Gentrification storm
Photo: Grist/H.I.L.T.

Climate change is the ultimate gentrifier

There’s no greater gentrifier than climate change, and that’s no matter whether you think gentrification is a good or a bad thing. If you define it as displacement of people of color and the poor, climate change got that covered. If you define it as neighborhood improvement, climate change will turn your town tabula rasa and then draw all sorts of public, private, and philanthropic funding to pay for an extreme makeover.

Even if you believe gentrification is not a problem, because poor African Americans and Latinos get displaced more often than not by economic instability, there’s still nothing that will clear out a community faster than a natural disaster. As former Louisiana state Rep. Richard Baker said after Hurricane Katrina, “We finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

In an interview with Gawker last week, New Orleans real estate developer Pres Kabacoff explained just how gentrification payed out after the storm — and the bizarre thinking that the gentrifiers used to justify it:

… the cold truth is, if you’re going to revitalize a neighborhood that’s in bad shape or where market rate won’t go — because the amount of crime, the amount of poverty, or the amount of minorities, or whatever keeps market rate uncomfortable moving there — one of the realities is that when the market rate [comes] in, those people move to another neighborhood. It’s a pain in the ass, but they move.

That’s a concern for artists, too. One of the things were were able to do with Bywater [New Orleans’ most gentrified neighborhood] after the storm was create an affordable housing development [that] preferred artists. The federal government said, you can’t do that because they’re not a protected class like race. So we went to Congress and changed the law.

There are many problems with Kabacoff’s analysis: He never takes into account what puts neighborhoods in “bad shape” to begin with, nor how the things that put them in bad shape get exploited for the profit of developers like himself. For him, crime and poverty just kinda happen, like shit, and then people just get moved around as a mere inconvenience. If that’s not enough, he gets to change laws meant to protect those who’ve been the victims of structural racism. How’d he do that? With the help of a “storm,” the likes of which climate change promises to deliver even more of in the coming decades.

Continued destabilization of the climate is certain to reciprocate the same kind of unstringing for communities below, leading to deeper racial and economic inequities, and more crime and poverty. “The greater the number of lower-income housing units that are lost and not replaced in any given area, the more likely poverty concentrations will increase in other parts of a city or region,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Alan Mallach five years ago in his report, “Managing Neighborhood Change: A Framework for Sustainable and Equitable Revitalization.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If factors like climate change vulnerability and racism are seriously accounted for, developers can rebuild neighborhoods in ways that don’t have to engender displacement and other unintended tragic consequences. And they don’t have to wait until after disaster strikes to start considering these things. They can start identifying these factors now, before the storms and droughts come.

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