentrification as a short-term problem to be fixed through policy adjustments, such as reforming residential zoning laws or “better” individual choices.[1]

Rather than individual or even political choices, Marxists understand gentrification as a process that is fundamentally brought about by the laws of capitalism – as part and parcel of its regular cycle of capital accumulation – along with racism and other forms of oppression. In this article, we explain the underlying forces that drive gentrification by turning to Marx and Engels before covering the most recent research and organizing around the theme. At the end, we discuss the practical implications of a revolutionary understanding of gentrification.

Housing under capitalism and the foundations of gentrification

The starting point for any discussion of housing under capitalism is commodification. In capitalist society, housing – like essentially everything else – is primarily produced as something to be sold for profit. Its use value (for example, providing shelter) is subordinate to its exchange value (how much it can be sold for). This is why millions of people in the US lose their homes to eviction or foreclosure each year, while at the same time there is an abundance of vacant housing: because they will remain in the hands of capital until they can return sufficient value. exchange.

The main motive of capitalists is not simply to generate a profit, but to maximize profits indefinitely. This leads capitalists to concentrate their investments in those industries and geographic regions that are most profitable, while simultaneously extracting or neglecting other areas. Due to the competitive nature of capitalism, if one capitalist finds a profitable area, others will soon follow to compete in the same region, market or industry. In time, competition between capitalists will reduce the rate of profit made in the respective area, and capital will leave the now saturated area to look for other areas for investment.

The development of capitalist cities exemplifies this phenomenon. In the process of industrialization, capitalists invest in building means of production such as factories and machines in urban areas, increasing their capacity to produce and sell more goods. As mentioned above, the movement of capital influences the movement of people. As capitalist investment concentrated in cities, so did workers. Many moved from rural areas, characterized by little investment, to cities in search of jobs.[2]

Between 1829 and 1920, the percentage of US residents living in cities increased from 7,2 to 51,2 percent. In O capital, Marx describes a similar process taking place in England, in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, writing: “the faster capital accumulates in an industrial or commercial city, the more rapidly flows the current of exploitable human material, the more miserable are the improvised dwellings of the workers".[3]

Marx notes the poor living conditions for workers and outlines a process that today we might call gentrification in this passage: “The intimate relationship between the hunger pangs of the working strata of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich , based on capitalist accumulation, reveals itself only when economic laws are known. It is not the same with the 'housing of the poor'. Any impartial observer can see that the greater the centralization of the means of production, the greater the consequent agglomeration of workers within a given space; that, therefore, the more rapid capitalist accumulation, the more wretched are the dwellings of the working population. The 'improvements' of the cities, which accompany the increase of wealth, by the demolition of badly built neighborhoods, by the construction of palaces for banks, warehouses, etc., the widening of the streets for the traffic of goods, for luxury cars, and for the introduction of streetcars, etc., drives the poor into still worse and more crowded hiding places. On the other hand, everyone knows that the price of housing is in inverse proportion to its excellence, and that the mines of misery are exploited by real estate speculators with more profit or less cost than those of Potosi ever were. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation and, consequently, of capitalist property relations in general”.[4]

Here, Marx exposes critical points about housing under capitalism that are still relevant today. He describes extremely unsafe and exploitative conditions for workers in cities. Homes are overcrowded and neglected as landlords profit from paying rent while reinvesting little or none of that rent money into keeping the home in good condition because it would interfere with their profitability.

Conditions were so bad that government officials in Britain uncharacteristically intervened in the rights of capital by implementing sanitary housing codes, not out of the goodness of their hearts but because they feared the spread of disease and other social hazards. This is what Friedrich Engels found in his study of England: "Each large city has one or more slums, where the working class is crowded together" in "a separate territory... out of sight of the happier classes."[5]

Second, Marx describes an early form of gentrification. As capital continued to be concentrated in cities in the pursuit of expanding profits, workers were forcibly displaced from their homes to make way for urban “improvements”. As Marx observes, there were not improvements in the living conditions of workers, who remained heavily exploited, but improvements in the environment for the expansion of capital.

Capitalism and gentrification in the modern age

While the fundamental phenomena of commodification and uneven development under capitalism remain relevant to housing today, the context in which gentrification takes place has changed. As capital saturated cities with development of its own throughout the XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, it created barriers to future development. The geographer Neil Smith has shown that gentrification in the mid to late XNUMXth century resulted from capital's need to expand its productive capacity. The result was suburbanization – or the displacement of production and housing outside the city, where land was cheap and available. Capital migrated to new places where it could earn a higher rate of profit and took many workers with it. As a result, land values ​​in cities have declined, while land values ​​in suburbs have increased.

Adam Smith formulated the theory of "rent gap”, which is the difference between current land rents and the potential land rents that capitalists and landlords could earn through redevelopment. O rent gap explains how in the US, during this time period, capital moved from the city to the suburbs and vice versa. Gentrification happens when the rent gap it is large enough to cover the costs of redevelopment with a profitable enough return when rents are updated, and it is not limited to cities.

Much of redevelopment takes place in the “built environment”: buildings, streets, bridges, warehouses, and other infrastructure. This development requires “a large capital investment over a long period of time”.[6] Once capital investments are made, the built environment needs to remain for decades in order to return enough surplus value to justify the investment. Whatever is built cannot be demolished and still return value. The built environment is gradually valued, as goods are transported on roads, wages are transformed into rent and mortgage payments, etc. However, as the built environment is used, it is also devalued over time.

Photo by Ted Eytan. Source> Wikicommons.

The circulation of capital through buildings takes much longer than other commodities. Capitalist cities were not initially produced “on any capitalist basis, but at the expense of the community or the state” because there was not enough capital to invest for such a long period.[8]. Even today, the state is the biggest force in urban development. The state not only authorizes gentrification, but also subsidizes it. For example, during the “Urban Renewal” of the 1950s and 60s, at least 300.000 families across the country were forcibly displaced so that their homes could be demolished to make way for redevelopment by capital.

The federal government financed both the so-called “favela removal” and the private developments that replaced these working-class homes. Today, federal and local governments sell valuable public land to developers for pennies on the dollar. The state guides gentrification through legislation and zoning policies, tax breaks, grants and other incentives, while boasting morals about the “urban plague” such as ongoing policing and enforcement.[9]

Given that there is a finite amount of land in each city, once a city reaches a certain level of development, opportunities for profitable development become rare. To some extent, capitalists are no longer able to profitably invest in redeveloped neighborhoods, even if this does not mean that capitalists and tenants cease to profit from cities. Having already invested capital in buildings and infrastructure, they are happy to profit from the “misery mines”, refusing to invest in the maintenance of these enterprises. In the long term, this leads to deteriorating conditions in many urban neighborhoods and even entire cities, with dilapidated housing and crumbling infrastructure.

A new cycle of development and disinvestment takes place: “Capital flows where the rate of return is the highest, and the movement of capital to the suburbs together with the continuing depreciation of the inner city, eventually produces the rent gap. When that chasm grows large enough, rehabilitation (or in this case, renovation) can begin to challenge the rates of return available elsewhere, and capital flows back in.”[10]

This is the cycle of development, disinvestment and reinvestment that produces gentrification. Neighborhoods that have been neglected for too long are euphemistically targeted for “redevelopment” or “revitalization”.

National oppression and gentrification

However, capital flight from America's inner cities is understandable only in the context of white supremacy and national oppression. To escape the racist structure of apartheid Jim Crow, black people migrated from the deep south to urban areas in the north. However, instead of finding decent jobs and freedom from racist segregation, "these migrants entered the capitalist economy at the lowest rungs, and repeatedly were the first to suffer from downskilling and layoffs."[11] Many were kept out of white-dominated unions, which, for that time, had been expelled by the Communists.

Black people had been excluded from Federal Housing Administration programs and others that provided affordable home loans to soldiers returning from World War II. In New York, for example, the 17.400 houses built were accessible only to white people. This helps explain the urban nature of the hundreds of Black Liberation riots in the US in the 1960s-70s, from Watts to Harlem.

As the technological revolution began to displace increasing numbers of workers, capital forced chronic unemployment into black neighborhoods. Interlinked economic crises produced a recession in the 1970s, while the massive outsourcing of industrial labor forced even more workers out of factories – especially black workers.

To combat the growing unrest of the black population and oppressed people, the US ruling class has consolidated around the “law and order” response to quell political rebellions. The narrative they constructed equated "crime with political dissent" and "laid the groundwork for a massive increase in the state's repressive powers."[12] Black revolutionary organizations and black workers were targeted and handed over to the growing apparatus of mass incarceration.

The devaluation of urban rents together with racist repression explains the process of gentrification in US urban centers that began at the end of the 1982th century, and still continues today, for example, the zero tolerance policy. This strategy is based on the thesis “Janelas Quebradas” from XNUMX, which was published in a liberal magazine. The theory holds "that the key to reducing crime was for the police to focus on nuisance crimes, such as vandals breaking windows."[13] The notion here is that minor crimes like graffiti or vagrancy, if left unchecked, would lead to major crimes.

The exemplary institution of what was eventually called zero-tolerance policing was inaugurated by New York City Mayor Giuliani and his Chief of Police William Bratton, who "vowed to 'clear the city' of the 'scum' that apparently 'threatened' people walking the streets”. Although masquerading as a crime policy, in reality “it is a social cleansing strategy”.[14] The “values” they articulated were clearly racist and anti-worker, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of workers and people of color arrested for minor violations. Such policies are now enacted in New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Brazil and elsewhere.

Even after almost a decade of the movement's protests and rebellions Black Lives Matter (Black Lives Matter), zero-tolerance policing like “stop and frisk” is still policy for conservatives and liberals alike. New York's Democratic Party mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer and the city's second black mayor, ran in a campaign on a promise to resurrect the secret police unit involved in stop and frisk. On November 11, 2021, he said he was making good on that promise.[15] In an opinion piece for the New York Daily Post, Adams said that "stop, question and frisk is a perfectly legal, proper and constitutional tool, when used intelligently" and called it a "necessary tool".[16]

Gentrification, housing instability, and the accompanying increase in state repression radically increase the oppression that workers oppressed by gender, sexuality, nationality, and ability already face. As Yasmina Mrabet notes, “Women are often the tenants and are the first in line to be subjected to mass evictions. Women with families find it difficult to secure safe, livable and affordable housing due to the elimination of family-sized units.”[17] The National Center for Transgender Equality found that 20% of transgender people in the US have faced transphobic discrimination when finding housing, more than 10% have been evicted because of their gender identity.[18] Between 2016 and 2020, the number of transgender youth living on the streets increased to 88%.[19]

Just as we cannot understand gentrification without national oppression, we cannot understand national oppression without capitalism (and vice versa). In other words, gentrification is not the simple result of racist structures and attitudes – which is evident in the fact that this is a global phenomenon and often involves interracial families. Instead, in the US, it is white supremacy along with other forms of oppression, allied with capitalism, that produce and reproduce gentrification.

The Battle Against Gentrification: Theory, Tactics, and Strategy

This Marxist theory of gentrification has both strategic and tactical implications. She clarifies that individual “gentrifiers” – the relatively more financially affluent workers who may move into gentrified neighborhoods for various reasons – are not the drivers of this process and are not the right targets of organizing efforts. This is not to say that certain individuals or institutions – such as realtors, property developers, banks, police, etc. – escape responsibility and flee our fight. Before, it is important to say, that our final objective is not to transform individuals, but to transform society as a whole, and therefore create the possibility of a new type of social being.

Photo: Protest against eviction, organized by Cancel the Rents. Source: Liberation News

This analysis provided us with a starting point for fighting effectively. A systematic process like gentrification can only be fought through the collective organization of working-class communities that directly confront capital and its lackeys. This takes many forms, including disruptions to the planning processes of luxury developments, struggles over reforms such as rent control that restricts capital rights, occupations of abandoned buildings and vacant lots before they are built, and actions to defend against evictions to keep families in their neighborhoods.

Increasingly popular in taking rights over the city, away from the workers, are the so-called ordinances “sit-lie” which prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks during afternoon and evening hours so that homeless people cannot camp in these places. Organizers across the country have successfully defeated such ordinances and others, such as those criminalizing the distribution of food to needy workers in certain parts of the city.

Eviction advocacy groups are forming across the country to protect homeless neighbors from losing access to their encampments. In Manchester, New Hampshire, a local coalition of organizers successfully stopped 11 evictions in seven months, while in Atlanta, Georgia, organizers recently prevented an illegal eviction by real estate Betty Rose LLC, and in Province, Rhode Island, protesters camped outside the Government Palace to demand housing for everyone.[20]

These intermediate collective struggles can provide some protections for working-class people, combat the alienation that is increasingly common in gentrified neighborhoods through the relationships forged in these struggles, and prove to the working class the power of collective action. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these struggles unify our class in direct confrontation with capital. Here, the antagonistic and exploitative nature of capital is clearly exposed and windows are opened for the growth of socialist consciousness. These are some of the building blocks for a socialist revolution that will finally end gentrification and widespread housing squalor under capitalism, transforming housing from a commodity into a human right!

As Engels pointed out in 1872, capitalism can never solve the housing question, it can only “move” it around, a response that takes the form of gentrification and displacement. This is because “the same economic necessity that produced them in the first place also produces them in the second place”.[21]

Private property is at the foundation of gentrification, capitalism and white supremacy, none of which can be reformed by themselves. Essentially, then, addressing each requires establishing new forms of ownership: collective and common ownership. As Michael Murawski observes, “the city… constitutes the key site of the making and unmaking of socialism” and “the main mechanism that allowed the construction of the socialist city… was the privatization of the ownership structure of the city”.[22] Property – who has the right to use and exclude, and rightly so – is absolutely fundamental to struggles against capitalism and racism.

So, as we struggle to cancel rents, end all evictions and foreclosures, end racist police terror and mass incarceration, and secure the right to housing - all achievable under capitalism - we cannot believe that these measures are enough. To truly solve the housing issue and end gentrification, we need a socialist revolution that produces cities and towns, housing and parks, transportation networks and other urban amenities, for their use value to the masses, not their value for money. exchange for bosses. Gentrification is not a static reality, but an ongoing process, and it is up to us to stop it.

Joe Tache is an architect.

Translation: Ciro Casique Silva.

Originally published in Liberation School.


[1] This does not mean that these factors are irrelevant, but rather that they do not explain the underlying forces of gentrification. For example, Lawrence Knopp argues that gentrification cannot be linked to communities gay in general. See Knopp, Lawrence. (nineteen ninety). “Some theoretical implications of gay involvement in an urban land market”. Political Geography Quarterly 9, no. 4:337352

[2] We see this logic and this phenomenon in the “common lands” in England, the cradle of modern industrial capitalism. These acts form an integral part of the original accumulation of capital that created the economic conditions that forced workers to leave their farms in search of industrial wage labor. Rural workers were disengaged from their former means of production and, for this, the ruling class used the State to capture land (and resources) to lay the foundations for the commodification of land and, therefore, of the housing built on that land.

[3] Marx, Karl (1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1): The process of production of capital, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers), 661.

[4] Ibid., 615-616.

[5] Engels, Friedrich. (1845/1984). The condition of the working class in England (London: Penguin), 70.

[6] Marx, Carl. (1885/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol 2): ​​The process of circulation of capital (New York: International Publishers), 233.

[7] Marx refers to the production and realization of value as “valorization”

[8] Marx, Capital (vol. 2), 233.

[9] See Mitchell, Don. (2020). Mean streets: Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital (Athens: University of Georgia Press).

[10] Smith, “Toward a theory of gentrification,” 546.

[11] Puryear, Eugene. (2013). Shackled and chained: Mass incarceration in capitalist America (San Francisco: Liberation Media), 46.

[12] Ibid., 66.

[13] Ibid., 108.

[14] Smith, Neil. (2001). “Global social cleansing: Postliberal revanchism and the export of zero tolerance.” social justice 28, no. 3:69.

[15] Evans, Dave. (2021). “Mayor-elect dismisses Black Lives Matter threats of riots if NYPD unit resurrected” ABC 7, November 11th. Available here.

[16] Adams, Eric. (2021). “How we make New York City safe: Mayor-elect Eric Adams explains why we need to stop and frisk and proactive policing” New York Daily News, November 28th. Available here

[17] Mrabet, Yasmina. (2018). Not just rich people and cafes: Toward a socialist understanding of gentrification.” Breaking the chains, December 27th. Available here

[18] The National Center for Transgender Equality. (2021). “Housing and homelessness.” Available here

[19] National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2020). “Transgender homeless adults & unsheltered homelessness: What the data tell us.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, July 24th. Available here

[20] For examples, see Liberation Staff. (2021). Manchester, New Hampshire: Homeless community at The Bucket resists 11th eviction in seven months. Liberation News, June 13th. Available here; and Ford, Derek. (2020). “Indianapolis movement defeats ruling-class attack on the poor.” Liberation News, November 19th. Available on here; and Binder, Max. (2021). “Protesters sleep in tents outside Rhode Island State House, demand housing.” Liberation News, December 05th. Available here

[21] Ford; Derek; Curry Malott. (2020). “Engels on the housing question: Wishful thinking vs. real solutions.” Liberation School, March, 27 th. Available here

[22] Murawski, Michal. (2018). “Marxist morphologies: A materialist critique of brute materialities, flat infrastructures, fuzzy properties and complexified cities.” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 82, no. 1:19.

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