The price of gentrification

Here in Dubuque, we are luckier than some may think. Of course, we’re not free from some of the ailments that come from being a city in the U.S., like homelessness and crime. But, considering our size and the economy, we’re doing well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Dubuque in December 2014 was 3.7 percent, lower than Iowa’s unemployment rate and much lower than the U.S. unemployment rate at that time. Also, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for one adult in Dubuque is $7.97. Of course, we can argue that things aren’t as good as the numbers suggest, but there’s little denying that Dubuque is in a good spot.

Also worthy of mention: Dubuque has evaded the same woes as some of the major cities, such as San Francisco and New York City. Why both of these are particularly mentioned is because they both have suffered from gentrification.

Gentrification is understood to be the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. This can be a double-edged sword, for obvious reasons.

On the positive side, if a group of wealthy or high-income people were able to come to a city and reinvent an area that has been abandoned or lies in desperate need of renovation, thereby adding value to a city without adversely affecting the population, then that’s wonderful. It’s the kind of thing that politicians salivate over.

Sadly, what we see happening in some of the big cities is the character of these cities being eroded rather than improved. For example, in New York City, some city landmarks have been taken over and turned into fancy stores and such. CBGB, the legendary bar that housed iconic bands and artists, is now a high-end clothing store for men called John Varvatos, and the club known as The Electric Circus is now a Chipotle, according to an article in the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail.

With San Francisco, you need to look no further than a video of John Oliver at the Crunchies Awards positively eviscerating the Silicon Valley types. You know, the kind that take private buses to work, like the people at Google.

Think we’re done? Another article by the Sacramento Bee allows you to look at both the salary needed and median home price. A median-priced home in San Francisco costs nearly $1 million, and that’s not nearly the most expensive! Amazingly, a few places in California like Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Cupertino, Danville, Los Gatos, Manhattan Beach, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Newport Beach, Palo Alto (home of Stanford), Ranchos Palos Verdes, Santa Monica and Saratoga, all have higher median home prices than San Francisco. Who on God’s Green Earth can afford to buy houses there?! (Except for of course my dear aunt who lives in the Los Gatos area).

Sadly, gentrification isn’t an isolated issue. A New York Times article last year tracked how much of a share the median rent in a city takes up from the median income of that city. For example, in Los Angeles, the median rent there took up a whopping 47 percent of the median income in the 4th quarter of 2013! In fact, places like Miami, Santa Cruz, San Diego, and yes, San Francisco, all had median rents that took up more than 40 percent of median income.

Now, this is not to diminish the good and sometimes great that these cities have accomplished. San Francisco, for example, just saw 77 percent of its voters vote for an eventual $15 minimum wage, following Seattle’s example. Bill de Blasio, NYC’s current mayor, has been fighting for such worthy progressive causes as universal pre-K education and a higher minimum wage. However, until these cities rein in gentrification, these efforts might end up being as useful as rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

So, in all honesty, we should be grateful that we live in Dubuque. With a strong economy, reasonable living expenses, and limited gentrification, we should be thankful that we have the city we have right now. As good as major cities like NYC and San Francisco are, for a city to accommodate only the rich at the expense of everyone else is to cut out the heart of what made that city special in the first place.

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