There have been a ton of “gentrification is actually a good thing” think pieces going around, and I’ve been reading them with interest.
First, let’s summarize— It’s pretty clear America’s relationship with cities is changing, especially in terms of close-in inner-city neighborhoods. Places most media outlets and suburban folks not long ago whispered were dangerous and blighted are now experiencing a resurgence in the popular imagination, leading to very real economic and demographic changes.
One of these changes is so-called “gentrification,” a term that is not that useful, as descriptors go, but that basically indicates the process of often-neglected low-income neighborhoods becoming desirable, and thus, pricey. Critics charge that gentrification drives low-income folks from their neighborhoods.
Wrapped up in the discussion of “gentrification” (which really begs a better word for wider-scale shifts happening beyond the neighborhood-level change the term suggests) are a ton of racial, class, and political implications that don’t really get much attention.
A lot of articles recently have talked about how A. gentrification doesn’t drive people out of their neighborhoods or how B. maybe it does, but it’s still an overall good thing.
These articles usually lean on the same few studies. Pieces saying that gentrification isn’t driving people out of their neighborhoods cite studies like this one, which claims to show that:
"Overall, we find that rather than dislocating non-white households, gentrification creates neighborhoods that are attractive to middle-class minority households, particularly those with children or with elderly householders. Furthermore, there is evidence that gentrification may even increase incomes for these same households."
Just two problems. First, opponents of gentrification are generally worried first and foremost about low-income residents of the neighborhoods in question— middle-class households of whatever race aren’t the main issue here. Which leads us to the second problem with studies like this. Buried somewhere in the research, they have some serious disclaimers on what they know about the low-income and their displacement.
When describing how they’ve arrived at the conclusion that gentrification doesn’t displace low-income people, the authors still show that median household incomes are going up in the neighborhoods compared to those where gentrification doesn’t take place. But they explain that data this way:
"Such a positive effect of gentrification could result from two very different causes. One is that in gentrifying neighborhoods, the households in a particular cohort that migrate out are disproportionately low-income compared to the same cohort leaving non-gentrifying neighborhoods. The other explanation is that gentrification causes an increase in family income in that demographic group, for example by improving employment opportunities in the local area. Unfortunately, there is no way to formally test between these two interpretations with the data at hand.”
In other words, “maybe incomes are rising in gentrifying neighborhoods partly because the poorest residents are moving out. Or maybe it’s because existing resident are somehow getting wealthier as more middle and high-income people move in. We’re going to assume it’s the latter, but we have no way to prove that.”
That’s a pretty shaky foundation on which to claim "Gentrification Isn’t Bad for the Poor."
Other studies acknowledge that some low-income people are being displaced from increasingly expensive neighborhoods, nodding to quantitatively provable rises in rental and home prices, for instance, but say there are benefits that make up for this.
One study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that people displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods were likely to see an 8 to 12 point bump in their credit ratings. That sounds great, and has been used as evidence that gentrification helps the poor.
But you only have to see an internet pop-up ad to realize credit scores are based on a scale that goes past 900, and I’m not sure a few extra points makes up for watching your neighborhood change drastically, often with no input from you and your fellow residents, and often in a way that makes it too expensive to continue living there. But hey, at least your credit score went up 1.5 percent.
Some articles slip the surly bonds of journalism entirely and go somewhere uglier and more nonsensical. This one from Vice trumpets, “Black People in Portland Said No to a Trader Joe’s to Keep White People from Moving In.”
Except actually, it wasn’t “black people,” it was a very well-organized community group representing residents of the neighborhood. And they didn’t block Trader Joe’s because “white people might move in.” Trader Joe’s voluntarily decided not to move in because the community group expressed serious concerns over the development, which they felt would drive up rents and property taxes without benefiting people living there— people who mostly happen to be black folks.
The store was to be built on public land worth $3 million that many in the community were hoping would host public affordable housing. The city sold the land for just $500,000 to an out of state developer so they could make money bringing in an out of state chain store.
When upper middle class hipsters block a Wal-Mart, it’s supporting local business. But when a community organization from a predominantly black neighborhood— one that has historically experienced the short end of the stick when it comes to economic development, land issues and the like— block a Trader Joe’s, it’s racism.
Still, the article (written by a person of color, I know) treats us to a delightful explanation of the economic benefits of gentrification, one that is somehow both condescending and super-simplified to the point of being inaccurate.
The article and the local TV news clip that it links to highlight serious failings in the media when it comes to talking about gentrification. One is the completely un-nuanced treatment of race as something divorced from class concerns, issues of neighborhood autonomy, and other, more complicated questions. Media tends to forget that issues in local “black communities” or “Hispanic communities” etc. are often as much about the dynamics of a geographically, economically, or otherwise distinct group as they are about solidarity as some homogenous racial construct. It’s from this diverse confluence of interests, one that in some communities clearly bridges across racial lines, that opposition to gentrification emerges.
Further, all the articles discussed miss something incredibly important— the issue of community sovereignty over neighborhoods. In low income communities, especially minority communities that have been shuffled around and neglected due to segregation, red-lining, urban renewal, white flight, and now the sudden hipness of their “gritty” neighborhoods, the memory of past mistreatment and loss of community is still strong and raw. Rapid redevelopment of low-income neighborhoods without the consent and active participation of those in the community who have lived there longest wrests control once again from the hands of those who have historically had it least and deserve it most.
Meanwhile, this country is facing a very related crisis in its supply of affordable housing. Nationwide, there are over 8 million more low-income individuals or families than there are affordable housing units in which they can live. That’s just 29 units for everyone 100 people who need affordable housing. That means many folks are living in housing that costs more than they can afford, are living places far from employment/families/etc., or are functionally homeless.
This disparity is especially bad in America’s inner cities, and it takes a pretty big leap of disengenuousness not to put two and two together and see that we’re dealing with a shift in where poor people are able to live, and how increased demand for city living by people of higher incomes fuels that.
Here in DC, more than 8,000 affordable housing units have been lost in the past decade— likely to gentrification, experts at the Urban Institute say— and there are 44 affordable units for everyone 100 people who need them. And the nation’s capitol is one of the better cities.
In Cincinnati and Austin, where I’ve reported on issues of affordable housing and community redevelopment, things are more dire. Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is, has 37 affordable units for every 100 people who need them. In 2006, it had 40, and in 2000, it had 46. Austin has just 13 units per 100 people.
This map by the Urban Institute shows where affordable housing is most endangered. You can see America’s major urban areas changing from blue and green (affordable) to yellow and orange (least affordable) over the last decade and a half.
When I read these think pieces proclaiming that gentrification is such a great thing, and improving the lives of poor people, I think back to all the folks I’ve interviewed who have had to move out of their homes in the inner cities or had to watch their relatives go to far-flung suburbs or who have seen their neighborhoods change so much in just a few years they don’t feel welcome there any more. I think about all the localized community planning efforts residents hosted and attended that municipalities and developers disregarded in their race to make the most profitable or tax-base heavy developments possible.
The bottom line, most times at least, is that these municipalities and developers are looking solely at a balance sheet and not the people they’re supposed to be serving. Being an American municipality in our privatizing 21st Century is a survival of the fittest proposition contingent on marketing and selling what was once in the public sphere. Cities desperate to cash in on the “creative class” revolution and equally desperate to shore up a tax base devastated by years of shrinking populations, increased expenditures, or both look to lure more well-heeled new residents. Developers look to cash in on the increasing hipness of inner city neighborhoods. In both cases, long term residents are ignored, and then told others know what’s best for them.
Now we have journalists cherry picking a few thin pieces of evidence and telling us the same. I dunno man, I just have a lot of questions about what they’re saying.