At the end of the month, we have a guest who has written a book which should be near the life experience of every Angeleno who is not filthy, stinkin’ rich. How to Kill a City is Peter Moskowitz’s look at gentrification in four U.S. cities. It’s a complex issue, but it’s not distant. If your landlord has tried to evict you without cause, or raised your rent by an exorbitant amount, or you have to work several jobs just to keep a roof over your head: this book is about you. Here’s a short interview, ahead of his appearance with Tracy Rosenthal of the L.A. Tenants Union.
Eric Larkin – How did you get started as a journalist?
Peter Moskowitz – During college at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, I got an internship at a local NPR station. I had no journalism experience, but the news director there took me under his wing and gave me ambitious assignments. Because I had no idea what I was doing, I had no problem running up to politicians when everyone else was too respectful, so I learned to be dogged in my reporting. I fell in love with it, and that convinced me to go to J-school.
EL – How to Kill a City is about gentrification. The term can mean anything from a hipster coffee shop suddenly appearing in a low income area to a developer evicting a building’s residents so they can triple the rent. How do you define it?
PM – To me, gentrification is always a top-down process that involves the collusion of developers and city governments. It sounds obvious, but gentrification wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t profitable – i.e. people don’t build or convert housing for fun. So while hipsters and artists and all the rest are the most obvious sign of gentrification, they are only there because they are profitable to people richer than them. They are the pawns.
EL – Can you explain the title a bit? How does gentrification “kill” a city?
PM – Governments become addicted to developer cash. 50 years ago, federal tax rates on the richest Americans were twice as high as they are now. With the rich paying so little in tax, cities are now forced to figure out a new way to fund public schools, transportation, and all the rest. The best way to do that, in their view, is to attract as many real estate dollars as possible and get the associated property tax revenue. So to cities, it no longer matters how a city functions, how it works for its poor people – most cities have only become concerned with how much money the city can make in the form of property and income taxes.
EL – Is this an issue that only affects big cities?
PM – I think you’ll see what’s happened in big cities trickle down to small ones over the next few decades. As developers run out of space to develop in New York, they’re moving to places like Detroit and Philadelphia, as are middle class residents who cannot afford big coastal cities anymore. Will Detroit, or Cleveland or Boise ever have the same level of a problem as New York? No (mostly because foreign investors usually only look to big, coastal cities). But they will still be affected immensely.
EL – Most of us have experienced the severe housing crisis in Los Angeles. Your book covers New York, San Francisco, Detroit and New Orleans. Can you compare any of these places to Los Angeles, in terms of the kind of gentrification that is happening?
PM – Los Angeles is kind of a combination of Detroit and San Francisco to me. It has the (no offense) bad, car-based city planning of Detroit, which means it was never built to accommodate the number of people who now want to live there, near its downtown, and it’s also like Detroit and a lot of other cities in the sense that its economic depression allowed it to gentrify. Downtown LA’s cheap real estate, which was created by a period of government-sponsored white flight (in the form of redlining), allowed developers to snap up cheap real estate, renovate it, and attract new, white residents.
EL – Any thoughts on what people can do to contribute to a solution?
PM – If you’re a gentrifier reading this, I think the first thing you can do is Google “tenants rights, XYZ city (whatever city you happen to live in)” – in LA the best organization is the LA Tenants Union – and get involved with whatever organization pops up. There are people who have been fighting this battle on the ground, and they know what works and what doesn’t. I think gentrification can be a really overwhelming topic, and that prevents people from acting on it.
The other thing to start to do is think of housing as a human right. There are housing movements in many other countries, but what’s the last time you heard housing mentioned during a political debate? It’s considered almost apolitical here. We need to change how we think about it.
EL – What’s next for you?
PM – Hopefully writing another politically relevant book!
Join us 5/30 with Peter Moskowitz. This is about you and, literally, where you live.