Book review

Urban planners are often praised or criticized for how they design our cities. Planner Samuel Stein’s “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” falls into the second camp, arguing that planners are unwitting advocates for capitalism. Even though planners see themselves as protectors of the common good, Stein says, they hurt most people by “turning everyone’s space into someone’s profit.”

According to Stein, government planning is tied to private real-estate interests; we are at a point in history when the bulk of private capital flows from investing in manufacturing to land. The result is a “Real Estate State,” where, Stein explains, real estate now “makes up 60 percent of the world’s assets, and the vast majority of that wealth — roughly 75 percent — is in housing.”

This didn’t happen overnight. Stein places the blame with former President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which established the Federal Housing Administration in order to standardize, regulate and insure home mortgages. Although intended to be progressive, the FHA adopted real estate-industry practices that made segregation and suburbanization the de facto U.S. housing policy. Over time, says Stein, “Black, immigrant and racially mixed neighborhoods were shut out of the finance system.”

Stein argues that property investments shadowed two federal programs: redlining and urban renewal. “Municipal investment followed real estate investment” as it went from a secondary source of urban capital accumulation to a primary one. As a result, the government encouraged gentrification as much as developers did, despite attempts to wring concessions from them. Programs marketed as neighborhood revitalization often resulted in physical displacement and social disruption for the urban working class. And by not challenging land’s status as a commodity, planners promoted public improvements but delivered disruptive private investment opportunities.

Reflecting conservative critiques of government interference in the market economy, Stein relentlessly dismisses government incentives to promote affordable housing — like offering privately owned public spaces or higher buildings, or requiring a percentage of affordable housing in new developments — as ineffective. But he identifies the culprit as the capitalist economy, not misguided liberal bureaucrats, because urban planners assume that developers must receive a profit as part of planning. As rental costs for all properties near subsidized private development increase, gentrification ensues.

Although he devotes a couple of pages to studies arguing that gentrification does not have negative consequences for poor people or cause much displacement, Stein does not dispute their findings. Instead, he moves on to mock the “hand-wringing wing” of developers who are unsure of how to deal with gentrification and still promote growth.


Stein also provides two well-researched chapters explaining that manufacturing is not the leading force in urban politics: “In most cities and towns, real estate rules.” Another chapter details New York City’s struggle to provide affordable housing, and another argues that urban luxury developer Donald Trump’s presidency “is a product and embodiment of real estate capital’s global ascendancy.”

Ultimately, in the weakest section of “Capital City,” Stein tries to reach a plan for moving forward, but his path to the future is vague at best. He admits that among radicals like himself, there is little agreement “about the precise nature of a ‘good city.’” Although radical planners have a strong sense of what is wrong, he sees no “silver bullet” programs for unmaking the Real Estate State.

His most articulate proposals involve expanding programs already in existence — like incentivizing additional housing in wealthy white neighborhoods rather than poorer working-class neighborhood, expanding rent control, or creating more community land trusts. He recommends overcoming major opposition by organizing a political movement to “fight for an anti-capitalist city.” But this is hardly a deliverable strategy for change in the short run.

In the end, “Capital City” provides useful information on how gentrification begins and is sustained, but it fails to find a way to use that information strategically.


“Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” by Samuel Stein, Verso, 208 pp., $17.95

Samuel Stein will read at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, free, 206-624-6600,