Recently, we looked at how the teetering economy will likely turn Beacon’s housing boom into a bust. But what if all the glaring indicators of severe engine trouble are wrong, and don’t mean what they usually mean, or the Federal Reserve’s head mechanic Janet Yellen breaks out her magic toolbox and tinkers around a bit and lo and behold, the economy continues to putter along for the next couple of years with just enough combustion to sustain this boom of many hundreds of “units”? What will Beacon look like should that admittedly fantastically far-fetched scenario unfold?
Why, ladies and gentlemen, it will look positively gentrified, of course. At least as that term is now broadly applied.
It was originally coined in the early sixties to describe the influx of middle class people from outlying suburbs into the working districts of London. Here is the nutshell version of how it went in the U.S.: The spread of highways, cars, strip malls, begins to depopulate cities. Corporations moving corporate headquarters to business parks and manufacturing to third world countries exacerbates the situation, as does the advent of the big box stores. Now the people who can’t leave, including many non-white people and those of little means, make up a greater percentage of the population, leading to further flight, wiping out the remaining tax base. And leaving no one with enough power or money to complain about the deteriorating situation or do anything to fix it.
Then the kids of the people who fled grow up and realize how much suburbia sucks. A few of the more adventurous move back to the city, where the housing stock and the transportation systems, though neglected, still have “good bones” and are available “at a steal.” Once the prettification gets under way, the less adventurous but relatively more moneyed crowd follows, and prices of housing stock become investment grade by the time the next generation is in kindergarten. Voila!
But what’s happening in Beacon does not quite fit the classic pattern. As described above, young professionals (remember them? Yup!) come back to the urban core in search not only of places to live, but seeking employment that is nearby as well. They are aided and abetted by urban planners who, while often going through elaborate hand-wringing exercises regarding the socio-economic implications of gentrification, nevertheless applaud the move away from suburban sprawl, espousing the benefits of “density” and “mixed use development,” where people can live, work, and play all in the same neighborhood (just like grandma and grandpa!)
Perhaps all very well and good, but what if, as is the case with Beacon, you are neither fish nor fowl? In other words, we are not completely suburban, but we are also far from being a true city with the kind of densities that allow for viable public transportation systems (though we did of course have a street car system up until the 1930s—in with the new, better, improved!) and a concentration of decent-paying jobs, whether white or blue collar. The days of a small city/town being able to woo a company that can offer more than a few positions are also over—we simply don’t have enough of what corporations want to be able to give it away to them.
We are not even attempting to entice smaller companies by insisting that developers provide mixed use development. In fact, we are granting them license to do whatever they want, which turns out to be squeezing every single last “unit” possible onto the allotted spaces—and then some, with variances handed out by the zoning board of appeals like lolly-pops at the doctor’s office.
What Beacon lacks is jobs; specifically jobs that will allow people to afford the median rents or purchase prices for housing in the City.
This was made clear in a recent Beacon Free Press interview with Mayor Casale, who touted the fact that, for every 20 units that are built, one will be created that is deemed “workplace affordable.”
Think about that for a minute.
For every 20 new residents of these “units” you may (or may not) see walking about town at some point, chances will be that one of them actually works in Beacon, or at least makes a salary low enough to qualify as working in Beacon. Add in the newer families who moved here over the last decade who need at least one family member pulling in a New York City or Westchester salary, and you have a city missing one of the three pillars—live, work, play—that makes density the darling of the one-solution-fits-all urban planners. And you end up with a part-time community that mostly drives everywhere. It’s kinda like suburbia, but with less parking.
Put another way, 95% of the new housing stock being developed will be officially categorized as unaffordable for the current Beacon “workforce” population.
This means that most of the occupants of all these new “units” will work elsewhere; by the workforce definition, they have to, to be able to afford it. But they will by no means be part of the fabled and much decried one percent. They will mostly be refugees from…gentrification! The gentrification of New York City in general and Brooklyn in particular. Because to these poor souls, Beacon rents and housing costs don’t look so bad. Yes, it truly is a dog eat dog world, at least when it comes to gentrified real estate.
So what will we have if somehow all the financial legerdemain is allowed to continue a little longer, and our fearless developers get all their “units” up and running?
We will have a bedroom community, complete with a “quaint” strip of good old Main Street to use in the real estate brochures selling high end lofty condos, a street full of boutiques for well-appointed ladies of a certain income, upscale-ish eateries, des galeries d’art and emporiums de bibelots, and a dry cleaner or two. (But no hardware store.) We will have a couple extra thousand car trips per day clogging our streets (yes, we did the math). We will see foreclosures continue to rise as those left behind by the “service” economy and unable to undergo “retraining” continue to be tossed under the bus.
In an interview with The Paper, Mayor Casale said he believes “the density will only help to make the city more sustainable and affordable going forward.” We say things like this because really, what other choices do we have? When you gut the economy, and send jobs overseas or give them to robots and machines or pay so little that a person can’t afford to start a household, the only viable solution offered up in the past few decades that at least gives the appearance of a fully functioning economy has been gentrification.
But gentrification is certainly not more affordable, and is anything but sustainable beyond the relatively short term, because it is wholly dependent on the big globalization game, and that game is almost up. There is little of lasting substance to gentrification, particularly the variety of gentrification that Beacon has signed on for, which consists simply of escalating housing costs and a few fancy retail joints, but no jobs or public transport or long term plans for the community in a likely future.
It’s akin to one of those old Western facades in the movies: Looks convincing from straight on, but there is really no there there. In the end, it’s just another name for the financialization of our homes, a real estate bubble. It’s a last gasp illusion built on mountains of unpayable debts that have accrued over the past 40 years, and it is unlikely to survive another round of printed funny money, aka “quantitative easing.”It is the definition of unsustainable, and once the artifice that is currently keeping everything together falls away, there will be trouble for the gentle born, the gentry, as well as the “workforce.”
For the first time since the 1950s, less than half the U.S. population is now defined as middle class, and the numbers continue to shrink. The Patterns for Progress housing report for Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley that we linked to in the last post is truly astounding, and, other than calling it a “post recession report” and using the word “modest,” real estate development shills that PFP are, even they did not have the heart to try to put much gloss on the starkness of the figures, which basically point to the fact that none of us can truly afford the housing we are living in, at least in terms of the recommended portion of income allotted to it. It is only a matter of time before this grim reality will reach out and encompass many of the people currently with means strolling down Main Street on a weekend excursion and clustering before the windows of real estate offices to ponder the purchase of a creekside Beacon industrial loft with mountain views. What happens then?
Beacon is in desperate need of a Plan B.
Over the past couple of years, Wigwam has been trying to help illuminate and formulate a Plan B for Beacon, and in 2016, we will focus even more on what that plan might entail. (Despite what some may think, we offer positive ideas and real-world actions in addition to criticizing the follies that engulf us!)
While it may appear that we have no choice other than to let the developers reshape our city to their “vision,” this is only true because we keep telling ourselves there is no other way. Next week we will present a Best and Worst list, and then we’ll continue to look at what kinds of actions are still feasible in the ever-shrinking solution space. Please stay tuned!
Meanwhile, let’s try to remember that “old” Beacon and “new” Beacon, as we stand today, are much more alike than different, at least in financial terms, and in what we need and desire for ourselves and our families. In any case we are pretty much all in the same leaky dinghy here.
Finally, on the lighter side and as our gift to you for the new year, we conclude our meditation on gentrification with this excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom:
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgar really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?
For further verisimilitude, feel free to incorporate into the above backyard chickens, yarn-bombing, quads tearing it up on the mountain, and gluten-free anything…
(Gentrification—the satisfying click that isn’t connected to anything.)