Publisher's book description: "Gentrification remains a subject of heated debate in the public realm as well as scholarly and policy circles. This Reader brings together the classic writings and contemporary literature that has helped to define the field, changed the direction of how it is studied and illustrated the points of conflict and consensus that are distinctive of gentrification research. Covering everything from the theories of gentrification through to analysis of state-led policies and community resistance to those policies, this is an unparalleled collection of influential writings on a contentious contemporary issue. With insightful commentary from the editors, who are themselves internationally renowned experts in the field, this is essential reading for students of urban planning, geography, urban studies, sociology, and housing studies."
Abstract: In American popular discourse and policy debates, "public housing" conjures images of "the projects" -- dysfunctional neighborhood imprints of a discredited welfare state. Yet this image, so important in justifying deconcentration, is a dangerous caricature of the diverse places where low-income public housing residents live, and it ignores the much larger public housing program -- the $100 billion-plus annual mortgage interest tax concessions to (mostly) wealthy homeowners. In this article, we measure three spatial aspects of assisted housing, poverty, and wealth in New York City. First, local indicators of spatial association document a contingent link between assistance and poverty: vouchers are not consistently associated with poverty deconcentration. Second, spatial regressions confirm this result after controlling for racial segregation and spatial autocorrelation. Third, factor analyses and cluster classifications reveal a rich, complex neighborhood topography of poverty, wealth, and housing subsidy that defies the simplistic stereotypes of policy and popular discourse.
Transnational Tense: Immigration and the Transformation of American Housing Markets. With Deborah Martin, Pablo Mendez, and Steve Holloway. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36(2), 2010, 187-208.
Abstract: Spatial assimilation theory, the traditional framework for analysing urban immigration and housing, was deeply shaped by the historical-geographical contingencies of American urbanism in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the most recent and forceful challenge to assimilationist research -- transnational urbanism -- is also influenced by distinctive contemporary circumstances and epistemological priorities, creating a tense and unproductive dichotomy. We contend that such apparently fundamental theoretical disputes are at least partially resolved through methodological pluralism. Understanding continuity and change in immigrant settlement and housing patterns requires that we draw on the distinct, complementary merits of transnational urbanist and spatial assimilation models -- while also recognizing the features of American urban development and race relations that create powerful incentives shaping the spatial trajectories of immigrant upward mobility. We evaluate these considerations through empirical case studies of the recent rise of home-ownership among Hmong immigrants in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the interrelations between immigration and the intensified mortgage capitalisation of US housing markets.
Abstract: In 2008, there will be at least 2.5 million new foreclosures in the United States. Record levels of mortgage delinquency, default, and foreclosure ae causing widespread hardship in cities and suburbs across America, and causing repeated destabilization of global credit and investment markets. In this Forum, six housing specialists unravel the complex connections between urban geography, subprime lending, and foreclosure. Although a wide variety of viewpoints are represented, three common threads are evident. First, foreclosures are tightly linked to the lax underwriting standards and aggressive business practices of the subprime mortgage market. Second, the subprime-foreclosure linkage is a reflection of the steady deregulation of U.S. financial markets and the promotion of homeownership as the cornerstone of national housing policy. Third, deregulated mortgage markete segmentation has created uneven new geographies of debt, risk, and default -- superimposed atop existing landscapes of old-fashioned exclusionary discrimination. Low-income and racially marginalized neighborhoods, once redlined and excluded from mainstream credit markets, werre at the center of the profitable wave of subprime abuse and equity extraction during the long housing boom, and are now at the center of the long, slowly unfolding catastrophe of the U.S. foreclosure crisis.
Excerpt: As gentrification reaches the mid-point of its fourth decade of life, we can learn quite a lot from the familiar middle-class, middle-age ritual of introspection. Suppose Ruth Glass (1964, p. xix) had been satisfied with her vivid description of the middle-class takeover of those shappy, modest, two-rooms-up and two-rooms down cottages and mews in the early 1960s and had left it at that -- offering no catchy term for the British class consciousness evoked by the old French gentil. Suppose Glass had not been able to think of a single term to describe a back-to-the-city sentiment among those with money but who fell just short of nobility, those dismissed by the truly elite as "people of a particular, esp. inferior, stamp" (Davidson, 1903, p. 382). What would our histories be like if this term had never appeared? ...
Gentrification. With Loretta Lees and Tom Slater. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Abstract: The worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression has drawn worldwide attention to America's subprime mortgage sector and its linkages with predatory exploitation in working-class and racially marginalized communities. During nearly two decades of expansion, agents of subprime capital fought regulation and reform by (1) using the doctrine of risk-based pricing to equate financial innovation with democratized access to capital, (2) appealing to the cultural myths of the 'American Dream' of homeownership, and (3) dismissing well-documented cases of racial discrimination and predatory abuse as anecdotal evidence of rare problems confined to a few lost-cause places in what is otherwise a benevolent free-market landscape. In this article, we challenge these three tactics. Properly adapted and updated, Harvey's (1974) theory of class-monopoly rent allows us to map and interpret the localized, neighborhood exploitations of class and race in several hundred US metropolitan areas as they were woven through Wall Street securitization conduits into global networks of debt and investment. Understanding the structural inequalities of class-monopoly rent is essential for analysis, organizing, and policy responses to the crisis.
Abstract: Since the early 1970s, critical theorists in geography and other social sciences have worked to build what Steinmetz (2005) calls a "pluralistic postpositivist counterworld." Postpositivist intellectual currents emerged in the shadow of, and in opposition to, mainstream science at a time when positivist epistemology, quantitative methodology, and conservative political ideology seemed always to go hand in hand. This neat alignment was contingent and contextual, but every postpostivist movement committed to progressive or radical politics has portrayed the nexus as essential and immutable. Over time this caricature has been reinforced and reproduced, as strident postpositivists and defensive spatial scientists pursue ever more sophisticated, challenging specializations that make it harder to bridge the binaries of our field. In this article, I suggest that the presumed linkages between epistemology, methodology, and politics were never fundamental or immutable -- and that recent years have brough significant realignments. Right-wing political operatives have co-opted many of the epistemologies and methods traditionally associated with the postpositivist academic left. A new generation of progressive, critical geographers is doing first-rate work -- like that appearing in this Focus Section -- that is revitalizing the scientific rigor, policy relevance, and political power of the left. I analyze how this movement of strategic positivism is an integral (but single) element of a pluralist geography that mobilizes trust and deference to synthesize individual specialization and collective goals to build emancipatory geographies.
Abstract: Theories of growth machines and urban regimes have informed the study of urban political economy for more than three decades, but these theories remain focused on intra-urban processes. Using a case study of the bidding process and the planning of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, we explore the transnational dimensions of the urban growth machine and explore common aspects between the growth machine and regime theory literature and the literatures on the entrepreneurial city and transnational urban policy transfers. Through its evolving networks with other urban regimes, Vancouver's growth machine provides a ready forum in which local elites can acquire specialized knowledge on new urban entrepreneurial strategies elsewhere. Actors situated in different parts of the local growth machine are establishing various connections with urban regimes in other cities, in what is best understood as a nascent growth machine diaspora. Growth machine and regime theories remain valid in their basic conceptualization and maintain their strength through their adaptability to various contexts, but can be enriched by analyses of policy circuits, traveling theories and learning networks.
Abstract: Research and policy on the geography of assisted housing is dominated by a powerful conventional wisdom: Project-based subsidies are presumptively bad because they anchor assisted households in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods, while vouchers are inherently good because they promote deconcentration and integration through tenant choice. Unfortunately, this concensus is based on geographical assumptions that have been subverted by the dramatic restructuring of cities with tight housing markets over the last generation. In this study, we use the case of New York City to analyze these spatial contradictions. Project-based subsidized housing is disappearing from yesterday's poor neighborhoods that have been remade by gentrification at the urban core, while recipients of Housing Choice Vouchers are concentrated in today's poor neighborhoods of color farther from the city center. If the policy goal is to break the link between housing assistance and the stereotypes of "projects" in the worst neighborhoods, then in the case of tight, expensive urban housing markets, voucher-driven deconcentration will be less successful than the preservation of the existing project-based housing stock.
Abstract: American mortgage markets, once arenas of discrimination by exclusion, now operate as venues of segmentation and discrimination by inclusion: credit is widely available, but its terms vary enormously. One market segment involves sophisticated predatory practices in which certain groups of borrowers are targeted for high-cost credit that strips out home equity and worsens the risks of delinquency, default, and foreclosure. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult to measure inequalities of predatory lending: race-ethnicity and gender are 'disappearing' from the main public data source used to study, organize, and mobilize on issues of lending inequalities. In this paper, we present a mixed-methods case study of statistical representation of homeowners and homebuyers marginalized by race, ethnicity, and gender. A theoretical examination of official data-collection practices is followed by a discussion of alternative meanings of racial-ethnic and gender nondisclosure. Interviews with a sample of homeowners and homebuyers in the Washington, DC, area reveal some respondent ambivalence about the details of data-collection practices, but provide no consistent support for the idea that nonreporting is solely a matter of individual choice. Econometric analyses indicate that nondisclosure is driven primarily by lending-industry practices, with the strongest disparate impacts in African-American suburbs. Predatory lending is producing ambivalent spaces of racial-ethnic and gender invisibility, requiring new strategies in the reinvestment movement.
Landing at Home: Insights on Immigration and Metropolitan Housing Markets from the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada. With Pablo Mendez and Dan Hiebert. Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15(2), 2006, 82-104.
Abstract: Predatory home mortgage lending has become a central concern for housing research, public policy, and community activism in US cities. Regulatory attempts to stop abuses, however, are undermined by claims that 'predatory' cannot be defined or distinguished from legitimate subprime lending, and claims that the industry performs a public service by meeting the needs of low-income, high-risk consumers (many of them racially marginalized) who would have been denied credit in previous years. We evaluate these claims in historical-geographical context, drawing on David Harvey's theory of class-monopoly rent to analyse what is new (and what is not) in contemporary financial exploitation. We use a mixed-methods approach to (1) provide econometric measures of subprime racial targeting and disparate impact that cannot be blamed on the supposed deficiencies of borrowers, (2) qualitatively assess the rationale for judging particular subprime practices and lenders as predatory, and (3) trace the connections between local practices and transnational investment networks. The fight against predatory lending cannot succeed, we argue, without a renewed analytical and strategic emphasis on the class dimensions of financial exploitation and racial-geographical discrimination.
Abstract: Displacement has been at the centre of heated analytical and political debates over gentrification and urban change for almost 40 years. A new generation of quantitative research has provided new evidence of the limited (and sometimes counter-intuitive) extent of displacement, supporting broader theoretical and political arguments favouring mixed-income redevelopment and other forms of gentrification. This paper offers a critical challenge to this interpretation, drawing on evidence from a mixed-methods study of gentrification and displacement in New York City. Quantitative analysis of the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey indicates that displacement is a limited yet crucial indicator of the deepening class polarisation of urban housing markets; moreover, the main buffers against gentrification-induced displacement of the poor (public housing and rent regulation) are precisely those kinds of market interventions that are being challenged by advocates of gentrification and dismantled by policy-makers. Qualitative analysis based on interviews with community organisers and residents document the continued political salience of displacement and reveals an increasingly sophisticated and creative array of methods used to resist displacement in a policy climate emphasising selective deregulation and market-oriented social policy.
Abstract: The strategic mobilization of images, visual metaphors, and other forms of graphical rhetoric has always been central in place promotion. Images of place have assumed even greater importance, however, with the rise of locational tournaments of cities bidding for the "right" to host high-stakes transnational spectacles. In this paper, we adapt Harvey Molotch's pioneering theory of the urban growth machine to illuminate the contemporary enterprise of city bids for the Olympic Games. Taking Vancouver's successful bid for the 2010 Winter Games as a case study, we use a visual methodology framework to analyze the manifest (explicit, surface) and latent (implicit, subtle) visual narrative strategies used to craft a carefully considered representation of the city. Our analysis of the official Bid Questionnaire and the video presentation to the International Olympic Committee documents the sophisticated process by which a city is constructed to embody pristine urban nature, multicultural social harmony, and vibrant local cultures of sport in keeping with the spirit of Olympism. Whether imagined cities like this are effective is irrelevant: cities understand that half of their advertising budget is wasted (they just don't know which half). The expanding symbolic economies of tourism, conventions, and hallmark events require that urban growth machines develop and operate a full suite of image creation machines, each attuned to the ral and perceived desires of an elusive transnational audience in a perpetual movable feast of locational consumption.
Abstract: For two generations, urbanists have analyzed how residential mortgage lending reflects and reinforces inner-city inequality. Yet the basic dichotomies of this literature have been eroded by parallel developments in community organizing, public policy, and restructuring of financial services. Securitization, institutional structure, and increasingly sophisticated market segmentation have altered the relationship between mortgage capital and the inner city, redrawing patterns of exclusionary redlining into more complicated, stratified inclusion into prime and subprime reinvestment flows. In this article, we analyze lending dynamics in neighborhoods at the nexus between gentrified reinvestment and enduring poverty in 23 large U.S. cities. A strong, sustained resurgence of capital investment is woven together with enduring racial-ethnic exclusion that cannot be blamed on borrower deficiencies. Institutional restructuring and secondary-market linkages reinforce newer class and racial-ethnic inequalities through subprime segmentation: Lenders' willingness to serve black borrowers, for instance, is becoming closely associated with subprime specialization.
Since the late 1980s, mutually reinforcing trends in economic growth, public policy, and community activism have fostered a wave of residential mortgage lending to 'underserved markets' in US cities. Yet many of the changes in housing finance that supported sustainable home ownership also lured a new generation of subprime and predatory credit institutions specialising in high-cost, high-risk lending. For many urban and minority neighbourhoods, the old problems of exclusionary redlining are now accompanied by new dilemmas of exploitive greenlining. This paper analyzes the market penetration of subprime lending institutions and the subsequent concentration of mortgage 'pre-foreclosures' in low- and moderate-income, African American neighbourhoods. Focusing on Newark, NJ, and its surrounding suburbs, Gary King's ecological inference technique and a series of logistic regression models are used to assess the role of borrower characteristics, institutional divisions, and neighbourhood context in the process of mortgage market segmentation. The evidence corroborates theories emphasising the dynamics of capital investment, financial services restructuring, and the economic incentives for racial-geographic targeting, and not the presumed credit deficiencies of urban and minority home owners. Unfortunately, the tidy empirical analysis offered here is overshadowed by the enormous societal experiment now underway across the US, as a wave of delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures undermines the belated minority home ownership gains achieved during the unprecedented boom of the 1990s.
Abstract: The recession of the early 1990s drew widespread attention to rising poverty and fiscal distress in inner-ring suburbs, and the next downturn will doubtless revive fears that suburbia could endure the same fate as the inner city. The authors challenge conventional urban theory, which explains suburban decline primarily in terms of who moves in and who moves out, by drawing on the literatures concerning the circulation of capital in the built environment. They present a case study analyzing the systematic withdrawal of capital from neighborhoods southeast of Philadelphia, where suburban decline has been dubbed the "Camden Syndrome." Multivariate analysis of mortgage lending decisions between 1993 and 1998 is used to test the hypothesis that suburban decline cannot be explained solely in terms of the supposed deficiencies of new residents.
Abstract: The US economic recovery of the 1990s accelerated amidst privatization, selective devolution and the reinvention of the public sector itself. Simultaneously, mortgage finance and assisted housing policy were recast in terms of market processes, individual responsibility and private home-ownership, even as gentrification enjoyed a dramatic resurgence. The intersection of these seemingly unrelated processes signifies and important transformation of the American inner city. Nowhere are these connections more explicit than in Chicago, where newly devolved and flexible policy infrastructures are built on the ashes of prominent experiments of previous generations. In this paper we use Chicago as a context to explore the linkages between reinvestment, housing finance and the reinvention of assisted housing. We analyze local and federal developments in assisted housing policy and develop a multivariate analysis of mortgage loans in Chicago's neighbourhoods during the 1990s expansion. New constructions of scale in assisted housing, exemplified by Chicago's Lake Park Place and the federal HOPE VI programme, constitute a centripetal devolution mediated by the relationship between public policy and local private market forces. National changes in housing finance have altered historical processes of redlining, disinvestment, and gentrification. Mortgage capital, traditionally responsible for the creation or exacerbation of rent gaps, now lubricates the flow of capital into the gentrifying frontier of the inner city. The intensified market discipline of housing policy, based partly on theories incubated in Chicago, suggests a new regime of neighbourhood change in the American inner city.
Abstract: For many observers, the recession of the early 1990s signaled the end of what Berry called islands of renewal in seas of decay. In the past decade, however, shifts in mortgage finance have intersected with developments in assisted housing to alter the links between gentrification and housing policy. In this article, we use field observation, Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data, and HOPE VI plans to analyze the resurgence of gentrification in eight U.S. cities.
Between 1992 and 1997, gentrified neighborhoods attracted conventional home-purchase mortgage capital at a rate that grew at more than 2.3 times the suburban rate. Logit models confirm that mortgage capital favors gentrified neighborhoods even after controlling for applicant and loan characteristics, suggesting a new relationship between mortgage lending and neighborhood change. In some cities, gentrification has surrounded islands of decay and poverty with landscapes of renewal and wealth.
Abstract: In 1988, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published "The Color of Money," an influential series examining mortgage redlining in Atlanta. The articles documented wide lending disparities between white and black neighborhoods of similar income levels. Given sweeping changes in housing finance since 1988, we seek to determine whether Atlanta's racial geographic disparities in mortgage lending have changed.
Analysis of 1992 to 1996 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data reveals slight improvement. Atlanta's depository lenders made 4.2 times as many conventional home purchase loans per owner-occupied unit to middle-income white neighborhoods as they did to middle-income black neighborhoods; a decade earlier, this ratio was 5.2. Nondepositories post lower ratios, particularly for Federal Housing Administration-insured loans, but this market segment raises concerns because of potential abuses. By the indicator of most enduring theoretical and policy interest -- conventional home purchase lending by depositories -- the patterns that aroused concern a decade ago are still evident today.
Abstract: Recent inquiry in urban studies highlights the dynamic restructuring of urban areas, with new elements of the landscape taken as reflections of sweeping economic and sociocultural change. American cities are portrayed as "galactic" and "restless" manifestations of global and national industrial restructuring, widening income inequality, demographic shifts, and the cultural sensibilities of new class formations. Yet the persistence of residential segregation and suburban development processes provide reminders of the historical continuity of American urban form. This paper critically evaluates continuity and change in the urban landscape, drawing on feminist urban research and theories of residential differentiation to analyze changes in spatial segregation among families and households. I apply the methods of the classical factorial ecology literature to a special census tabulation that controls for tract boundary changes between 1980 and 1990. The analysis focuses on Minneapolis-St. Paul, which exemplifies processes of industrial restructuring and suburban development and an unusually high rate of female labor force participation. Results indicate that urban demographic trends have inscribed increasingly complex patterns of neighborhood segregation. The delayed childbearing, increased employment, and high household incomes of married women of the baby boom generation have altered the 1960s "family status" construct. I offer a theory of the "public household" to illuminate this transformation, which entails an erosion of the boundaries between markets and family life as households confront the contradictions of suburban built environments. The foundations of residential differentiation display remarkable continuity, and the public household is rooted in long-term demographic trends, widening inequality, and increasing consumption standards driven by postwar suburbanization and housing policy. Ultimately, restlessness in the urban landscape is a story of dynamic stability, as turbulent social and institutional change reflects the struggles of workers and families adjusting to the imperatives of life in a low-density urban environment.
Abstract: This study analyzes the reciprocal relationships between place and labor market segmentation by focusing on occupational sex segregation in Minneapolis-St. Paul. On the one hand, employment maps confirm that segmentation produces distinctive places: The slotting of women and men into different lines of work inscribes fine-grained spatial labor submarkets in different parts of the metropolis. On the other hand, logistic regression analyses confirm that place matters in segmentation processes: Workplace location significantly influences the likelihood of occupational sex segregation even after controlling for human capital and residential location factors. Occupational desegregation has advanced most rapidly with the emergence of new opportunities in suburban growth corridors. Continued suburban expansion and industrial restructuring promise increasing complexity of spatial mismatch and spatial segmentation and demand that employment policy incorporate issues of space, place, and scale.
I am an urban geographer.My research is concerned with the nexus between public policy and private market forces in urban housing and labor markets in North American cities, with a special emphasis on the socio-political inequalities of United States urbanism. I examine this connection through empirical, quantitative analysis in four distinct but complementary areas of inquiry:
The spatial constitution of racial and gender inequality in urban housing and labor markets.
Continuity and change in practices of racial and ethnic discrimination in mortgage lending.
Evolving systems of residential capital investment and inner-city neighborhood change.
The role and geographical scale of urban policy in the context of federal devolution and global political-economic restructuring.
A central theme that unites all of this research is the close association between social and spatial inequality as workers and households confront market forces. Consequently, my work is part of a tradition that challenges two prevalent dualisms. The first is geographical: analysts typically study how space and place influence and mediate social processes, or they emphasize how geographies are the outcome of social and institutional dynamics. A second dichotomy recurs throughout public policy and urban studies: 'public' decisions are typically regarded as the domain of formalized politics and institutional configurations, while 'private' actions are viewed as the collective outcome of innumerable decisions by economic actors in dynamic market relationships. I view both of these dichotomies as unfortunate constraints on our understanding of current rounds of socio-economic and urban change, and my research programs attempt to move beyond such divisions to examine policy questions at the blurred divisions between public and private, market and policy.
More (...an extended statement of teaching, research, and service)
We are flattered and privileged that this article has been read by students in several courses: "Community Scholars," Urban Planning 217A, taught by Professors Jacqueline Leavitt and Gilda Haas, UCLA School of Public Affairs, Winter 2007; "Challenges to Urban Sustainability," Urban Planning 880, taught by Chris De Sousa, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Spring 2006; "Housing and Urban Policy Planning," Urban Planning 473, taught by Lisa Bates, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Fall 2006; "Affordable Housing Policy," Community and Regional Planning 388-3, taught by Elizabeth Mueller, School of Architecture, University of Texas, Spring 2007; "Affordable Housing Policy and Programs," Community and Regional Planning 343/643, taught by Rolf Pendall, Cornell University, Fall 2006; and "Urban Research Design," European Master in Comparative Urban Studies, taught by Wim Ostendorf, Amsterdam University, Netherlands, Summer 2006.
August 1, 2007. For years, a group of folks have been studying the inequalities and dangers of subprime mortgage loans. It's a diverse group of community activists, practicing attorneys, law school professors, sociologists, economists, policy analysts, ... and a few geographers as well. Unfortunately, the warnings issued by these specialists beginning in the late 1990s were ignored: regulators and legislators failed to step in to stop an abusive industry that was extracting billions of dollars of excessive fees and draining home equity from vulnerable homeowners and homebuyers, and finding ever more sophisticated ways of making profits from the most unhealthy, dangerous transactions -- including loans destined for quick default and foreclosure.
On my shelf I have a collection of issues of American Foreclosures and Auctions, which includes mailing addresses of people who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments -- and the magazine also has template letters that you can use to send to those folks: "We realize that you and your family may be going through a difficult time and there may be a way that we can help you. If you are looking for a buyer for your property we would be interested in discussing this with you at your convenience. Please contact me at (your telephone number). At this time, it is important to know that you do not have to be alone in this situation. There just may be someone who can help you." These practices have been underway for many years. This template letter is from the July, 1999 issue of American Foreclosures and Auctions.
But now subprime has gone prime time, as investors discover the horrid details of predatory abuses that have been going on for so many years, hidden behind the strange language of accounting and structured finance -- yield-spread premiums, prepayment penalties, collateralized debt obligations, special-purpose vehicles, senior and subordinate tranches, and the like. Wall Street endured substantial slips in late February, 2007, and then again in late July, when anxiety over the subprime risks in several hedge funds mortgage insurers shaved about a trillion dollars of market capitalization within two days. "Subprime" began showing up on front-page headlines of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and dozens of other outlets. But the real sign that subprime had entered the national consciousness arrived on August 1, 2007, when Jon Stewart's The Daily Show featured a report by Larry Wilmore (the show's longtime Senior Black Correspondent), who explained "Subprime, that's code, man, it's the financial N-word!" "Banks have tried to make subprime loans the menthol cigarettes of loans..."
Above: a few random images illustrating key research themes and sites from the urban imaginary. The graphical rhetoric is inspired in part by sources like Camilo Jose Vergara (1995). The New American Ghetto. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; George McWhirter, ed. (2009). A Verse Map of Vancouver. Vancouver: Anvil Press; and Lori Pauli (2003). Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Ottawa, New Haven, and London: National Gallery of Canada and Yale University Press.
The creator's paradox: you have to believe before you do. You have to make your own Kool-Aid, but first you have to drink it.
"Our banking system grew by accident. And wherever something happens by accident, it becomes a religion." Walter Bigelow Wriston (1919- ), Citibank chairman, 20 January 1975, Newsweek. Cited in Una McGovern, ed. (2005). Webster's New World Dictionary of Quotations. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, p. 930.
"Shall I Jump Out of the Window? Sell! Sell! Sell!" The Long Johns (John Bird and John Fortune) explain "market sentiment" and Subprime Lending, October 14, 2007.
For several years, one of my research interests involved a set of obscure, dangerous practices spreading throughout many cities in the U.S. Racially marginalized individuals and neighborhoods, excluded for so many years from mainstream credit opportunities, were suddenly being targeted by a new breed of aggressive institutions using deceptive practices to market high-cost "subprime" mortgage loans with hidden fees and abusive terms. I was rather late to the game when I began studying these problems: a dedicated, interdisciplinary group of activists, attorneys, and scholars had been documenting and challenging various aspects of this new exploitation since the early 1990s. And of course these new inequalities reflect and reinforce earlier generations of polarized market and policy injustices.
Even so, this was quite an obscure area of research, with all sorts of quirky acronyms, bizarre industry practices, and tangled legal and regulatory histories. I became fascinated with this stuff, but most people couldn't care less. People would drill holes in their heads to let the boredom out when they heard me go on and on about FHA, HMDA, CDOs, Fannie and Freddie, AMTPA, the mezzanine tranche, and the finer points of Regulation C. Until about two years ago, most people took it for granted that the main injustices of credit involved being turned down -- and most people thought "subprime" meant a below-market interest rate (rather than the industry's condescending label assigned to its victims). Exploitation was easily ignored so long as it was concentrated among those marginalized by class, race/ethnicity, and gender -- and as long as steadily rising home values allowed industry actors to avoid losses even when loans were destined for quick default and foreclosure. Fundamentally unhealthy market transactions became profitable, while loans sold on secondary markets began to link local housing markets into ever-wider transnational circuits of speculative investment and debt. But now, of course, subprime has gone prime time: the American Dialect Society voted "subprime" word of the year for 2007, followed by "bailout" for 2008. The World Press Photograph of the Year for 2008 was awarded for an image of a sheriff's detective with handgun drawn, searching through the living room of an abandoned home in Cleveland, Ohio, after the owners had been evicted.
In my current work I'm struggling to keep up with an unfolding catastrophe that has devastated families and communities while triggering what the IMF now declares the first truly global contraction of international trade since the Second World War. Three issues are crucial. First, the crisis has exposed deep fault lines of informational injustice. Conservative ideologues have been struggling to blame the crisis on government policies that purportedly forced banks to lend to unqualified racial and ethnic minorities. This is a lie: if there is racial bias to legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act, it is White privilege. Non-Hispanic Whites are more than fifty percent more likely to obtain a loan from an institution subject to CRA oversight, while Latinas and Latinos, and African Americans, are targeted by non-bank institutions that specialize in making mortgage loans (especially dangerous mortgage loans). We can document disparities like this because of a valuable dataset that was created in response to a militant, multiracial organizing movement in the 1970s. Before then, the industry was able to dismiss critics because there was no information available to document the inequalities of banking practices. After limited information became available, the industry has consistently sought to weaken the disclosure requirements and discredit the data, which are freely available to anyone who wishes to document the lending practices of particular banks or credit flows to particular communities. Most recently, the industry fought off attempts to include key information on applicant creditworthiness that would resolve, once and for all, whether lenders can legitimately mount business-necessity defenses against prima facie cases of race discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. The industry's effort succeeded, and so lobbyists now argue that racial disparities observed in HMDA cannot prove discrimination because the data do not include information on applicant credit. Under certain conditions, however, the public data can be used to shift the focus from the presumed deficiencies of borrowers to the strategic decisions of lenders, brokers, and investors who have found new ways to profit from discrimination.
Second, the unfolding crisis provides yet another a reminder that the past is not. Beyond the clear and horrifying parallels with certain types of exploitation in those old dark, satanic mills of a previous century, we can trace the circuits of racial and class inequality to quite specific places. Mapping and measuring the racial disparities of subprime mortgage capital does not simply highlight today's inner-city African American communities of the largest cities across the U.S.: it also highlights dozens of obscure, easily-overlooked small cities stretching all the way from the Carolina piedmont to the Mississippi Delta, including many of the towns where du Bois described "a pall of debt" hanging "over the beautiful land" in The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Third, the subprime catastrophe was -- and is -- a cartography of action, struggle, and mobilization. Much of contemporary research in human geography is devoted to identifying entities widely understood as 'real,' and exposing their socio-cultural, political, and historical contingencies. Valuable as it is, this approach doesn't go far enough. While we can learn a lot by questioning the ontological status of a global credit default swaps market estimated at more than sixty trillion dollars, we also need to imagine and enact new constructions, new facts, new realities. Law and geography intersect here in fascinating ways, in a turbulent time of risk and opportunity. The geographies of this crisis were, quite literally, built in and with the spaces of law. Intentional and accidental de-regulation after previous crises combined with the fragmented structure of American banking and American federalism to create post-Cartesian spaces where certain actors were given a free hand to engage in particular kinds of abuses. When securitization connected local actors to national and transnational capital markets, the result was a re-scaling of racism that allowed all actors to legitimately claim no racist intent. But the evolving structure of the industry ensured that local racial exploitation would be profitable, and that expanded borrowing and lending would be deeply racialized.
Cartographies of action and struggle are proliferating. There is a small but growing squatters' movement in which advocates help evicted borrowers reclaim vacant homes that banks, flooded with foreclosures in a collapsing market, cannot sell nor maintain. Many advocates are working to expand community land trusts and other forms of collective ownership. The return of adult supervision to Washington, DC has created a brief opening for a new regulatory infrastructure for consumer protection. A growing number of federal judges are beginning to hold investment banks and trusts to the same fine-print, sign-on-the-dotted-line standards used for so many years to exploit borrowers. (It turns out that a lot of large institutions took short cuts and cannot now prove their legal ownership of many loans.) The City of Cleveland is suing the entire predatory food chain, from brokers to lenders to global-city investment houses, under a public nuisance statute. The City of Baltimore is suing Wells Fargo for reverse redlining under the Fair Housing Act. Andrew Cuomo, appealing a case involving an attempt to get internal information on the lending practices of several large national banks long shielded from scrutiny by de-regulatory loopholes and a friendly, pro-market federal agency, managed to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held this week, and I find myself reading the thick transcript for clues on how Souter, Roberts, and Scalia understand the legal definition of regulatory "visitation" under the National Bank Act of 1870, and what maps they have in their minds as they decide whether the Constitution allows a single Federal agency of the Executive to claim exclusive authority to enforce laws passed by state legislatures. See? The past is not past, and I can still inflict a lot of boredom with all these obscure details..."
Coda: Scalia, writing for the majority, reversed the lower court's decision. The Rehnquist Federalism era is not quite dead yet...
"...all research, given the way the world is today, must be critical, or it is dishonest..." Peter Marcuse (2009). Email to Tom Slater et al., November 13. New York: School of Architecture and Planning, Columbia University.