Herbert Gans, Displacement, and the Real Estate State

Herbert Gans, Displacement, and the Real Estate State

“The era of the bulldozer is for the most part dead and gone, but even if the government no longer tears down the housing of the poor directly, it takes their housing away from them in a variety of ways. Private enterprise does both.” – Herbert Gans, "From the Bulldozer to Homelessness”[1]


Herbert Gans began his 1982 essay “From the Bulldozer to Homelessness” with a simple premise: that government policies and practices coupled with private development purposely displace poor people and reduce the supply of low-cost housing. As he demonstrated, the outcome has been the massive rise in homelessness that began in the 1980s and continues today. His analysis pointed to displacement as the origin of the present housing crisis and provides a historical context in which to understand it. Far from an accidental outcome of development, displacement is essential to the real estate industry’s pursuit of increased property values and profits. Reading Gans today allows me to link the more explicitly deliberate mechanisms of displacement under urban renewal, and the rise of homelessness that followed its demise, with the emerging tenants’ rights movement that resists the myriad forms of displacement today.

The L.A. Tenants Union … reenvisions the “the housing crisis” as a tenants’ rights crisis.

When he wrote this text, Gans sought to estimate the number of people displaced in the United States by the federal urban renewal program, the era of the bulldozer. Between 1950 and 1980, he concluded, at least a million households were displaced and a million privately owned low-cost dwellings were eliminated, not counting those displaced by highway-building program. But after urban renewal, he noted, other forms of displacement became dominant, caused by direct changes in the housing market, such as gentrification or abandonment, and indirect forms like eviction, rent increases, inflation, and even public subsidy programs for the middle class, such as income-tax deductions, that inflate housing prices.

According to Gans, “Gentrification is basically a private version of urban renewal.”[2]

The result is the same: “when households are displaced from inexpensive units, these units are usually lost forever to low-income tenants.”[3] Gans cited estimates that post-urban-renewal displacements not directly involving the state totaled 500,000 to 800,000 households per year. Since “a major component of American housing practice for the poor is displacement,” the market contributes to the continual shrinkage in cities of the supply of housing that the low-income population can afford.[4]

This perspective on the current crisis of unhoused people allows us to reframe its cause from housing scarcity (“shortage”) to the deliberate displacement of low-income people and the destruction of low-cost housing.

Given the persistent loss of low-rent housing and high rates of displacement of low-income tenants after urban renewal ended in the mid-1970s, Gans contended that the emergence of widespread homelessness in the 1980s was predictable. A problem that had been developing for a decade became visible during the Reagan administration, the product of the decline of well-paid work in manufacturing, the rise of joblessness, drastic cuts in welfare and other government aid to the poor including public housing, and the continuing rise in rents. Homelessness magnified the well-known, negative effects of poverty by depriving people of their physical shelter, social identities, neighborhoods, and support systems. In addition, the stigmatization of homelessness was generating new social attitudes that furthered housing segregation and discrimination against people with low incomes, making it hard to rehouse people. The idea that those without shelter needed to be “housetrained” before they deserved permanent housing, for example, justified their exile to a range of substandard, temporary housing, safely isolated from more affluent neighborhoods.

"From the Bulldozer to Homelessness” provides a trenchant critique of displacement caused by private and government action, and a blueprint for understanding why homelessness exploded after the “era of the bulldozer.” Since 1982 destruction of low-cost housing has proceeded apace, integral to what Samuel Stein calls the “real estate state,” an alliance of real estate capital and government. The real estate state is predicated on dislocating people from property that produces too little profit so it can be redeveloped at higher value or leased at higher rents.

This perspective allows us to reframe the cause of the current crisis of unhoused people from housing scarcity (“shortage”) to the deliberate displacement of low-income people and the destruction of low-cost housing. When low-income tenants are forced to move from low-cost housing units, those units are permanently eliminated, and no government program or private charity has the capacity to replace them.[5] “Affordable housing” programs produce a small fraction of the number needed while many, like the increasingly common inclusionary zoning-type initiatives, encourage developers to build more market-rate housing, thereby, critics claim, exacerbating the crisis. Public housing programs have been gutted, effective rent control is almost nonexistent, and other tenant protections are weak.

Figure 1. L.A. Tenants Union Poster. Courtesy of the L.A. Tenants Union/Sindicato de los Inquilinos de L.A.

But there is increasing resistance to the displacement economy. A growing movement of tenants’ groups, such as the L.A. Tenants Union (LATU), fight against evictions, landlord harassment and displacement, and advocate for housing as a basic human need. As LATU co-founder Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal puts it, the movement reenvisions the “the housing crisis” as a tenants’ rights crisis. Operating outside the nonprofit affordable-housing-development complex that is too often complicit with the real estate industry, tenants’ associations and unions exercise political power through education, advocacy, and direct action. The movement takes on the real estate state and its empty promises of “affordable housing,” and demands strong universal rent control and housing justice for all (figure 1). The legacy of the “era of the bulldozer” persists in relentless displacement and gentrification, but tenants are increasingly responding: “We will not be moved!”



[1] Herbert Gans, "From the Bulldozer to Homelessness,” People, Plans, and Policies: Essays on Poverty, Racism, and Other National Urban Problems (New York: Columbia University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 1991), 212. NB: This essay first appeared in The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans, 2d ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1982), 384-395. Page numbers refer to the 1991 version, which was revised and updated.

[2] Gans, "From the Bulldozer to Homelessness,” 217.

[3] Gans, "From the Bulldozer to Homelessness,” 214.

[4] Gans, "From the Bulldozer to Homelessness,” 218.

[5] At present, no entity tracks the precise number of people or households displaced by gentrification, destruction of public housing and other means of displacement. The number of homeless and housing insecure people serves as one index of displacement’s consequences. According to HUD’s Point-in-Time estimate of homelessness in January 2018, 553,000 people were homeless in the United States. This number probably undercounts those without housing. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that, in 2017, another 4.4 million people were doubled up and 6.7 million spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent, putting them at risk of becoming homeless.

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