Where Should Affluent People Live?
it's not a simple question
Sympathy for the affluent amounts to sympathy for the devil, in our culture, but I don’t think you have to have such sympathy to recognize that the question posed above is trickier than some people think.
The LA Times recently published a story about Americans moving to Mexico City. Set free from having to live near their employer by the remote work acceleration that was driven by Covid-19, these “digital nomads” are changing the economics and character of the city in ways that offend natives. New chain businesses are replacing old small business favorites, properties are being snatched up to become permanent Airbnbs, and rents are driven higher and higher by wealthy Americans with cash to burn. They don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the culture, they don’t respect the customs. They just come and take and take without a thought for the people who were already there, or so says the article in the LA Times.
Predictably, a lot of the online chatter about the piece involves noting the irony, given that undocumented Mexican immigration into the United States has been a political football for as long as I’ve been alive. Equally predictably, a lot of this chatter has had a right-wing flair. But I don’t think recognizing the complexities here requires a conservative mindset. There’s definitely been a lot of kneejerk nativism involved in the response to the story, but the basic insight of such replies is not wrong: the gradual erosion of borders in an increasingly global world goes both ways. It’s inevitable. It’s theoretically possible for you to allow only immigration into your country and no emigration from your country to another, but the basic politics and process of such a scenario make it seem unlikely to me. And such a situation would in fact exacerbate the longstanding complaint of “brain drain,” where the United States gobbles up the smartest citizens of other countries, leading to slower development there. While uneducated undocumented workers drive a lot of the discussion around immigration, the way that our government hands out skilled worker visas means that legal immigration into the United States as well as emigration out of it is largely a behavior of the affluent, as least as compared to an immigrant’s former country.
Of course, this is also a domestic issue. The gentrification of cities like San Francisco and New York has caused a lot of fretting for decades. Now, with the work-from-home movement having been sped up by Covid-19, mid-sized American cities like Spokane, WA and Bozeman, MT have seen a huge influx of new arrivals, leading to spiraling rents and backlash from natives.
All in all, I really don’t know where progressive people think the affluent should live. I mean, let’s think about this.
Given the relationship between geography and money, people simply staying where they are geographically means our system is guilty of entrenched inequality and a lack of social mobility.
If you live in a neighborhood and you use the tools of zoning and regulation to preserve the current state of that neighborhood, you’re guilty of being a NIMBY.
If you move to a poorer and more diverse neighborhood, you’re guilty of gentrification and displacement.
If you leave an urban center altogether for less racially and socioeconomically diverse municipalities, you’re guilty of white flight, which has destroyed the tax base and thus devastated basic civic functions in cities like Detroit.
If you move to a poorer, majority non-white country, you're guilty of being a digital nomad and of “modern colonialism.”
If you work to allow immigration into your country but forbid emigration out of your country, you’re guilty of contributing to brain drain.
It really feels like there’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario here. It reminds me quite a bit of the current situation for white novelists: if they don’t include people of color in their novels, they’re guilty of a lack of diversity; if they do include people of color, they’re guilty of appropriation. The fundamental trouble with these issues is not really a matter of interpersonal empathy for the gentrifiers, literal or figurative. The trouble is that sooner or later you have to give people some basic direction in terms of what ethical behavior looks like, if you want people to behave ethically. And the neoliberals would of course tell us that however annoying wealthy American expats might be, their foreign dollars provoke a great deal of economic activity and spur development and growth. In this way too moving to a new country is like moving to a new neighborhood: as unfortunate as eventual displacement might be, in the short term new affluent neighbors bring more opportunity to the area and often demand better services from local government.
(It’s worth noting that some people argue that you can’t actually find clear cases of displacement outside of a few high-profile neighborhoods like Williamsburg.)
Here’s a common sentiment denying that there’s any irony to be found in Mexicans being annoyed at Americans moving to their country.
This might sound like a pat little answer, but it doesn’t really make any sense when you think about it. First, the idea that poor people can’t contribute to displacement simply isn’t correct. Poorer people moving into an area still need somewhere to live. If they take up the cheaper housing, then that reduces the available supply, leading to higher prices that are pushed up the ladder - those who are just a bit richer than the poorest now must look for more expensive housing, and on up the chain. A corollary to this is a dynamic related to gentrification that I rarely see discussed. Often, people complaining about it will say that the affluent should simply move to already-affluent neighborhoods. Setting aside the fact that many people accused of gentrification are human capital rich but money poor, this doesn’t actually solve any problems. If someone who would prefer to enjoy the cheaper rents of the largely Caribbean neighborhood Lefferts Gardens instead moves to richer and whiter Park Slope, they’re still soaking up some of the cheaper housing, and some people who are marginally holding on in that neighborhood will be priced out and have to go to more inexpensive neighborhoods like… Lefferts Gardens.
Now a rejoinder that I will definitely get to this post will be “who cares,” and I’m not particularly trying to provoke sympathy for the affluent here. And the most brutish answer to the titular question is wherever they want; the bad feelings of natives may be cataloged in the LA Times, and there may be some social resistance, but ultimately rich American money will enable the relatively wealthy to live where they choose. But I still think the question has merit, as it exposes the kind of holes that are all too common in progressive spaces these days. I think a really unfortunate consequence of the hand-waving “shit is fucked up and bullshit” school of leftist rhetoric that bloomed post-Occupy is that it results in an awful lot of complaints that aren’t tied to any particular positive vision of how better to live. We critique everything, but it's rare that this criticism is constructive and presents better options. And this is a very direct and simple and literal question: where do we want the upper-middle and upper classes to live?
In simple and explicit terms, I don’t think there’s a coherent left-leaning answer to that question, and we need to come up with one. The likely answer is to make it so that the difference between the haves and have-nots is much smaller so that the haves can’t utilize their greater economic power to drive displacement of the have-nots, but in the shorter term I think we need to work through what we want from the well-to-do when it comes to housing.