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The Real Cost of MLB Stadia

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Seventy years after the Dodgers destroyed entire neighborhoods to make room for a ballpark, nothing has really changed.

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Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The building of venues for MLB teams and the destruction of housing have long been linked. Eric Nusbaum wrote an excellent book, Stealing Home, about the entire communities - mostly of Black and Brown people - destroyed to make room for Dodger Stadium. But in the seven decades since Dodger Stadium’s construction, things have unfortunately not changed much. If anything, things have become worse. Now, ballparks aren’t just venues for baseball games: they’re multifunction complexes with luxury apartments, megastores, and entertainment areas. In short, now we don’t just displace people to make room for a baseball stadium. Now, we displace people to make room for baseball stadia and the rich white people they want in the stands. There’s a word for that: gentrification.

Earlier this week, the City of Oakland approved a plan for the Athletics to develop a stadium in Howard Terminal. In true modern form, the team wants to include an entertainment and housing complex around the ballpark, including 3,000 on-site housing units. The City, adhering to state law (and, frankly, good policy) which was the basis for a lawsuit a couple of years ago, wants 15% of these units to be allocated for affordable housing. The team is refusing, saying that affordable housing shouldn’t be located anywhere near the ballpark. The team would sooner leave Oakland than allow affordable housing to be located near its new stadium.

There’s a pernicious reason the Athletics - like the Dodgers seven decades ago - insist on luxury, high-end housing surrounding their stadiums: it leads to what Dodgers executive Walter O’Malley infamously deemed “a better class of fans.” In short, teams want their fans to be rich and white. That’s why Atlanta’s Major League Baseball team moved from Turner Field, a stadium in Atlanta, to suburban Cobb County. There was nothing wrong with Turner Field, of course. At the time of the move, the team blamed a lack of public transportation options to Turner Field. Yet that excuse never made any sense, because there were no local public transportation options near the team’s new stadium, and the team made the decision to move to Cobb County right after residents there voted down a measure to extend Atlanta’s mass transit system that far. Local politician Joe Dendy admitted as much at the time:

“It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta[.]

And so the team moved from a neighborhood that was 89% Black to one that was over 56% white. Even that wasn’t enough for the team; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that residents of Cobb County were worried about losing their homes to gentrification less than two weeks after the team moved into its new stadium. Even when Black and Brown people are a minority in the community, their presence is evidently not acceptable near a baseball stadium.

The Athletics and Atlanta’s team aren’t alone. The St. Louis Cardinals decided to surround Busch Stadium with “One Cardinal Way,” exclusive luxury apartments. After the New Yankee Stadium opened, the New York Times gushed that the gentrified location - white people moved into the city around the stadium for the first time 40 years, displacing and evicting the previous Black and Brown residents - had resulted in a “gentler” atmosphere with “fewer creeps,” even as residents lamented what had become “A Tale of Two Bronxes.” The Los Angeles Angels have long wanted to turn the land around Angels Stadium into luxury housing, and they’ve spent years fighting the state of California about a state law requiring affordable housing designations; the team would sooner hold the land than build affordable housing there. The Star-Tribune noted that the neighborhoods around the Twins’ new Target Field “led the way” in gentrifying Minneapolis. MLB, it seems, still follows O’Malley’s odious advice.

If you’ve read my writing here or at Fangraphs, you know that in my day job, I’m a lawyer. Since the beginning of my career, about half my practice has always been - and will always be - eviction defense. I generally try to do as many eviction defense cases pro bono as I can, because I believe housing to be a human right. Over the years, I’ve defended hundreds of eviction cases, if not more. Eviction in the United States has a long and ignominious history (every forcible entry and detainer law in the United States began as a Jim Crow law to remove Black and Indigenous people from land that white people wanted to occupy, as Richard Rothstein explains) that continues to this day; every U.S. state evicts more people each year than most of the mainland European Union combined. For-profit prisons are a leading funder of opposition to right-to-counsel bills and tenants’ rights laws because a leading cause of the incarceration of young Black men is the eviction of their mothers.

Eviction in America remains heavily racialized; 1 in 5 Black women will be evicted during her lifetime, and Black people are three times as likely as white people to be evicted. In short, eviction prevents Black families from building generational wealth. As Matthew Desmond found, eviction is the cause of generational poverty for many families:

The biggest factor when it comes to wealth building for most Americans is owning a home. The biggest predictor to owning a home is if your parents owned a home. And one of the biggest predictors of that is if you’re white and if your parents are white. The legacy of American housing policy and home ownership is deeply grafted into the legacy of racial inequality.

Pick your starting point. You can go back to slavery, to sharecropping, to the North End Migration, to the institutionalization of the ghetto, to the release of legal segregation, to the gutting out of the inner city, to red lining and excluding black folks, to the private insured mortgage market, to contract selling, to the eviction epidemic today.

We saw in the housing crisis that owning your home is not a guaranteed right, but for many Americans owning your home does give you not only wealth building but stability and certainty about where you’re going to live year to year, and for many low-income renters that’s far from the reality. That is a part of our racial heritage.

Eviction is a proverbial scarlet letter that follows a person for life. Get evicted, and it stays on your credit - it can keep you from getting a job, getting a car, getting a house - and that’s to say nothing about the financial consequences and costs of being forced to move. We think of eviction as a result of tenants not paying their rent - but that’s not the case. Most people evicted owe $2,500 or less in rent, and many owe no rent at all. Gentrification is the leading cause of Black and Brown people being evicted - not that the tenant owes rent. As one study noted,

Evictions may result from gentrification and rising rents, but they might also be a precursor to gentrification—landlords might use eviction in some neighborhoods to capitalize on rising housing values by expelling tenants and rehabilitating units. To compare patterns of gentrification with eviction filings, the author mapped over 232,000 evictions from 2009 to 2015 in Detroit by defendants’ addresses. Not all eviction filings result in physical evictions (e.g., on serial eviction filing, see Memo, 9/28), and not all displacement in Detroit can be attributed to gentrification. All the same, the changing geography of evictions aligns with some patterns of neighborhood gentrification. Eviction cases in 2009 were concentrated downtown, but by 2015, they were most concentrated near a newly constructed stadium and developing entertainment district. Evictions have become relatively less frequent in downtown Detroit, compared to the rest of the city, between ­2009 and 2015, possibly because the most vulnerable tenants had already been pushed out.

So if you’re pushing out Black and Brown families to build your shiny new baseball stadium, you’re not just forcing people to move. You are very likely causing lasting, multi-generational damage to entire families.

There are other consequences to gentrification, as the brilliant baseball writer Shakeia Taylor pointed out on Twitter earlier this week. (As an aside, Taylor is one of the most best scribes in the industry and you should read what she writes.) Take, for example, the recent shooting outside Nationals Park, a ballpark that also pushed out longtime residents when it opened and continues to do so. The Washington Post noted that the new DC ballpark features high-rise buildings for young, wealthy (and usually white) people with amenities “largely inaccessible to the wider community.” As people are displaced, poverty and housing insecurity rise.

Dena Walker, the president of the resident council executive board at the Greenleaf Gardens public housing complex, said as high-rise after high-rise has gone up over the past decade, it can often feel to her neighbors and other families in subsidized housing like the walls are literally closing in around them.

“They’re scared because they know what happens with all this redevelopment — we’re next,” said Walker, who has lived in the community for more than a decade. “I hear questions all the time like, ‘What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to us?’ People just don’t know what their living situation is going to be if they are displaced. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of nervousness.”

Washington Post Journalist Clinton Yates, who was written brilliantly about gentrification in the District on multiple occasions, noted this on Twitter:

The correlation between poverty and crime has been proved over and over again. Force people into poverty, and they will do what they have to do to survive. Poor people aren’t criminals. They’re being criminalized. As Desmond explained:

[T]he eviction of thousands of women from black neighborhoods not only contributes to their homelessness and poverty but also disrupts community stability, a disruption itself linked to higher crime rates and neighborhood disorganization (Sampson and Raudenbush 1999). High crime rates and social disorganization, in turn, are linked to increased levels of police surveillance and punishment. Similarly, the high incarceration rate of low-income black men not only attenuates their chances of achieving social inclusion and economic security (Western 2006, pp. 131–67) but also exacerbates the economic insecurity of black women by increasing their likelihood of being burdened by the blemish of eviction and by boosting the rate of female-headed households. These twinned processes, eviction and incarceration, work together—black men are locked up while black women are locked out—to propagate economic disadvantage and social suffering in America’s urban centers.

Major League Baseball teams, therefore, have become among the leading causes of gentrification, and therefore one of the leading instigators of the eviction and displacement of people of color in their communities. As a result of that displacement, families will be harmed for generations to come. This is not opinion. This is a fact.

Unhappy with the requirement of allowing poor people to live within walking distance of their proposed new ballpark, the Athletics are considering moving to a different city to gentrify: Las Vegas. Vegas may be known for its glitz and glamour, but it, too, engages in the same patterns of racist gentrification as every other city. Back in 2015, the University of Nevada Las Vegas noted that people who lived in Las Vegas couldn’t afford to attend the city’s own events.

Here’s a fun fact: Over 75 percent of downtown residents are people of color. According to a National Endowment for the Arts report, just under 75 percent of outdoor festival attendees are white.

The people who live in downtown Las Vegas don’t go to Life is Beautiful. They don’t go to the bourgeois bars and pricy fusion restaurants that white hipsters drive across town to visit.

All these projects and festivals aren’t actually serving the people who live downtown. They’re pricing them out of their homes and pushing them into other areas of the city that will – surprise! – eventually be gentrified ten or fifteen years down the road. Since 2011, the population of downtown Las Vegas has decreased by 5.3 percent.

Gentrification isn’t just displacing marginalized residents, it’s literally killing them.

The Center for Disease Control has studied the health effects of gentrification. The original residents of gentrified areas are at a higher risk for cancer, diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease; these vulnerable populations have shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates and are more likely to be exposed to toxic substances such as lead paint.

It’s those same downtown neighborhoods, however, that A’s president Dave Kaval wants to displace to build a Las Vegas stadium. But Kaval doesn’t care about that. After all, the people he’d be evicting aren’t who he wants to attend games anyway. Kaval, you see, wants, just as O’Malley did, a “better class of fans.”

Sheryl Ring is a consumer rights and civil rights attorney practicing in the Chicago, Illinois area. You can reach her on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl. This post is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, and does not create any attorney-client relationship.