The Limits of Liberal Urbanism

As housing becomes more and more unaffordable, liberal mayors have jumped to recognize the crisis. At the same time, they’re fully committed to the status quo, giving carte blanche to developers at the expense of legitimately affordable housing.

Staircase for the 167th Street (Jerome Avenue Line) on the southwest corner of 167th Street and River Avenue in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. Wikimedia Commons

In big cities today, the housing problem is obvious to everyone. It’s the appropriate response to it that is intensely disputed. But virtually no one denies that huge and growing numbers of households are forced to live in insecure, poorly maintained, or overcrowded housing for which they pay a small fortune.

The housing situation is making many basic social functions more difficult: setting up a new household, maintaining family life, caring for relatives and friends. For working-class and poor households, the threat of displacement is ever present. The housing problem is so bad that even politicians wedded to protecting the status quo feel the need to take a position on it.

Two Mayors

The desire to be perceived to be doing something while not actually changing anything is the quintessential housing strategy of liberal urbanism. Proponents of this approach currently sit in the mayoral offices of New York and London. The housing programs of Bill de Blasio and Sadiq Khan are paradigm-defining examples of liberal urbanism.

The two mayors’ approaches differ on some points, of course, because their urban and national contexts are not the same, but they share striking similarities. Both De Blasio and Khan were elected on platforms promising to nurture and protect the diversity their cities were built on. Both have ambitious targets for new homes that they claim will be fairly distributed between people of different income levels. Both say they can make their cities safe for the market as well as for those unable to successfully compete in it. Yet they have both pursued policies that essentially continue the paths laid down by their right-wing predecessors. In both cities, the housing crisis continues to worsen.

Of course, mayors are not emperors who can reshape cities at will. Their scope of action is curtailed by broader structures of political-economic power. And they work with policies inherited from their predecessors and limited by other levels of government.

By the same token, some important housing policy changes have been made in both cities in recent years. New York passed a right-to-counsel law that significantly reduced evictions, as well as a far-reaching statewide set of tenants’ rights. And in London, Khan has placed a demand for rent control at the center of his 2020 reelection campaign.

But the current housing strategies pursued by both administrations share similar goals, mechanisms, logics, and bases of political support. They can be seen as two exemplars of a more general model. And it’s clear that in both cities, this model is reaching its limits. In order to develop a radical alternative, it’s crucial to understand these limits and their consequences for tenants, working-class communities, and urban politics more broadly. The defining characteristic of the housing strategy of liberal urbanism is the assertion that housing is a significant problem, paired with the promise, usually unspoken, to leave all of the central features of the housing system as they are. For liberal urbanism, tinkering with some of the details of housing policy is fine, but the overall shape of the system must not be questioned.

This means that homeownership must be privileged, privatization must not be halted, and decommodified alternatives must be marginalized. Liberal urbanism insists that the housing crisis should be decried, but that the structures that produce it shall not be changed.

Where Two Roads Meet

If there’s a single idea that encapsulates the slipperiness of liberal housing politics, it’s the phrase “affordable housing.” In both London and New York, it’s an open secret that the term “affordable” is deeply deceptive. In London, affordable housing can cost as much as 80 percent of highly inflated market rates. In New York, affordability is calculated using an unrealistically high regional income figure. In both cases, affordability fails to match up with the actual resources at the disposal of working-class households.

And yet inclusionary zoning policies mean that, in exchange for supplying some nominal amount of this supposedly affordable housing, developers are allowed to devote the bulk of their resources and available space to the high-end private market. Two types of housing, therefore, are being built at any significant scale: expensive market-rate housing, and housing that is priced slightly below market rates but still expensive.

Some version of cross-subsidy could conceivably be a vehicle for redistribution, but everything depends on the larger political strategy in which it’s embedded. In the form it takes in London and New York, privately built affordable housing is more useful for political grandstanding and legitimizing luxury development than for producing housing that working-class and poor households can actually afford. Yet Khan and De Blasio press ahead with this clearly insufficient idea at the core of their housing plans. It’s this persistence in the face of obvious failure that accounts for the widespread sense of frustration felt by activists, community groups, and households struggling to stay in place.

In both cities, affordable housing strategies are premised on private-sector provision and the large-scale, state-assisted gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, all while public housing continues to be undermined through redevelopment and austerity. Proponents argue that this is the only way to bribe private developers into building any slightly-below-market-rate housing at all. But trickle-down liberalism is bound to fail. In practice, there is a deep disconnect between these administrations’ stated aims and their substantive actions.

The View From Uptown

These contradictions and limits of liberal urbanism are playing out in many different areas, but their impacts are particularly visible in two multiethnic, working-class neighborhoods currently undergoing redevelopment in both cities. Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and Tottenham High Road in the London Borough of Haringey share notable characteristics.

Both were once middle-class destinations of choice that became synonymous with urban decline and deprivation. Today, each has a predominantly nonwhite, working-class population for which housing has become a huge concern. Both include small, independent shops and businesses struggling to survive alongside a competing vision for a more glamorous urban future, symbolized in each case by a shockingly expensive sports stadium. Both have a history of resistance and rebellion. Today, they’re the focus of big redevelopment projects that typify the methods of liberal urbanism.

The remaking of both Jerome Avenue and Tottenham High Road is justified through the language of “mixing,” ignoring the fact that they have been areas of ethnic and linguistic diversity for decades. Large amounts of public money are being used to assemble development sites where “mixed” housing and “mixed” uses are supposed to create “mixed” communities. The planning system is being used to enable thousands of new homes targeted at specific income groups, with the intentional, if unstated, effect of diluting the number of working-class and poor people.

Jerome Avenue is five miles long, with Yankee Stadium at its southern end, lined with apartment buildings that were once symbols of middle-class respectability. Reviving this image is one of the objectives of the City of New York’s plans for a $189 million investment in “thoughtful growth,” covering ninety-two blocks between 167th and 187th streets.

Marshall Berman recalls an earlier era when the Bronx was also the target for transformation. Memorializing the community he grew up in, which was destroyed in the 1950s by the Cross Bronx Expressway, he asks, “Why did it go? Did it have to go? Was there anything we could have done to keep it alive?” Similar questions are being asked today. In her 2019 book South Bronx Battles, community activist Carolyn McLaughlin writes about how “[t]housands of units of luxury and affordable housing targeted to families with significantly higher incomes than those who now live in the area are being constructed, raising concerns about displacement.”

Some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers today are working-class and poor communities living on increasingly valuable urban land. Jerome Avenue is a case in point. The annual median household income for New York as a whole is $51,865, but for the Bronx, the figure is $34,300; for the Jerome Avenue area, the median income is only $26,226, and one in ten residents are living on less than $15,000 (although one in four have annual incomes above $50,000, a statistic that local campaigners use to argue that Jerome Avenue already has a “mixed income” population). These differentials are critical for understanding the impact of De Blasio’s housing policies and why they’re causing so much anger and anxiety.

The stated aim of the Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan is to “Provide sustainable, high-quality and affordable housing with a range of options for residents of all income levels.” There are 4,600 new homes planned, by re-designating industrial land for residential use and combining this with inclusionary zoning requirements for “affordable housing.” The plan’s proponents in City Hall say this should include those on “low, very low and extremely low” incomes, but as with the affordable housing paradigm as a whole, the means don’t match up with the ends.

A detailed critique of De Blasio’s strategy by the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision allows that some headway has been made toward meeting the housing needs of some poor New Yorkers, but it argues that this limited progress is at risk under the Jerome Avenue plan, which sets income thresholds for new homes that don’t reflect the economic circumstances of existing residents.

Developers are only required to build 10 percent of homes at prices affordable for those with income at or below 40 percent of the area median, which is the case for two-thirds of local households here. In other words, only one in ten of the new homes will be affordable to most of the existing population. Instead, as Carolyn McLaughlin suggests, a disproportionate number of new homes will be priced to attract an influx of wealthier residents. This process is pushing up land values, property prices, and rents, increasing pressure on low-income residents, 90 percent of whom are private renters.

According to one resident, Carmen Vega Rivera, “Displacement comes in different shapes and sizes, but when they want you out, they want you out. I go to sleep worrying about eviction, and I wake up worrying about eviction.” Not only is the affordable housing model not producing enough actually affordable, accessible, and secure housing, but “affordable housing” as it is currently configured is the mechanism by which displacement is happening.

In Tottenham in North London, working-class communities are caught in a similar vortex of forces. In 2014, the local authority, Haringey Council, approved a twenty-year plan to make Tottenham “the next great area of London.” In tune with Mayor Khan’s overall approach, the council sees creating “a different kind of housing market” as critical to achieving this aim.

In the “High Road West” regeneration zone, new homes are to be built through a public-private partnership with global property corporation Lendlease. The company’s website announces, “We will be creating around 2,500 homes and at least 750 will be affordable,” but, of course, they add that “all figures are indicative and subject to the planning process.”

As in New York, few Londoners have faith in the planning system and its mirage of “affordable” housing, having seen other large-scale regeneration projects fail to meet housing targets. The most notorious example is the Heygate Estate in South London, a public housing development that had been home to more than three thousand people in 1,214 council homes. The estate was ultimately displaced (also, as it happens, by Lendlease) to make room for Elephant Park, which includes 2,689 homes, 541 of which are designated with the ambiguous term “affordable” and only 92 of which are designated for social rent.

In Tottenham, skepticism is heightened by the role of Haringey Council. In 2018, left-wing Labour Party councilors were accused of staging a “Corbynite coup” after a local election installed them in place of a right-wing Labour administration that had pursued an aggressive privatization agenda. But bafflingly, the new council has persisted with the plans for High Road West. And it has maintained its cozy relationship with the local professional football club, Tottenham Hotspur, whose massive new stadium sits on Tottenham High Road.

The club is gorging on land surrounding the stadium, leading residents of nearby housing developments to fear for their future. One of these developments is the Love Lane council estate, built in the early 1970s. All 297 homes on the estate are currently facing demolition.

This directly aligns with Tottenham Hotspur’s corporate objectives. In the council architect’s drawings, the estate is replaced with a pedestrian walkway linking the train station to the stadium in a landscape replete with shops, restaurants, and bars — and without any public housing. Sarah, a longtime Love Lane resident, asks, “Where are we going to go? I don’t want to move. I don’t know why they’re doing it. Maybe because Spurs want this walkway?” A campaign group representing council tenants in the area has recently withdrawn from the public consultation process, claiming that Haringey is negotiating in bad faith.

A New Model

From London to New York and beyond, the redevelopment model espoused by mayors like Sadiq Khan and Bill de Blasio is not working. Despite their election promises to the contrary, they have essentially continued the housing policies of their conservative predecessors. Households in these cities continue to face displacement, unaffordability, and precarity, with working-class and poor communities and people of color bearing the brunt of the consequences.

The urban development model pursued by these and other liberal mayors is failing to actually get any traction on the housing problem. It should be abandoned for something better. There are alternatives, but they require actually changing the housing system and confronting the powerful corporate actors and class segments that benefit from keeping things as they are.

Local governments could institute an immediate moratorium on selling public land and public assets. They could re-municipalize housing that had been privatized and build new public housing. They could regulate the rents and powers of private landlords in order to protect tenants and communities. They could institute tax policies and land use regulations that end speculation. They could establish and support decommodified forms of property. They could redefine affordability and other urban policy goals so that they actually align with the housing that people need. With the adequate political momentum, all of these things and more are possible. The first step to trying to change things is dropping the commitment to keeping things as they are.