On Gentrification

There’s a big danger in attempting to trivialize, define away or ignore the issues surrounding gentrification. In the places where gentrification is happening, those issues are real and they are not going away.

Gentrification – its existence, importance and meaning – has been in the news a lot lately. To follow are a few meditations:

1)      Gentrification is not a myth, it can be simply defined as the rapid change of the socioeconomic status of a community from low to high. It is basically the inverse of “white flight,” but with class rather than race as the defining characteristic.

2)      The gentrification debate seems to center on two questions: is it a problem, and, if so, how big of a problem is it?

3)      This article in Slate is correct that, from the individual perspective, the effects of gentrification are not always negative and might be indistinguishable from other forces affecting low-income households. Low-income households move – and can even be said to be “displaced” – quite often and for a whole host of reasons. Gentrification-related changes (e.g. condo conversions) likely motivate only a small number of moves. And the community changes associated with gentrification can bring benefits to those people who remain.

4)      However, the Slate view is very atomistic and focused solely on economic outcomes. It minimizes the role of communities of people and the idea that those communities might have common interests and agency to affect those interests.

5)      If one looks at wealthy communities, the comparison with poor neighborhoods is stark. Wealthy individuals move for a variety of reasons, just as poor people do. But wealthy communities have all sorts of resources and tools for self-determination that low-income communities don’t – they can change laws, file litigation, make a stink in the media and do all sorts of other things to ensure that their communities remain exactly how they like them, regardless of the broader needs of society or the economy. And those are battles that higher-income communities usually win.

6)      Low-income neighborhoods, however, tend not to have those same powers. That powerlessness in the face of inexorable change is one perceived problem with gentrification.

7)      In an ideal world, all communities would have the same degree of ability to determine their collective future. But you need to be careful: no community deserves a veto over the kind of people who get to live there and the kinds of development that can occur. Down that road lies extreme NIMBYism and segregation.

8)      So, again in an ideal world, you’d probably want low-income communities to have a little more power to shape (not stop!) community change, and high-income communities, perhaps, to have a little less.

9)      The second issue is displacement – who is forced to move when gentrification happens and what happens to them once they do.

10)   In much, if not most of the country, displacement, while upsetting to an individual going through it, is not a serious societal problem. As long as there is affordable housing available that provides similar access and value as the housing being left, there is no crisis. If you’re worried about gentrification in, say, Akron or Detroit, you’re probably worried about the wrong thing.

11)   But in cities like Boston, which have serious underlying housing affordability issues, displacement is a huge problem, because there is no comparable, affordable place to be displaced to. People wind up “doubling up” with others to stay in the city or moving out to far less convenient and less accessible areas outside of the city. That’s bad!

12)   And while City Observatory is right that concentrated poverty remains a much bigger problem than gentrification in most places, the pace of urban change seems to be accelerating. In Boston, gentrification was long focused in just one or two neighborhoods at a time. Now there are probably a half-dozen candidates to be the “next Somerville” or “next Southie.” So it’s worth paying attention to.

13)   The fundamental solution is that we need more affordable, accessible housing in cities where gentrification pressures are rising. The main ways to restore affordability and reduce pressure on existing communities are to add housing stock quickly and expand access to existing housing stock through public transportation improvements.

14)   There’s a big danger, though, in attempting to trivialize, define away or ignore the issues surrounding gentrification. In the places where gentrification is happening, those issues are real and they are not going away. And one can expect more communities to be experiencing similar issues as the number of people desiring to live in cities increases. Only by engaging those issues fully and honestly can urbanists and others develop an effective response that serves the broader public interest while maintaining the tremendous momentum that is now building toward the development of vibrant, sustainable cities in the United States.   




Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.