Can gentrification ever be ethical? On Amazon’s move to Long Island and Crystal City

Americans protest Amazon’s move to Long Island City, in the suburbs of New York. Image: Getty.

When large companies move into an area, politicians often proclaim how the new business will create jobs, increase tax revenues, and thus lead to economic growth. This is one reason local governments offer tax incentives to businesses willing to move in.

Amazon’s decision to locate offices in Long Island City across the East River from Manhattan, and in Crystal City on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., follows this pattern. The New York location borders the largest low-income housing area in the United States, with mostly African-American and Hispanic residents whose median household income is well below the federal poverty level. These people, local politicians claim, will benefit from Amazon’s move to the neighbourhood.

However, when large companies with an upscale and specialised workforce move into an area, the result is more often gentrification. As economic development takes place and prices of real estate go up, the poorer residents of the neighbourhood are forced out and replaced by wealthier ones.

Is such a market-driven approach that accepts displacement ethically justifiable? And how do we even measure its costs?

Can gentrification ever be ethical?

Although politicians don’t typically frame gentrification as a question of ethics, in accepting the displacement of poor residents in favor of better-off residents they are, in effect, making an argument based on ideas of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, developed as a modern theory of ethics by the 19th-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, seeks the greatest balance of happiness over suffering in society as a whole. Utilitarianism seeks the greatest net benefit in any situation. In economics, it is often expressed in monetary terms.

A classic example is of a new dam that will generate electricity, irrigate crops and provide a new lake for recreation. But it might also displace people and flood land that is used for other purposes.

Economists might calculate the dollar cost of the dam itself, the monetary value of the land lost, and the cost to relocate displaced people. They would weigh these monetary costs against the value of the electricity gained, the increased food production, and added income from recreation.

What economists miss in these calculations are the social costs. For example, they do not count the lives disrupted through displacement, nor do they determine if the benefits of the dam are equally available to all.

Gentrification, as an economic and social phenomenon, is not limited to cities in the United States. Gentrification has become a global issue. In cities as geographically dispersed as Amsterdam, Sydney, Berlin and Vancouver, gentrification has been linked to free-market economic policies. Put another way, when governments decide to let housing and property markets exist with little or no regulation, gentrification typically flourishes.

When neighbourhoods gentrify, politicians and policymakers often point to physical and economic improvements and the better quality of life for residents in an area after gentrification. For example in 1985, during a period of intense urban renewal in New York City, the Real Estate Board of New York took out advertisements in The New York Times to claim that “neighbourhoods and lives blossom” under gentrification.

Through the lens of utilitarianism, one could say that the population living in neighbourhoods after gentrification experience greater happiness than before.

The fallacy of this argument is, of course, that these “happier” populations are overwhelmingly not the same people as were there before gentrification. As a scholar who works on questions of ethics in the built environment, I have studied how we, as the concerned public, can better equip ourselves to see through such arguments.

Economic development in an area leads to less poverty in that area, not because the personal economic situation of poor people who live there has improved, but because the poor people have quite simply been erased out of the picture.


Erasing the working class

Urban geographer Tom Slater points to a similar disappearing act within gentrification research.

Researchers once focused on the experiences of those negatively affected by gentrification. For example, one study of the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn found that gentrification commonly removed manufacturing from inner city areas, leading to blue-collar workers losing urban job opportunities.

Another study found that gentrification was associated with increased social hardships for residents. Not only did their housing expenses rise, social networks disintegrated as neighbours were forced to move elsewhere. In an examination of seven New York neighbourhoods, for example, the researchers found that half of the poor households who had remained in gentrifying areas were paying more than two-thirds of their income for rent.

Where gentrification research once focused on evictions of low-income and working class residents, housing affordability problems, and torn social fabrics caused through changing neighbourhoods, the talk has since turned to the experiences of the middle classes who are doing the gentrifying.

Terms like “competitive progress” and “regeneration, revitalisation and renaissance” of urban neighbourhoods are commonly used to describe a process whereby physically distressed areas of a city have their buildings renovated and updated.

Urban planner and best-selling author Richard Florida also focuses on the gentrifiers. In his much discussed 2002 book, Florida maintains that cities with a large gay and “bohemian” population of artists and intellectuals tend to thrive economically.

He calls this group of hip and affluent urbanites the “creative class,” and states that they are responsible for a city’s economic success. When Florida’s book came out, city leaders throughout the United States quickly seized on his ideas to promote their own urban renewal projects.

When researchers and urban leaders focus on the gentrifiers, the displaced poor and working class are doubly erased – from the gentrifying areas they once called home, and with few exceptions, from the concerns of urban policymakers.

The need to restore happiness

Amazon’s move to Washington and New York along with an influx of well-paid employees brings us back to the question of how we might apply the ethical concept of utilitarianism to understand the greatest balance of happiness over suffering for the greatest number of people.

In my view, this number must include the poor and working class. In an area threatened by gentrification, the economic and social costs for displaced residents is typically high.

To make ethical decisions, we must consider the people who suffer the consequences of rapidly rising costs in the area they call home as part of the ethical equation.

The Conversation

Alexandra Staub, Associate Professor of Architecture; Affiliate Faculty, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.