Friday, March 2, 2018

Gentrification is a General Equilibrium Constraint

In a Brookings article, "Will Opportunity Zones help distressed residents or be a tax cut for gentrification?" Adam Looney notes:
States are fast approaching a deadline set by the new tax law to designate low-income neighborhoods as "Opportunity Zones" - a designation that will unlock favorable capital gains treatment for investments in those areas.
And he continues:
In contrast to the new Opportunity Zones, the policy with the best proven record - Empowerment Zones - focused on people and local services not just capital investments. They encouraged hiring, subsidized up front investment in capital and equipment, offered loan guarantees, regulatory waivers, a partial exclusion of capital gains, and large grants to local government authorities for local services and infrastructure...But the program was expensive and intensive, costing approximately $850 per resident. As a result, only 11 neighborhood zones were ever designated under the original design.
Is there a better approach? Much was written about the potential of Empowerment Zones, so I was startled to discover only eleven were established. Nevertheless, regular readers won't be surprised that I consider gentrification to be a general equilibrium constraint, due to societal expectations re housing and infrastructure which don't necessarily align align well with life's realities. Once traditional housing and physical infrastructure age, their costs and maintenance requirements can become a burden on anyone with limited resources, especially the oft fixed incomes of retirement. What if gentrification also translates into too few places for older individuals with limited incomes to go? As Alana Semuels recently wrote for The Atlantic:
In America in 2016, nearly half of all single homeless adults were aged 50 and older, compared to 11 percent in 1990.
Fortunately, it's possible to overcome the societal expectations that are closely tied with general equilibrium constraints. We could create defined equilibrium (non tradable sector) settings, which more closely match the personal aspirations and resource capacity of groups who find common ground for living and working together. Presently, when many individuals with limited means exit gentrified locales, they often end up in other declining areas which pose greater risks than the places they left behind. If people had options for carefully considering how to start over with other individuals in similar circumstance, the pressures of relocation might not be so unsettling.

Instead of worrying about the places people sometimes need to leave behind due to gentrification, let's pay more attention to how the marginalized can build anew in environments which more closely match their potential. One reason so few solutions have been actively sought for lower income levels, is the fact we don't yet have zones which can experiment with less costly innovative building components and physical infrastructure.

Likewise, in the originally conceived Empowerment Zones, local services were probably framed as an ongoing external societal cost. In order to create long term solutions for limited wage capacity, local services need internal generation which allows them to become wealth creation instead of external costs. Such a strategy would greatly add to what participants could bring to the table, in terms of mutually shared responsibility. By allowing innovation to contribute to physical and social infrastructure, many who are now considered marginalized in some capacity, would finally get an honest chance to become more personally accountable - both for themselves, and for others.

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