THE MOMENT YOU BRING UP PLANS to rebuild less-favorable parts of the inner city with new housing, you inevitably raise the hackles of neighbors opposed to expansionism, displacement, and, worst of all, gentrification—more-affluent elites buying into a neighborhood, raising property values and home prices for all.
But critics often share a misunderstanding of what actually happens in a gentrifying community. They don't see that, despite bringing significant change to the social and economic fabric of the community, the process of gentrification will result in positive, tangible benefits.
Consider, for example, the infamous Manhattan neighborhood Harlem. One would think, for a community perennially wracked with poverty, disenfranchisement, and despair, any promise of urban renewal would be embraced.
Shared Gain But a recent proposal by Columbia University to build a new section of its campus, including housing, in an industrial section of Harlem unleashed a zeal to protect current residents from the “invisible hand” of change. Protesters, as they have in numerous older urban cores undergoing change, warn of a skewed housing market and evaporating affordability. Yet the reality is that gentrification does not create scarcity. Rather, it offers an upgrade in the quality of life for all who live in the neighborhood and serves as a catalyst for overall growth and development.
How? Market conditions that encourage the building of new housing have a two-pronged benefit for the community: As new housing is created and neighborhood residents who had been renters become owners of the new units, their old housing—much of it rental—is freed up for a whole new group of renters. Those renters can either move from less desirable units in the area (freeing up more units) or come into the neighborhood for the first time. Thus, gentrification, by making a community attractive to investors, actually enables many renters to move up the housing ladder into presumably better apartments without displacing current tenants.
Jacob L. Vigdor, professor of public policy studies at Duke University, noted that even the construction of new housing for high-income residents, such as a luxury building with 100 condominiums, benefits the overall community. “Because if we don't build those condos,” he observes, “where are the people who were going to live there going to live? They're going to go to a mixed-income neighborhood and occupy units there that could have been occupied by someone lower down the economic ladder.”
Myths Of Heritage Another major concern for neighborhood advocates is gentrification's effect on the racial or sociological character of a neighborhood. They aspire to preserve an idealized community from another era.
Vigdor dismisses this obstructionist fantasy, calling it the “romanticized view [that] a neighborhood is where people are born [and] live their entire lives.” And returning to our example of Harlem, the community for which people wistfully yearn has been gone for some 70 or 80 years. It is not, thankfully, the Harlem of the 1990s, when sociopathic teenagers strangled the community with crack use, crime, and thuggery. It is not the Harlem of massive housing projects and a plummeting quality of services, resources, and lifestyle.
Is the gentrification of older cities, changing the model from housing for the poor to housing for middle- and upper-income groups, a good thing? Research shows it is, particularly since high concentrations of housing for the poor, a “monoculture of poverty,” serves as a permanent barrier to neighborhood growth. “Housing projects radiate dysfunction and social problems outward,” says housing expert Howard Husock, director of the Manhattan Institute's Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, “damaging local businesses and neighborhood property values. They hurt cities by inhibiting or even preventing these rundown areas from coming back to life by attracting higher-income homesteaders and new business investment.” For decades, cities have zoned whole areas to be public housing forever, Husock says, “shutting out in perpetuity the constant recycling of property that helps dynamic cities generate new wealth and opportunity for rich and poor alike.”
Squeezed Out? Related to the misunderstanding about gentrification is the mistaken notion that it necessarily causes displacement of existing residents, usually tenants of modest means forced out by the influx of wealthier tenants. But studies suggest that, in any five-year period, populations change on their own, that almost half of the tenants in a given neighborhood will move on their own—regardless of what economic factors are affecting the community at the time.
So “the typical image that people have in their minds ... that people are being thrown out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods” is false, says Vigdor. In fact, the flurry of activity in real estate markets reflects housing creation, not displacement, since, as Vigdor notes, “there is usually some degree of vacancy and rehabbing of buildings that weren't previously inhabitable.”
“Low-income households actually seem less likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods than from other communities,” says Frank Braconi, co-author of a similar research project, the New York gentrification study by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of New York.
It may be convenient for community leaders, student groups, and activists to make a villain out of gentrification, as their way of fearing a future in which their advocacy for the chronic poor is rendered irrelevant by the rising tide of economic growth. In fact, the disingenuous cries for the preservation of the present inner-city communities by activists and some neighborhood leaders have to be looked upon as a way of preserving their own influence over the business of poverty, oppression, and victimhood.
What benefit is there in impeding a massive and wide-reaching improvement of the entire economic and social structure of a community? Isn't this precisely what neighborhood leaders have called for since the Great Society? Isn't this the end result they would all wish for their disenfranchised constituents? Rather than condemn a neighborhood such as Harlem to a state of perpetual stagnation—defined by broad tracts of public housing and widespread poverty—wouldn't a new model of economic growth hold more promise?
That is the very question that such tenants' groups, activists, and community leaders should consider before they condemn—without restraint—any wide-ranging, comprehensive upgrading in the social and economic conditions of American cities. They can continue to mistakenly characterize gentrification as a perverse process of social and economic Darwinism, or they can make an honest assessment about the critical and substantive benefits realized by all residents of a community undergoing positive change: jobs, better municipal services, decent places to live, thriving commerce, and the hope that a whole community can start stepping out of poverty once and for all.
Richard Cravatts, Ph.D., is currently a lecturer in marketing and writing at Boston University. He writes frequently about social policy, higher education, constitutional law, culture and media, and national housing issues.