2012 ASPS

Why is Gentrification a Problem?

Center for Creative Community Development (C3D), Williams College: Stephen Sheppard

The authors describe the qualitative economic impacts of cultural arts organizations, and track the impact of the social networks of select LINC Space for Change grantees. They suggest that the problems of gentrification are found less in the diminished value of housing stock or the displacement of individuals and families, and more in the loss of incentives for community building and civic engagement. In addition to this white paper, the accompanying suite of materials includes Visitor Maps, Economic Impact Models, and Social Network Analyses.
Social and political concern with gentrification has waxed and waned several times since the term was first coined in 1964 to describe the movement of middle class families into the former working-class neighborhoods of London. Since then the phenomenon has been a source of debate for both scholars and policy makers in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Some have viewed it as either a beneficial or at worst neutral undoing of the “white flight” abandonment of central city neighborhoods that took place in many cities during the period from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s. Perhaps this gentrification would return some wealth, tax base and modicum of affluence to urban neighborhoods that had been hard hit by loss of businesses, jobs and tax-payers.

One other perspective perhaps deserves separate mention. This is that gentrification may or may not be unfortunate for the original or displaced residents, but that it is a “natural” or even “organic” part of urban development. Thus Brueckner and Rosenthal (2009) see gentrification as a natural consequence of the process of aging with a durable housing stock, and present a model that has gentrification as an outcome expected to eventually take place in all cities. A related perspective might accept that gentrification has some adverse consequences, but that policies designed to prevent it altogether would be worse—providing a sort of urban apartheid in which economic classes or ethnic subgroups have particular neighborhoods to which they are entitled. From this, it is feared, it is a short step to say that these are the neighborhoods to which they should be restricted.

In this paper we argue that by focusing on the individuals who are displaced from the neighborhoods by gentrification and sometimes only on the displaced poor, analysts have been considering the wrong problem and looking for harm in the wrong places. A more interesting consideration of gentrification looks at it as a problem for the neighborhoods and communities that are potentially subject to it, rather than the individual poor households that reside in or might move away from those areas.

In order to test the hypothesis that increasing turnover or risk of displacement in the housing market is associated with different levels of community improvement actions, we must identify a source of data that is widely available for US communities and provides a plausible measure of such actions. Since “community improvement actions” can include everything ranging from informally organized neighborhood cleanup crews up to large community development organizations and public agencies with budgets in the millions of dollars, finding systematic and reasonably accurate measurements of these activities is likely to be a problem.

In the introduction to this paper, we advanced the hypothesis that a more interesting consideration of gentrification looks at it as a problem for the neighborhoods and communities that are potentially subject to gentrification, rather than the individual poor households that reside in or might move away from areas subject to gentrification. The risk of displacement from gentrification can change the incentives of residents to engage in any of the variety of activities that can improve a community. The risk of displacement that is characteristic of gentrification imposes a social cost on the neighborhood. This cost is borne by the community as a whole and not by only those persons who are poor or those who are displaced.

Hopefully these findings can also improve our general understanding of how cities function and how urban political processes work. One economist charged with discussing Vigdor’s 2002 paper, “Does Gentrification Harm the Poor?” began his remarks with “I have always been skeptical of gentrification’s critics. The way some of them carry on….” This type of sentiment and reaction to the critics of gentrification is not atypical, but it seems a shame to stop with the skepticism, rather than proceed to ask why so many are critical and why they sometimes succeed in blocking development seen as contributing to gentrification? In the context of the arguments advanced and supported above, we can view the critics as endeavoring to make a claim to remain in their neighborhoods and reap the benefits of the community improvement actions they have worked hard to provide. In this sense such claims are seen to be less of an annoying mystery, and more a source of economic efficiency.

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