We Need to Change How We Think About Gentrification

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By Lindsay M. Miller

Just before Thanksgiving 2017, Ink Coffee displayed a sidewalk board in the middle of the Five Points neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Five Points is a historically black neighborhood with many black and Latino residents that, like many other neighborhoods in Denver, has experienced rapid change as the city has expanded and welcomed thousands of new residents. The board read, “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014.”

Many neighborhood residents, activists, and community members responded in anger to the sign, calling it insensitive and charged it with making light of an important, and potentially harmful, process. Activists organized protests outside the store, and many residents committed to boycotting the chain of sixteen locations across Colorado.

As with many politically-loaded controversies, the company also received significant backlash on social media. By Thanksgiving Day, the founder had issued an apology via the company Facebook page, stating that, before the incident, he “did not fully appreciate the very real and troubling issue of gentrification.”

Gentrification is a political topic that is deeply emotional and personal to many. Also, when it happens, it happens very quickly; so many of us lack the social or historical context with which to root our opinions or suggest solutions. What’s more, it is a topic that, like so many others, integrates political ideology, economics, and legacies of systemic, de jure, and de facto racism.

For all these reasons, conversations about gentrification – whether informal or officially organized – tend to turn into ideological boxing matches. And like all discussions related to social change, the first step must not be to pick up our gloves. We need to examine the ring.

Though gentrification manifests itself on the local level, its causes are national and international. To address this challenge will require a better understanding of the context for this complicated process so that we can be thoughtful and realistic with our local, national, and even global solutions. 

What is Gentrification?

The term “gentrification” was originally coined in the 1960s by Ruth Glass to describe the transformation of working-class London neighborhoods into middle and upper-class neighborhoods. Colloquially, gentrification has come to mean “a process in which a neighborhood gains wealth and sees its population become more affluent, whiter, and younger.”1

Debates about gentrification tend to fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, people argue that gentrification is good for cities because it brings a higher tax base, revitalizes previously derelict neighborhoods, improves public safety, and attracts newcomers to boost the economy. On the other hand, there are those that argue that gentrification is bad, an evil made possible through decades of disinvestment of poor communities and the disenfranchisement of communities of color. Critics of gentrification point to displacement as the primary threat to low-income communities. Displacement is the process by which a neighborhood becomes too expensive for its long-term residents to live so that, over time, lower-income residents get priced out due to rising rents, property taxes, or general cost of living.

Gentrification in Context 

First, gentrification is not solely a result of individual actions. Just as public investments in things like highways and mortgages spurred suburbanization, public investments have encouraged re-urbanization.

One of the most important types of public investment that spurs gentrification is public transit. Neighborhoods near subways, light-rails, busses, and other forms of mass-transit attract affluent people in dense metros. This happens for two reasons: first, it allows people to exchange long car commutes for shorter commutes on public transit. Second, it allows relatively affluent people to ditch their cars and spend more money on rent. This has the effect of driving property values up in gentrifying neighborhoods because individuals moving in are able to spend a higher proportion of their already higher salaries on housing.

Other types of public investment that spur gentrification are investments in public schools, including the creation of new charter and magnet schools; investment in universities, colleges, and affiliated medical centers; new or improved parks and open space; and investments in waterfronts in formerly industrial cities that transform old warehouses and factories into restaurants, bars, workspaces, and housing.

Beyond understanding city-level policies that attract middle class people to various neighborhoods, it is important to understand the problem of gentrification in its global and national contexts. Even some of the best writers on gentrification, and the city leaders most dedicated to addressing it, often address gentrification as the result of city-level policies and, thus, view it as a problem that can be resolved by cities alone. This questionable perspective keeps the conversation away from much-needed debate about the role cities play in the global political economy and national policies that can address the problem on much wider scale.

Many economists argue that the United States and other advanced nations now have “post-industrial” economies. Urbanist Richard Florida calls the new economy the “creative economy;” economist Enrico Moretti calls it an “innovation” economy; managerial theorist Peter Drucker calls it a “knowledge economy.” Importantly, what all these terms have in common is that advanced countries rely primarily on the production of ideas, rather than physical goods, to grow.

Furthermore, while the U.S. relied on manufacturing in the first half of the twentieth century for economic strength, manufacturing has declined in this country and expanded to other countries that still rely on it for growth. Moretti writes:

Over the past fifty years, the U.S. economy has gradually shifted away from traditional manufacturing toward the creation of knowledge, ideas, and innovation. As traditional manufacturing jobs keep disappearing, the innovation sector keeps growing. It will soon be what manufacturing used to be in the 1950s and 1960s: America’s main engine of prosperity.2

Globally, manufacturing and the production of material goods has been transferred to industrializing economies in the developing world, while post-industrial economies like the United States, Japan, and most of Europe adopt innovation and knowledge-driven strategies for growth.

This global economic reconfiguration has produced a situation in advanced economies where income classes at the top and the bottom are growing, while the middle steadily shrinks. Moretti writes:

In general, job opportunities in the U.S. labor market as a whole have been concentrated in high-skill, high-wage jobs (professional, technical, and managerial occupations) and low-skill, low-wage jobs (food service, personal care, and security service occupations). Job opportunities for middle-wage, middle-skill white collar and blue-collar workers have declined sharply.3

Here, we see that U.S. jobs are most concentrated in the top and bottom rung of labor when measured by pay and skill. The stable jobs that supported a vast  middle class during much of the twentieth century are disappearing steadily, while the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy are now very low-wage service jobs—disproportionately occupied by women and people of color—and high-wage knowledge work occupied by mostly highly-educated whites.4 (However, in some metros, the non-white share of those occupying “creative” occupations exceeds 40 percent, with the most diverse “creative classes” along the coasts and the Texas/Mexico border.)5

From 1973-2011, the United States experienced many waves of economic growth. Yet, while the productivity of the U.S. workforce rose 80.1 percent, the wages of the average worker rose only 4.2 percent in the same period.6 Service work in hospitality, home health care, and other services are now the largest section of the U.S. economy, but this work remains very low-paid and typically comes with few or no benefits.

The federal minimum wage has remained so low—at $7.25 per hour—that less than 1 percent of full-time minimum wage workers can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in any state in the U.S. without being designated as “housing burdened.”7 Even states that have raised the minimum wage to $11 per hour, or companies like Target and Walmart that have done the same, have not raised it high enough to allow a family of two to acquire basic needs like housing, food, clothing, and healthcare.8 In 2017, an estimated 39.7 million Americans lived in poverty, as measured by estimates of the level of income needed to cover basic needs.9

The Realities of Gentrification and Urban Poverty 

Gentrification gets a lot of attention by news outlets, academics, and cultural critics. In 2015, journalist Peter Moskowitz wrote a book called How to Kill a City that rebuked local governments, for-profit developers, “hipsters,” and “yuppies” for the damage he saw sweeping across cities like New Orleans, New York, Detroit, and San Francisco. In 2014, filmmaker Spike Lee decried gentrification as little more than a modern take on colonialism, a “Christopher Columbus Syndrome” that propels whites to push people of color out of their homes. Many academics, too, have denounced gentrification as inherently harmful to low-income communities and robust economic development in general a threat to all but the wealthy.

While these interpretations ring true in many respects, the realities of gentrification are more complex. Displacement, for example, is not always the inevitable result of gentrification. Multiple studies by Lance Freeman, an urban planning professor at Columbia University, have suggested that direct displacement of long-term, low-income residents by wealthy in-movers happens relatively seldomly. Displacement tends to happen via the exclusion of low-income in-movers in gentrifying neighborhoods rather than via the direct displacement of low-income individuals already residing there.10

What’s more, Freeman’s book, There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, demonstrates that long-term residents’ views on gentrification can be quite ambivalent. Many long-term residents Freeman interviewed welcomed the improved access to services and amenities that come with investment, as long as that investment didn’t lead to displacement.11

Gentrification-fueled displacement is a hot topic with a myriad of political, historical, and social justice implications. Yet, our fascination—and often visceral reactions to it—detract attention from a much more pervasive problem facing cities: persistent, concentrated poverty. A 2014 study by City Observatory tracked neighborhood change in 51 metropolitan areas from 1970-2010 found that the number of high-poverty census tracts nearly tripled from 1970 to 2010, and 75 percent of 1970 high-poverty neighborhoods were still high-poverty four decades later. The likelihood that a neighborhood “rebounded” from high poverty to relatively low poverty (below 15 percent) was 1 in 20. Only 100,000 poor people in 1970 lived in neighborhoods that have since “rebounded” by 2010.  The number of high-poverty neighborhoods in urban areas has tripled, and the number of individuals living in high-poverty neighborhoods has doubled in the past four decades.12

The number of poor persons living in “fallen star” neighborhoods—those that were not high poverty in 1970 but now exceed the poverty rate of 30 percent—has increased by 1.25 million, while the poor population in rebounding neighborhoods has decreased by only $67,000. In other words, exponentially more poor people lived in neighborhoods that were newly poor rather than were displaced or pushed out of neighborhoods that gentrified in 2010.

In much of the same time period that gentrification has garnered attention, urban poverty has dramatically increased. Substantially more non-poor neighborhoods have become poor than poor neighborhoods have become wealthy.

We notice gentrification because it happens quickly and often drastically: a new building goes up, a park gets refurbished, new residents move in, or public spaces change. Yet, it seems we are so used to concentrated poverty that we no longer see it—or avoid it altogether.  While we debate the issue of gentrification, chronically poor neighborhoods slowly decay, and more and more neighborhoods slide downward and into poverty.

A myriad of studies has already demonstrated the deleterious effects of concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty is associated with higher crime, worse mental and physical health, low-quality public services, and lower economic mobility. It also disproportionately affects people of color: 75 percent of poor people living in urban neighborhoods with concentrated poverty were African-American or Latino in 2010.13 Concentrated poverty and segregation inflict a double-blow on communities of color, too often ensuring that opportunity is determined by one’s race, place, and income.

Growth Is Not the Problem; Equity Is 

In times of robust economic growth—and in places of rapid change—it can be easy to forget the struggle that comes from economic desolation. Growth seems so fast, so unpredictable, that we resist its externalities. We might even start to idealize times passed, desolate neighborhoods that don’t bear the burden of rising housing costs, or the de jure racial segregation of the 1950s and 1960s. We might think: segregation was real, but at least there wasn’t gentrification.

We start to fear growth itself, rather than pinpointing the real evil: inequitable distribution of the fruits of growth.

It’s easy to think that a problem that manifests in urban settings can be solved with urban solutions. Yet, gentrification is just one symptom of a greater problem: a political and economic environment in which even well-paid workers spend over half of their salaries on rent, allows almost two-thirds of our country’s workers to be paid unlivable wages, and does not guarantee, or even actively promote, access to necessities like healthcare or quality education.

Gentrification is a problem that can only be manifested where vast wealth inequality already exists. Perhaps it hits home so harshly because it forces all of us to look at our country’s legacy of economic and racial injustice square in the face: in our own neighborhoods, right outside our front doors.

In 1993, Peter Dreier wrote in the National Civic Review:

[N]o city can solve its social and economic problems on its own. Progressive municipal policies can make a difference, but they cannot address the root causes, or even most of the symptoms, of urban distress. Unless the federal government is committed to addressing America’s urban crisis—and finding common ground between cities, suburbs, and all Americans—the nation will continue to stagnate in the increasingly competitive global marketplace.14

Over twenty years later, this problem remains. City leaders must recognize that unless we address income and wealth inequality on the national level, cities will continue to be driven apart and low-income communities will continue to have little say in the future of their own neighborhoods.

What Can Cities Do?

Equitable development strategies are some of the most innovative strategies to address the negative consequences of rapid, urban growth. Equitable development, as defined by the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), is when, “quality of life outcomes, such as affordable housing, quality education, living wage employment, healthy environments, and transportation are equitably experienced by the people currently living and working in the neighborhood, as well as for new people moving in. Public and private investments, programs, and policies in neighborhoods meet the needs of residents, including communities of color, and reduce racial disparities, taking into account past history and current conditions.”15

Local equitable development strategies work to ensure that the benefits of growth are enjoyed by everyone, and that long-term residents can “prosper in place.” Equitable development is necessarily citizen-led and fueled by aggressive civic engagement. Some contemporary examples of equitable development are Seattle’s Community Cornerstones and Equitable Development Framework and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston.16

Another exceptional example of resident-driven equitable development is the Melrose Commons project in the South Bronx. There, residents and business owners came together in response to a proposed market-rate condominium and apartment development project. They formed the organization “We Stay/Nos Quedamos” in February of 1993 and developed a proposal for a new plan that included affordable housing and space for locally-owned businesses. In 1994, their plan for the project was approved by the city.

Other rapidly growing metros like Denver would do well to mirror these examples.

Conclusion

Gentrification is a highly contested issue, in part because of its stark visibility. Gentrification has the power to displace low-income families or, more often, prevent low-income families from moving into previously affordable neighborhoods.17 It also has the power to completely transform the cultural landscape of a neighborhood—changing everything from a neighborhood’s colloquial name, to the use of public space, to the small businesses that can locate there.

This controversial urban problem, however, should not detract attention from one of our less visible, yet growing urban problems: concentrated, chronic, urban poverty. It should also not blind us to the widespread problems facing American cities: what Richard Florida calls the “new urban crisis” that represents nothing less than “the crisis of modern capitalism, writ large.”18

Cities are at the nexus of the globalized, knowledge economy. To be competitive, cities must attract highly-educated, highly-skilled talent and encourage urbanized, technological, and creative growth. Yet, growth accompanied by vast economic inequality is not only unsustainable, it deepens the social problems created by policies past. Cities, and the nation, would do well to note that equality—and equitable development—are in all our best interest.

Lindsay M. Miller is a Robert H. Rawson, Jr. Fellow at the National Civic League. She holds a Master of Social Sciences in Social Justice and is completing her Master of Public Administration at the University of Colorado Denver. 

Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 59.

2 Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs (New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 47.

3 Ibid, 40.

4 Joan Entmacher, Lauren Frohlich, Katherine Gallagher Robbins, Emily Martin, and Liz Watson, Underpaid and Overloaded: Women in Low-Wage Jobs (Washington, D.C.: National Women’s Law Center, 2014), https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/final_nwlc_lowwagereport2014.pdf.

5 Richard Florida, “Mapping the Diversity of the Creative Class, CityLab, May 11, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/05/mapping-the-diversity-of-the-creative-class/516171/.

6 Hendrick Smith, Who Stole the American Dream? (New York: Random House, 2012), 73.

7 Ester Bloom, “Only 0.1 percent of US Minimum Wage Workers Can Afford a 1-Bedroom Apartment, Report Finds,” CNBC.com, July 14, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/14/only-point-1-percent-of-us-minimum-wage-workers-can-afford-a-1-bedroom.html.

8 Daniel B. Kline, “What Living on an $11 Minimum Wage Looks Like,” USA Today, Jan. 11, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/budget-and-spending/2018/01/11/what-living-on-an-11-minimum-wage-looks-like/109360122/.

9 “What is the Current Poverty Rate in the United States?” Center for Poverty Research, University of California, Davis, Oct. 15, 2018, https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-current-poverty-rate-united-states.

10 Lance Freeman, “Displacement or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” Urban Affairs Review 40, no. 4 (2005): 463-491.

11 Lance Freeman, There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2006).

12City Observatory website, accessed January 16, 2019 at http://cityobservatory.org/lost-in-place/

13 Ibid.

14 Peter Dreier, “Ray Flynn’s Legacy: American Cities and the Progressive Agenda,” National Civic Review 82, no. 4 (1993): 403.

15 Ryan Curren, Nora Liu, and Dwayne March, Equitable Development as a Tool to Advance Racial Equity (Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity, 2015), https://www.racialequityalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/GARE-Equitable-Development.pdf.

16 Ibid.

17 Freeman, “Displacement or Succession?”

18 Florida, The New Urban Crisis.

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