Across the United States, costs of living are rising to intolerably high levels in major cities — though New York and San Francisco are perhaps the most infamous, they’re far from the only ones. Along with that cost of living comes a corresponding struggle among those who cannot afford to live in the places they, and sometimes generations of their families, call home. Troublingly, the flippant response from some observers is that people who can’t afford to live somewhere should just move somewhere else.
This is not really an acceptable response, for a lot of reasons, and many of them speak to the fundamental class and social divides that lie at the heart of cost of living disparities in the first place. People in positions of privilege, whether they’re born to them or achieved them through circumstances — like, say, computer programmers with a less illustrious family background — have a hard time shaking the notion that they bear some responsibility to others. Or they pay lip service to the concept, as the tech industry is fond of doing, but don’t actually follow through on it.
From the outset, it’s ludicrous to tell people who have been living somewhere for years, decades, generations that they should just leave for the convenience of people with more money and social power. People…do understand this, right? When they say that people should live to more affordable areas, they’re telling those people to talk away from their lives and communities because a rich playground doesn’t have room for them, and because their social and class status is entirely their responsibility. Either leave or get rich enough to afford to continue living in your own community even as it crumbles away around you.
There are also pretty clear issues revolving around the claim that people should leave opportunity and try to build new lives for themselves with few resources. The reason costs of living are skyrocketing is because something is drawing people to these areas, and that something is perhaps most cleanly summed up as opportunity. The chance to build something great. A shot at moving away from entrenched intergenerational poverty. A chance to contribute something interesting to the world. People want to move to these places because they have something to offer, and people want to stay in them for the same reason. Why should some people be forced to endure a denial of opportunity just because they don’t have the social status and economic clout of the people who are descending upon their homes to take advantage of that very same opportunity?
But people could always stay close by, the ‘get out of town and stay there’ boosters argue, suggesting that people should be so pathetically grateful for scraps that they’ll hover around the margins of an area for a taste of what lies within. Those people have obviously never actually looked at cost of living in surrounding metropolitan areas. Already, people are commuting into the Bay Area from Santa Rosa, Sacramento, points beyond. They live hours away, and some of those people are actually among the ranks of those with more money than sense — they just can’t afford to compete in a horrifically tight housing market. The working class people who make the city run, those janitors and food servers and bus drivers, have even less of a chance, commuting hours each way every day to serve the wealthy and powerful.
This assumption that people can and should just relocate also comes with a fundamental lack of understanding about how relocating works. Not everyone flits from one tech company to another, enjoying the cushion of a well-paying position with a firm that covers relocation costs, provides housing assistance, and offers orientation in a new city of choice. Working class people have to move the old fashioned way — they sever ties with their community, load up a truck, trek to a new place, hope they can find housing or that the housing they found hasn’t fallen through. They try to build a new place in a new community, sometimes with help from existing family and friends, sometimes not. It’s a struggle to find work, to get established. Moving can cost thousands of dollars, especially when it comes to interstate moves: There’s truck rental, paying to rent and set up a new house, time lost from work, the varied and sundry expenses associated with switching over car insurance, getting new state ID, getting kids settled in school, taking care of a myriad of things that cost money, time, or both. Some people physically can’t relocate even if they want to because they don’t have the financial resources — many people in the US have little to no savings, and you need savings to move.
This casual approach to a city as some sort of temporary, arbitrary stopover denies the rich community history and culture and the ties people may have to the place they call home. It’s not enough to take over a city with sprawl and wealth and power — people must now evidently control who gets to live there, offering up the suggestion that people can always relocate if they don’t like the cost of living or the trend of urban politics. This approach tends to homogenise cities even more than they already are by virtue of the high housing costs that keep people out — when you repeatedly hear that people who look like you, people with your skills, people with your beliefs aren’t welcome, you tend to reconsider whether you want to continue living somewhere, or want to move there. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a certain character profile that comes to dominate among the wealthy echelons of cities across the US, and I probably don’t need to tell you what it is.
Image: Bonner neon sign, Brent Moore, Flickr