Old build in Olde Towne East, Columbus, OH, an overpopulated, rundown area a decade or two back
The renovation or removal-and-replacement of older structures is a worldwide phenomenon. This report focuses on gentrification in the US, with local examples drawn mainly from Columbus, OH.
At its most innocent, gentrification means ‘fixing up neighborhoods and making them attractive,’ the kind of place ‘the gentry’ would like to live. Who can argue with that?
Certainly, not the developers rebuilding whole neighborhoods, often with tax rebates as incentives. Nor the bankers. Nor can the architects, construction workers, materials suppliers and truckers needed for the job. Nor the handymen who rehab older homes. The landscapers. The furniture and appliance merchants. The nearby eateries that feed all this activity. Not the passing motorists who note how satisfying it is to see that run-down area get a new lease on life. And certainly not the politicians who approve the plans and whose campaigns benefit from grateful donors.
In fact, not too many people object to gentrification, even the development-driven kind, apart from the original residents who are uprooted from familiar homes or who, if they manage to stay on, have to adjust to change and new neighbors. The folks who appreciate heirloom architecture, about to be razed for that new condo array, aren’t too happy. And then there those activists who connect the dots.
What is Gentrification?
If you had the money, which would you live in? To each his/her own taste in ‘castles’.
Since 1964, when the term was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass, gentrification has had a mixed reputation. In Glass’s model, middle and upper-middle class people begin to move into a lower-income neighborhood to take advantage of more economical housing. At this point, gentrification can actually be good for all. Businesses get a boost; homes get renovated; sidewalks are improved. Local residents may find more job opportunities as business picks up. So they, in turn, can improve their own homes.
In this scenario, property values rise gradually. The tax base improves and with it city services and schools. Higher values mean some original residents can sell their home at a profit. They also mean some less fortunate residents can’t keep up with increasing rent or taxes. Those who find it too pricey, begin to move out. Others move in. But the change is gradual and usually stable. Some studies of such gradual change, suggest that it can have a positive effect in raising incomes and satisfaction for those who stay on.
Another indicator may be found in a study of gentrification in New York City in the 1990’s using data collected as part of the city’s rent regulation policy. Unsurprisingly, it found that low-income households in the gentrifying neighborhoods were less likely to move than low-income households in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.
Subdivided over the years into over-stuffed flats in run down, derelict buildings. (photo: Library of Congress)
Since the early 2000’s, the process has heated up. Development-driven, it often means total replacement of existing stock with luxury housing. The sudden rise in housing costs pushes out the original residents. Concerns over displacement of vulnerable lower-income or elderly people make the news, and the pejorative view of gentrification becomes a journalistic meme, especially if associated with racial change.
In “The Pros and Cons of Gentrification,” Vanishing New York blogger, Jeremiah Moss describes hyper-gentrification: “… the change comes from city government in collaboration with large corporations. Widespread transformation is intentional, massive and swift, resulting in a completely sanitized city filled with brand-name mega-developments built for the luxury class. The poor, working and middle classes are pushed out, along with artists, and the city goes stale. Quoting urban scholar Neil Smith, Moss calls it “a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods.”
A common theme is the older, predominantly Black neighborhood torn apart, replaced by coffee shops and chain bookstores for yuppies. This type of change, like Urban Renewal of the 1960’s, may involve bulldozing to make room for the new-build. Or it may be refurbishing of older architecture, subdivided over the years into over-stuffed flats and run down, derelict.
Faced with the ‘bomb crater’ vacant lots left by Urban Renewal when funding ran out, city officials looked for ways to reclaim the tracts. Property value fell until investors saw prospects for a good return, with a little tax break. As word of alternative means spread, hyper-gentrification took off. A 2013 Cleveland Federal Reserve report mapped the top-ranked US cities for gentrification.
Hyper-gentrification is also accomplished through “apartment flipping,” where management companies take over a property, evict the current tenants, do some cursory repairs, and either raise rents for a target market, e.g. university students, or sell the building to another landlord. The evicted lower-income tenants are left to fend. In one instance, in San Francisco, apartment owners were offered a flat $10,000 for their flats. Take it or leave it. The tenants, this time, responded by organizing and using digital mapping to track their and others’ bad landlords.
Hyper-gentrification attracts developers, as it requires large-scale investment. It secures the backing of city hall, as higher rents and more profitable businesses mean higher revenues to operate city services. At least, that’s how development schemes are sold to the public. The tax incentives are billed as ways developers can reduce rents, making ‘affordable housing’ possible.
Profit Motive vs Public Good
Luxury condos at the junction of German Village and Olde Towne East, Parsons Av and Livingston, Columbus, leasing to medical professionals at Nationwide Children’s Hospital campus across the street.
The need for investor groups – frequently self-billed as ‘partners’ – brings well-off businessmen in touch with each other. Their contact may already be established through civic organizations, charitable efforts, or the golf club. Now in contact with the technocrats in public offices, they share information on trends, loans, and government grants. And how to tap into them. A look at the 2016 EPA webinar with grant-awarded stakeholders in its Brownfields Program, Area Wide Plans (BF AWP) gives some insight both in how information is shared, as well as the wisdom of a well-planned program with oversight and accountability. The BF program is designed to facilitate restoration and reuse of previously contaminated sites. Laudable, watchable.
That people with the necessary financial ability and ‘contacts’ join together to promote a potentially profitable project does not mean they are ‘only in it for the money.’ Granted, some are, but, many express a desire to help their community. It is not unusual for a successful person to have grown up in an area targeted for gentrification and to be thrilled to ‘help make something of my old turf.’
When profit outstrips goodwill as the motivation, investors may want to be persuaded and may play coy for ‘incentives’ in the form of tax reductions. The city may not collect all the revenues it anticipated, but some is better than none. And, politicians become mindful of the contributions developers may offer their campaigns -- an unfortunate aspect of the money-in-politics characteristic of current US elections.
Who does gentrification hurt and how?
Pavey Sq, OSU campus area – Apartment block in rear was to have been 11 storys high, attached to just facades of homes on High St. Neighbors objected vociferously.
The ways in which this abrupt change is a new facet of gentrification, differing from the gradual shifts noted in the last century, is the subject of more recent studies. Justin Feldman, in Harvard - Shorenstein Center’s resource for journalists, notes that “Since the term appeared in the lexicon, scholars have debated both its precise meaning and the phenomenon’s effects on society — particularly whether the process harms or benefits the original residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.” The site lists a number of studies, with more recent ones employing more cross-correlations to make sense of complex interrelationships.
Statistics on crime are not uniformly kept in all jurisdictions, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not been funded to research gun crimes for over a decade. One possible trend noted in a Duke University paper, however, is that in gentrified areas murder and bodily injury may drop per capita while property crimes increase. Or vice versa, say others. The data are not well enough articulated to show tensions and crimes before, during and after gentrification.
CDC has made some statements on the health aspects of gentrification. On its webpage Health Effects of Gentrification, it notes that “Several factors create disparities in a community’s health. Examples include socioeconomic status, land use/the built environment, race/ethnicity, and environmental injustice. In addition, displacement has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations, including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.”
CDC continues, pointing out that “vulnerable populations typically have shorter life expectancy; higher cancer rates; more birth defects; greater infant mortality; and higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease” as well as the likelihood of an “unequal share of residential exposure to hazardous substances such as lead paint.” This CDC webpage is currently archived (for further study and rewriting?).
In her 2014 paper for Stanford University, “How Gentrification in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation,” Jackelyn Hwang uses updated algorithms to assess her thesis. At pains to point out differences in outcomes, she looks at the effect of incoming groups. Asian immigrants, for example, tend to increase the diversity and income level of an area they gentrify. Hispanic immigrants do not raise the income level, ergo do not gentrify. White gentrifiers tend to decrease diversity, while income levels rise. It appears that different ethnic groups feel safe and welcome where Asian immigrants have improved the area, while in areas gentrified by Whites, Blacks may only feel safe, but not welcome.
Hwang concludes, “In many of America’s cities, civic leaders have pinned hopes for urban revitalization on gentrification and efforts to attract immigrants. But facts on the ground show that they need to weigh the probability that these forms of urban change can further isolate poor blacks and Latinos and – contrary to media claims – actually increase racial segregation and inequality.
The studies continue, the algorithms improve, but the jury is still out. The sense of loss and anger among those displaced, however, is no less real, no matter how the change is quantified. But, ultimately, the whole community, the whole society, is hurt when changes result in the same injustices and lack of diversity that existed before.
Whose neighborhood is this, anyway?