It’s Not Either/Or: Neighborhood Improvement Can Prevent Gentrification

Posted by Rick Jacobus on July 18, 2013

Alan Mallach’s blog post, "Hung Up on Gentrification? Don’t Be" seems to have struck a familiar nerve.

Certainly, gentrification is one of the most vexing issues facing community development practitioners. Even where gentrification is only a distant threat (or hope, depending on your perspective) it looms large in any discussion of neighborhood change. And the way most people talk and think about it seems to create a black hole of self-doubt from which no realistic strategy for neighborhood improvement can escape. 

The paralyzing thinking goes like this: We want to improve lower-income neighborhoods to make them better places for the people who live there now but anything we do to make them better places will inevitably make people with more money want to live there and this will inevitably drive up rents and prices and displace the current residents, harming the people we set out to help (or, in many cases, harming the very people responsible for making the neighborhood better through years of hard work) and rewarding people who drop in at the last minute to displace them.

Once you recognize this dynamic, it is very hard to talk yourself into wholeheartedly backing any kind of action. It seems wrong to leave distressed communities to rot but it also seems wrong to turn them around. Sadly, the most common response is to try to find strategies that improve things, but not too much. We feel okay about working toward improvement as long as we don’t really expect to succeed.

Luckily, this paradox is built on a total misunderstanding of how neighborhood change actually happens.

I suspect that what Alan dismisses as “social ownership” may actually be one key to overcoming this misunderstanding.

People tend to talk as if all neighborhoods fell along a single continuum from worse to better. But, in reality, there is more than one kind of better. My experience has been that residents of low-income communities almost universally want their neighborhoods to be “cleaner” and “safer” and to have more stores even though they generally also recognize that those changes will eventually lead to higher rents. However, they generally really don’t want their neighborhoods to become “fancy”, “flashy”, “hip” or “trendy.”

While it is common to worry about gentrification whenever rents rise, gentrification seems to happen most dramatically in neighborhoods where rents fall creating an opportunity for speculators to “flip” an area. While it sometimes happens that more moderate- and mixed-income, working-class neighborhoods become “hip”, it is far less common because middle-income families simply outbid the speculators and hipsters that form the leading wedge of gentrification. So for a lower-income community, “improvements” that make the place more attractive to slightly higher-income households may actually provide the most promising defense against gentrification.

What is so promising about a program like the one Alan proposes, which encourages homebuyers to invest in lower-income neighborhoods along with incremental and sustained investment in things like commercial revitalization, is that these things won’t dramatically change the social character of a neighborhood overnight. And that means that the people who will choose to move in will be more likely to be people who are comfortable with the existing character of the neighborhood.

This kind of gradual, sustained, and smaller-scale improvement leads to a broader but still contiguous income mix. By contrast, a large-scale investment in luxury lofts might also make the neighborhood more “mixed income” but the bi-polar income mix (high end and low end with no middle) is unsustainable; one group is bound to loose and we all know which one. Luckily the improvements that attract moderate-income working families and the businesses that serve them are very different than the ones that attract upper-income residents.

Either kind of change will inevitably increase rents beyond some residents’ means. Either kind of change requires the kinds of counterbalancing public investment in preservation of long-term affordable housing that Alan references. But, a gradual influx of moderate-income homebuyers creates displacement at a scale that is closer to the scale of our affordable housing resources, while flipping a neighborhood to high end housing displaces people faster and makes the gap between market prices and what is affordable so great that it is simply ridiculous to discuss “affordable housing” as an appropriate response.

When we see any kind of improvement as equivalent to gentrification we get stuck. We need a different definition of gentrification. My suggestion is that gentrification is “when your neighborhood becomes someone else’s neighborhood.”  That leaves room for “improvement” to mean “when your neighborhood becomes a better version of your neighborhood.”

What is gentrification, anyway? Tell us your thoughts in this survey.

(Photo by North Charleston CC BY-SA)

About the author more »

Rick Jacobus is director of the Cornerstone Partnership, a peer network for homeownership programs that preserve long-term affordability and community stability.

COMMENTS

Matt Korner
20 Jul 13, 8:59 pm

The term, “gentrification,” should probably be retired because it suggests a change in the residents of existing housing stock.

The goal is greater income diversity, and it’s achieved in a more exclusively low-income area without creating displacement by increasing the number of dwelling units.

This relationship between densification and socioeconomic integration has to be kept at the forefront of the discussion.

Issues with a lack of affordable housing, in general, arise from a lack of walkable and mixed-use urban places, in general, so that any marginal improvement in a neighborhood can create an upward spiral of rising land values that would be tempered if we simply had a larger supply of sufficiently-desirable places.

jerry jian
23 Jul 13, 8:56 am

Agree with Matt’s comments and add the need for looking at the systematic issues of economic disparity and working on its causes so we can also rebuild the middle class!

Alfred Worley
23 Jul 13, 10:13 am

As a nonprofit community economic development practitioner, I addressed income inequality and residential segregation in the pre-planning phase of neighborhood redevelopment agenda in the neighborhoods of West Harlem. The equity-based approaches employed to attract higher income people with the consequent effects of the rich, poor, and middle-class families finding themselves living side-by-side, shopping at the same neighborhood supermarkets and relying on the same public transit system, while raising income on adjacent blocks without existing residents being displaced.

Bob Van Meter
23 Jul 13, 10:43 am

I am not sure there is a bright line between the small scale improvements and the large scale transformational projects.  The South End of Boston is an example of a neighborhood with a missing middle but that has occured over thirty to forty years and most of the developments that occured were small scale.  Still 40% of the housing in the South End is income restricted affordable housing and the resulting neighborhood is much more diverse and interesting than neighboring Back Bay or Beacon Hill without any affordable housing to speak of and it does seem relatively stable.

Chris Tomlin
23 Jul 13, 3:29 pm

This really is a simple problem to address when you realize the reality of the situation, which is easy to sum up.
GENTRIFICATION.
IS.
GOOD.
Taking a crappy neighborhood and turning it into a good neighborhood is beneficial, an improvement, an enhancement,  a desirable outcome. 
Neighborhood improvement brings a safer environment for families and children.  It can also bring increased opportunity for new businesses and new jobs.  A neighborhood exclusively inhabited by criminals and the unemployed or underemployed offers no chance at improvement or advancement for the people who live there.  A cleaned up, or partly cleaned up neighborhood can become a place where businesses will want to do business, retailers will want to set up shop, and employers will want to employ in a virtuous cycle that improves life for all productive citizens who live there. 
How do you solve the problem of gentrification?
Step 1:  Realize that it’s NOT a problem.

Darren Toth
26 Jul 13, 3:48 pm

I just want to counter that I do not believe that Gentrification is Good, period, end of story. The comment Chris Tomlin made only works if Neighborhoods are on a scale of good and bad, as the Author of the article pointed out. I get that crime is a problem, but building nicer houses that the criminals can rob while upping property taxes on individuals who have struggled their whole lives to maintain staying in their homes. The comment assumes people who can afford more care more, and therefore make better neighbors. It simply is not true.

Wendy McCaig
29 Jul 13, 8:53 pm

When I was at Inhabit we had this discussion at our lunch round table and one of the wise gentlemen shared that studies have shown that if the revitalization efforts are driven by an outside force (developers, city officials, investors, re-locators) the resulting neighborhood looks like the force driving the development.  When the revitalization is orchestrated by the low income residents themselves who were the original inhabitants, the transformed neighborhood looks like a healthier version of the original neighborhood.  That is why I think asset based approaches are superior to other forms of community development because it reminds us to value what is already there instead of looking to outside groups to fix what is broken.

Thanks for inviting this very important conversation.  I still have a lot to learn and as my family and I prepare to move into a low-income neighborhood this question has been heavy on my heart.

Matthew Steele
30 Jul 13, 1:47 pm

The article is a great response and focuses on some important nuance- though I think it is a little too idealistic a framing.
I see dichotomous development patterns occurring because of classicism and racism, not strictly relating to the perceived quality of a neighborhood and who the services present cater to.
A dis-invested community, in our more urban times, is only dis-invested because of people not wanting to cross racial and class lines. The value of the area in an urban context is veiled by class and race based fears,and when those alleviate, for what ever reason, including the influx of gays, and less racist young people, then the general populace realize the value inherent in the place. This stirs an extreme shift of interest from the upper classes. my point being the author of this article sees gentrification as a function of the quality of housing and or cultural associations, rather than that of class and racial identity frameworks.

H.W.
28 Sep 13, 1:16 am

I don’t under stand why gentrification is always bad. As a person forced to move into one of those questionable neighborhoods I find it great. I moved into a neighborhood sporting prostitutes on the corners and dope fiends in the alleys. I paid more for a remodeled apartment that didn’t have rats and had was close to public transportation. Go me, I traded safety for a decent housing option. In theory, my willingness to pay more will drive out my low income neighbors. In reality, I made people who came to look at my neighboring apartments feel safe. What are my options? I move to an affordable area where I literally run the risk of being stabbed everyday and I’m the devil of gentrification?! One area gets more expensive, people move out- it happens. I got moved out. Should I feel bad that the guy passed out with a needle in his arm doesn’t have a comfy abandoned house to sleep in? The answer is no. Should the government feel bad they turn a blind eye to the people in need left in the streets? The answer is yes. There are bigger problems then hipsters moving in.

kaythegardener
22 Feb 14, 1:58 am

Why is it always assumed that it is only younger families, or those with children, that face displacement in gentrication??
What about older retired citizens??
Many govt planners seem to think that a single room, with common cooking, bathing & laundry facilities (“elder dorms”) is good enough for low-income solo seniors or couples, despite what their needs or preferences are…

EB
2 Apr 14, 1:25 pm

I just moved to a new area where I was feeling guilty of acting as a gentrifier but when I look around there are definitive improvements around the area that impact long term residents just as much as us. In all honesty it’s over-educated people like myself and my boyfriend who will actually fight for more of these improvements since we have the resources to do so. The neighborhood crime rates have dropped, there are new cooperatives and infrastructure, and healthier food options. Improvements to communities are a great thing, what seems needed is to figure out ways to make leaving units affordable not financial suicide for building owners.

One obvious way touched on in this article is the preservation of existing buildings themselves, new units are inevitably more expensive. When new development comes at the cost of lost long term housing options for great numbers of people it’s not worth it, I think our cities need to grasp that concept.

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