As recently as the 1970s, cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco were notorious for blight, crime and fiscal insolvency. Today, these cities boast booming finance and tech sectors that are attracting young professionals and fostering gentrification. Housing prices have skyrocketed, as neighborhoods like Harlem saw rents spike by 50 percent from 2000 to 2010. Soaring rents often push out low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods. But bigger bills are not the only way tenants have been displaced. In San Francisco, a series of suspicious fires in 2015 and 2016 led many to suspect that landlords were using arson to displace low-income residents and convert their buildings to condos for highly paid tech workers.
Shocking as this sounds, it would not be the first time that more aggressive, even violent methods have been used to displace poorer tenants. While gentrification is sometimes thought of in genteel terms, that hasn’t always been the case. As gentrification accelerated in the late 1970s, a growing professional industry that promised urban revival and higher rents brought about harassment and even deadly violence to people living in the very neighborhoods starting to boom.
Take the case of New York. While gentrification had been occurring, if slowly, since the 1960s, the deregulation of Wall Street — and the resulting hiring boom at the city’s banks, consulting companies and law firms — changed everything. From 1977 to 1987, Manhattan’s financial sector added 151,755 jobs. By 1987, 1 in 3 Ivy League grads headed to Wall Street, up from 1 in 30 in 1977. As banks grew, all 30 of New York’s largest law firms doubled in size, too. So did most of the city’s consulting firms.
All those young, highly paid bankers, consultants and lawyers needed somewhere to live — preferably a renovated apartment with easy access to their jobs in Manhattan.
That flood of young professionals transformed many New York neighborhoods, from Brooklyn Heights to SoHo to the Upper West Side. But nowhere was the change as fast or as ferocious as in Hoboken, N.J., a city of 45,000 people just across the Hudson River. In the 1960s, it was poor: It had the second-highest rate of welfare recipients in the state, and unemployment topped 12 percent. But in the mid 1970s, a marketing campaign led by the local redevelopment agency brought a trickle of newcomers — first artists and brownstoners, then a stream of well-heeled bankers and lawyers.
Landlords noticed the renewed interest in the city and sought to convert their tenement buildings into luxury condominiums. But there was a problem: Their properties housed low-income, mostly Latino tenants who paid rents that were stabilized under state law. Efforts to buy out existing residents were unsuccessful.
So owners took extreme measures. They first threatened, then allegedly set fire to their buildings in the hope of driving out tenants. Between 1978 and 1983, those fires killed 55 people and displaced 8,000 more.
Declining neighborhoods also often experienced arson, with absentee landlords torching their buildings when an insurance settlement offered a higher payout than rental income. New York experienced roughly 10,000 arsons each year from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, mostly in impoverished areas like Bushwick and the South Bronx.
But neighborhoods like Hoboken moving in the other direction — places experiencing interest and investment from upper-middle-class professionals — were also subject to the violence of arson. And that violence disproportionately affected communities of color.
The details of the Hoboken arson wave are harrowing. In 1980, Olga Ramos, who owned a tenement at 12th and Washington streets, asked the city’s rent-control board for a $50-per-month rent increase, roughly four times the allowed annual cap. After Ramos’s request was denied, she told tenants that she “she would get them out, even if she had to burn down the building.” In the predawn hours of Oct. 24, 1981, a fire swept through the property. Eleven people, including all the members of one family, were killed.
After interviewing the landlord and the suspected arsonist, Capt. Patrick Donatucci of the Hoboken City police determined that the blaze was “definitely arson-for-profit.” Just weeks after the fire, Ramos sold the gutted building to a developer who converted it to upscale condos.
This was only one of the dozens of deadly fires that struck the city as it gentrified. In all, Hoboken suffered almost 500 fires, nearly all the result of arson, from 1978 to 1983. More than 7,000 Latinos, many of whom had occupied desirable rent-controlled apartments, fled the city. Yet no one was ever prosecuted. Proving that a landlord was guilty of conspiracy to commit arson required evidence that they had paid an accomplice to start the fire; evidence of economic gain alone was insufficient.
Meanwhile, the population of professionals who commuted to jobs in Manhattan exploded. On the desirable blocks closest to the Hudson River, the proportion of residents working in professional or managerial jobs leaped from 1 in 20 in 1970; to 1 in 3 by 1980; and then to 1 in 2 by 1990. The number of financial-sector workers grew almost sevenfold over the same period. Few of those professionals showed sympathy for the residents they were replacing. A stockbroker, sitting at a cafe across from where an arson-related fire had killed 12 people one day earlier, put it bluntly. “I don’t want people to be burned,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind a nicer element of people here, if you know what I mean.”
Sadly, Hoboken’s story was far from unique. Wherever young professionals moved, existing residents faced eviction — or worse — as landlords pursued profit. Beginning in the early 1980s, tenants of single-room-occupancy hotels were evicted across Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On Chicago’s North Side, developers used fire to clear lots to make way for high-end condos. In Boston’s gentrifying Back Bay, an influx of professionals led to a 400 percent increase in the number of arsons-for-profit, leading Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn to declare a war on what he called “gentrification arson” after his election in 1983. Nationwide, the situation became so dire that Congress held hearings on the arson-for-profit crisis in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
Then as now, cities welcomed the arrival of young professionals as a way to cure their many ills: falling tax revenue, abandoned retail corridors, sagging real estate markets. But Hoboken’s arson wave reveals the dark underside of this growth strategy. Rising salaries mean rising rents — a powerful incentive for landlord malfeasance. Only by providing affordable housing and investigating tenants’ claims of harassment can cities ensure that today’s urban renaissance does not bring yet more deadly consequences.