Gentrification and villain seeking

Social psychologists have written hundreds of thousands of words about the phenomenon they call “fundamental attribution error.” It’s an elaborate name for a fairly simple idea: that we mistakenly attribute the events of our lives to the values ​​and conduct of individuals rather than to the larger web of circumstances and coincidences that generate them. When someone cuts in front of us on a freeway, we tend to call the other driver a fool or a worthless scoundrel. We are not looking for external explanations.

Attribution error goes far beyond the misperception of ordinary events. It colors our perceptions of history. And that can be both positive and negative. It is generally assumed that Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War, even though Lincoln himself did not believe it. He felt himself the instrument of powerful external forces. Many of us think that Franklin Roosevelt ended the Great Depression, even though the Depression didn’t really end until America entered World War II, nearly a decade after its start. presidency.

In the modern corporate world, we almost invariably attribute corporate success or failure to the work of CEOs, which is the main reason why we pay so many of them exorbitant salaries. But every reputable study concludes that even the most charismatic CEOs are often just bystanders, enjoying or suffering from events far beyond their control.


Accepting the reality of attribution error is not denying that public figures or people in power can be the driving force behind evil. Hitler was a psychopath. The slave owners who brutalized their human property in the prewar South were monstrous. The attribution error does nothing to explain them.

But making exceptions for extreme cases does not take away from the fact that in much of our day-to-day existence, and in the development and evaluation of public policy, we regularly attribute significant events and trends to the machinations of imperfect human beings rather than to larger societal forces. . Sometimes they are individuals; sometimes it’s entire groups of people.

I THOUGHT ATTRIBUTION ERROR LATELY browsing the voluminous recent literature on urban gentrification. We constantly wonder who is responsible for it.

Of course, one can make a perfectly plausible argument that there are no personal villains in gentrification because there is no harm in the first place. If you think the evolution of depressed and dangerous urban enclaves into corridors of middle-class respectability is a net societal benefit, even if there are losers in the process, then finding human culprits probably won’t interest you. .

But it’s probably the majority opinion in most cities these days that gentrification is a bad thing, and so it’s understandable that we blame someone for it.

The easiest scapegoats are young, middle-class professionals moving into places once dominated by minorities and the poor. We can call these newcomers yuppies or hipsters or whatever we feel like calling them, but we recognize them when we see them. They’re moving into neighborhoods bringing dogs and espresso and yoga studios and wine bars that the remaining residents really don’t want. As my colleague Aaron Renn pointed out recently, they complain about the loud music and street commotion that has been a fixture of community life for decades. Worse, they raise rents and property taxes and inevitably force some poorer residents to look elsewhere for housing.

What are these young people really guilty of? They find the density of urban life attractive and seek a place there that offers them the comfortable and dynamic life they seek. It’s what we all do, if we can afford it. Blaming them for the inconveniences of gentrification is essentially blaming the customer. This is a classic case of attribution error. Jerusalem Demsas pointed this out succinctly in a recent article in Atlantic.

But gentrification doesn’t just have customers, it has suppliers. Large real estate companies are building large apartment buildings to attract young people looking for a promising urban place to live. This combination makes new properties more expensive to buy or rent. It is a problem.

Yet for developers and landlords to be the real villains of gentrification, it would have to be determined that they are worse stewards than the small landlords who dominated poor neighborhoods in the pre-gentrification era. There is no real evidence that this is the case. In some cases, in fact, large companies are more reliable owners than their predecessors. Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution has argued for years that big landlords are not the obvious enemy. She made this point in a 2020 article titled “Business Owners Aren’t the Real Culprits.” More tellingly, she ended this article by stating that “whether the landlord is the couple upstairs or a distant private equity firm, the best tenant protection is when tenants have another place to go.”

IN OTHER WORDS, THE REAL BAD GUYS it’s not people moving in or developers building luxury towers. The problem is the shortage of affordable housing being created. Whose fault is it ? Well, no one in particular. It’s the fault of an ingrained, complex system that’s been around for decades and has no author to lay its finger on.

We have a multi-million shortage of affordable housing in this country right now, but no evil genius created that. This is the result, in large part, of a network of regulations that make it difficult to create new housing, especially moderately priced construction. I guess if we’re still looking for bad guys, we could point to the millions of single family homeowners who live in neighborhoods where nothing but single family is legally allowed. But they’re here because they want what we all want: a safe and comfortable enclave in which to raise their families. They see the multi-family projects in their immediate neighborhood as a threat to what they have worked for all their lives. Perhaps it is fair to call them myopic or ungenerous. But treating them as villains seems extreme, as well as intolerant.

The only way to seriously reduce the shortage of affordable housing is to encourage more without demonizing people who live comfortably under the current rules. Progressives like to talk about “afflicting the comfortable,” but attacking ordinary people for their comfort is rarely an effective way to progress.

THIS IS A SYSTEM WE NEED TO CHANGE, but there is no easy way to reach an agreement on how to proceed. Perhaps the simplest idea is to change zoning laws that block the construction of anything but single-family homes in any given location and allow owners or developers to create secondary suites or small apartment buildings nearby. . It’s an attractive idea, and it doesn’t need to have an attribution problem; it does not designate anyone as evil. A number of cities across the country are trying it. But that doesn’t add much. We can’t do much about the global housing shortage by building granny flats, duplexes or quadruplexes in residential neighborhoods. No city that has tried it has reported a significant increase in housing stock.

Equally important, rezoning to allow multi-family housing is drawing a powerful backlash from owners of existing single-family homes who do not want their residential blocks altered by the construction of apartment buildings. I guess they don’t have much to worry about. There is no evidence that they are about to be overrun with multi-family apartments next to them. But the simple act of changing the laws tends to create resentment bordering on panic.

Something like this is happening right now in Lyon Village, the pleasant tree-lined neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia where my wife and I lived until just a few months ago. The county council is considering a plan to allow multiplex units on the same blocks where expensive single-family homes exist.

It’s the hottest political issue in Arlington right now, and it’s brought local and county government a period of unwelcome acrimony. It’s not about gentrification – it’s already a wealthy community. It’s just a question of where to put the extra moderately priced housing that would help keep mortgage and rental costs down. But somehow it’s still part of the much bigger problem of gentrification. Some of the most militant advocates of multifamily housing have spoken of landlords in belligerent, personal and accusatory terms. This may be a case of attribution error that comes up in the debate. Personal resentment far outweighs the likely adverse effects of zoning reform.

For me, the only practical zoning solution is to stick to commercial corridors and build big there – big apartment buildings, not duplexes or quadruplexes. If they are close to public transportation, that’s a big plus. If they create units large enough for families, that’s an even bigger plus. California is slowly but deliberately moving in this direction.

But basically, when we talk about gentrification and housing shortages, we are talking about human nature. People will seek out the nicest residences they can afford to live in. Promoters will respond to the request. People who lead comfortable lives will want to protect them. Taken together, they can create adverse consequences. But that doesn’t make any of them bad.

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