Rising Rents: Gentrification and the End of the Bohemian City

Anyone living in the San Francisco Bay Area knows that rents have been rising. As the UK’s Guardian reported recently, Tech Boom 2.0 has driven the average monthly rent to an astronomical $2,734. But is housing really more expensive today than it was several decades ago?

Adjusted for inflation, median gross rent (rent + average utilities) in California nearly tripled between 1950 and 2010:

ca rent

This has put all working class Californians under heavy economic pressure. But the increasing cost of rental housing has a particularly corrosive effect on the character of our cities as venues for culture and the arts. Artists, writers, musicians, theatre-makers usually struggle to survive at the economic margins of our society. Through most of the 20th century, cheap rental housing in large cities was the material foundation of vibrant artistic communities.

The irony, of course, is that high tech companies want to locate in cities like San Francisco because their educated, skilled workers want to live there. Those educated, skilled workers want to live in cities like San Francisco because of their vibrant cultural scenes. Yet, if arts communities are driven out by overheated rental markets, those once vibrant cities may become as culturally dead as the suburbs.

What can we do about it? Nothing – if we choose to cede control to market forces. But as with other cases of market failure, there are other choices we could make. San Francisco has rent control laws, but they have been weakened as landlords have won greater political sway. Some cities have experimented with public housing developments oriented specifically toward artists.

The legal scholar and political philosopher, Jeremy Waldron, once pointed out the seemingly obvious, but deeply important point that everything that happens must happen somewhere. If we want vibrant cities, filled with arts and culture, we have to make room for artists to live and work.

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