Street sign reading: "Gentrification in progress. There will be cupcakes!"

Housing Justice is a Feminist Issue Too

Last week, I was struck by a headline about Washington D.C.’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood. According to American University researcher Derek S. Hyra, white millennials seek out the “authenticity” that comes with living in predominantly black neighborhoods. They also succeed in co-opting political power and civic organizations in those neighborhoods, taking away resources and attention that had previously belonged to black residents.

In other words, while these neighborhoods are shifting demographically to become more diverse, tensions remain between neighborhood natives and their newcomer neighbors. Specifically in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood, Hyra reports that tensions have emerged along lines of religion, sexual orientation, and class in addition to race.

Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, I’m reminded of the importance of a feminism that takes into account the structures that shape and are shaped by gender dynamics. Gentrification, in other words, is a feminist issue. Desmond’s book, which takes the form of an interwoven narrative profile of eight Milwaukee families, precisely illustrates the precariousness that comes with finding and keeping an apartment in one American city.

Taking apart the complexities of race and class as they come out in these families’ narratives, Desmond’s study also leaves room for some essential gender analysis. While Desmond does not limit his focus to only the experiences of poor women of color, he is quick to acknowledge that eviction is to poor women of color as incarceration is to poor men of color. Both processes are driven by wealth and power-holding institutions, and both punish a lack of resources and privilege.

Desmond is able to observe firsthand the gender dynamics of eviction, identifying that men are often able to work off debts to their landlords with construction or repair labor, whereas women can rarely spare the time required to make the same kinds of offers when they fall behind on rent payments. Desmond describes eviction as a process within the relationship of poverty, a relationship shaped by those with financial power and those lacking it.

He reflects that evictions are initiated for a variety of reasons other than just being behind on rent. For example, nuisance citations—issued to landlords by police departments for loud arguments, battering of women, and domestic violence incidents involving weapons—are often cause for eviction. Desmond reports that the vast majority of landlords who received nuisance citations for domestic violence responded with threatened or actual evictions. Sometimes couples are evicted when intimate partner violence is cited by police, but sometimes, victims of eviction are women abused by men who don’t live at their apartments at all.

As a feminist, then, I have to ask: in what world is it acceptable to punish survivors of intimate partner violence for reporting their abuse? As we already know (thanks to #WhyIStayed), women in abusive relationships are quite literally incentivized to stay in these relationships if they are already at risk of eviction due to unstable incomes. When eviction is a tangible threat to survivors of intimate partner violence, structural violence intersects with interpersonal violence. Reading Desmond’s book, I found myself wondering: when centering the most marginalized in my own feminism, how can I better recognize these dynamics as they are replicated in my own community?

Last week, I signed a lease with my girlfriend in a suburb of Boston. We’re two recent graduates of an East Coast private institution. I’m in graduate school, she’s working a well-paying five-figure salary. She’s white, and I’ve got a white-passing name. For intergenerational, racial, and class-based reasons, we both have good credit. Still, I’m overwhelmed by the competitive, overwhelming experience of finding a place to live in this metropolitan area.

I’m troubled by the lack of affordable housing units in this suburb I call home; I worry about the shrinking socioeconomic diversity that comes with a place watching its mom-and-pop businesses fading, swapping out old storefronts for niche cupcake shops and co-working spaces. In searching for housing that was affordable to me, I was reminded of the broader dynamic at play: the privileging of some community needs over others.

When a cupcake shop replaces a generationally-owned barber shop in my town, I know who is slowly getting priced out. When developers build new luxury condos down the street from the new cupcake shop, I know who is harmed. The most precarious lives in my community are left juxtaposed with the gentrifiers. This sort of thinking forces me to confront my own role in gentrifying, to consider my own potential to disrupt these patterns of moving, consuming, and participating in my community. Evicted is an invitation of sorts; a reminder that feminism asks us to do better in the everyday, not just when it’s convenient.

Header image credit: MsSaraKelly

Brianna Suslovic is a recent college graduate, a current graduate student, and an angry mixed girl. She's originally from upstate NY but currently splits her time between eastern and western MA. Check out more of her writing at her website, Check out more of her rants and musings on Twitter @bsuslovic.

Just a millennial trying to channel the rage of Audre Lorde every day.

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