Neighborhood Change

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

Even where gentrification is only a distant threat (or hope, depending on your perspective) it looms large in any discussion of neighborhood change.

North Charleston CC BY-SA

Is there a way to prevent gentrification?

North Charleston

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 OK 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 Mallach 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 Mallach 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? 

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