Why Is Gentrification Such a Bad Word? Your Thoughts

Readers discuss the g-word following the Supreme Court’s ruling on housing integration. A growing body of research shows that gentrification in fact benefits poor residents.

Mike's Chili Parlor, located adjacent to the Ballard Blocks development, is seen in Seattle, Washington March 13, 2015.  (David Ryder / Reuters)

Atlantic reader John Clark, in an email, builds off our debate on affordable housing and Section 8 vouchers:

Your commenter Abe’s Ghost can’t see the difference between integration and gentrification. The difference is that integration is just moving people from one place to another. Gentrification is getting poor people out and replacing them with rich people (with a few token low-income units reserved). If you spend a few minutes with people who are actually forced out of their homes, they call it displacement, not gentrification.

Whatever you call it it, it’s mostly done by evicting poor people from apartments when they miss a month’s rent by even one month; seizing homes a family has owned for generations because of $150 owed in property taxes, even if that was just a clerical error; changing the locks while carrying out “repairs,” lying that the building is being condemned, or turning off utilities. Some landlords have even gone into apartments and smashed up rooms or left gaping holes in the floor.

The rich young people moving in just see nice apartments and are blind to what it took to get them (or don’t bother to take a deeper look). “Wow, I had no idea,” as one new tenant said.  

That phenomenon about smashed-up rooms was detailed in a recent interview my colleague Gillian White had with D.W. Gibson, author of The Edge Becomes The Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century. Here’s Gibson:

[L]andlords will very often come into an apartment, gain the tenant’s trust saying, “Look, we want to improve things, let’s put a new sink in for you” or whatever it is that they want to adjust for their tenant. And they’ll walk in and they’ll damage the apartment in some substantial way and say, “Oh, it’s more work than we thought. We have to come back.” And then the landlord doesn’t come back for two weeks, two months, half a year, whatever it may be.

The tenant calls 311, it’s a city number that you can call to file complaints and so forth, and then the city comes out to take a look and says, “Yes, this is terrible. You can’t live here. This is unsafe.” And you either have to leave one part of your apartment or leave your apartment altogether. To me that’s so creatively insidious that it just sort of boggles the mind.

A demonstrator at the Rally to Save NYC on May 14, 2015  (The All-Nite Images / Flickr)

Atlantic reader Dave Price concludes, “Ultimately housing integration offers choice for those on low incomes; gentrification removes it.” But is that always the case? What if gentrification in fact increases opportunity for many poor residents? That’s what Lance Freeman found. Freeman, the director of the Urban Planning program at Columbia, in an email to me, didn’t dismiss the risks of gentrification—citing examples like a decline in housing affordability, conflicts between newcomers and long-term residents—“but there can also be an upside associated with gentrification”:

Gentrification brings new amenities and services that benefit not only the newcomers but long term residents too. Full service supermarkets that carry fresh produce, restaurants where residents could dine in, and well maintained parks are often lacking in poor neighborhoods prior to gentrification. For long term residents who are able to stay, either due to housing subsidies, owning their home, or their own earning capacity improving, these changes are often appreciated.

And most residents are able to stay. Freeman’s 2004 study with economist Frank Braconi found that low-income African Americans are actually more likely to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods than stagnant ones. “Much to my surprise, our research findings did not show evidence of a causal relationship between gentrification and displacement,” he writes in his book, There Goes the Hood. “That similar results were found in a study in Boston (Vigdor 2002) served to suggest further that perhaps we were onto something.” Freeman’s latest paper concludes that “white invasion could play a significant role in the decline of the ghetto.”

Such findings are building up. A 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that low-income residents gained from gentrification. Commenter Cynic (now The Atlantic’s politics editor, Yoni Appelbaum) flagged a similar 2008 study from a team of researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder led by Terra McKinnish:

In plain English, they’re arguing that gentrification isn’t forcing people out; it’s bringing in yuppies and hipsters, and hanging on to upwardly-mobile minority households that would otherwise have decamped for the suburbs.

Rent control is a key factor in keeping families in place, though only a handful of states have it:

(National Association For Multifamily Law)

The ideal situation is when families own their homes in gentrifying areas, as John McWhorter notes in an article cited by a reader:

[B]lack people are getting paid more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives for their houses, and a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant. And this is a bad thing… why? [Spike Lee during an event at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute] seems to think it’s somehow an injustice whenever black people pick up stakes. But I doubt many of the blacks now set to pass fat inheritances on to their kids feel that way.

A related rant from Lee after his Pratt appearance:

Our discussion so far has centered on New York City. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed another city back in 2011:

In reference to our conversations around Washington, D.C., it’s really important to understand that the black population was falling in the city long before the arrival of hipsters, interlopers, and white people in general. [...] Whites were also leaving the city by [1980], but at a much slower rate--the major white out-migration happened in the 50s and the 60s.  

By 1990 whites had started coming back. But black people--mirroring a national trend--continued to leave. At present there are around 343,000 African-Americans in the District, a smaller number, but still the largest ethnic group in the city.

I say this to point out that the idea that incoming whites are “forcing out” large number of blacks has yet to be demonstrated. [...] Speaking as though this is the case because it “feels true” isn’t evidence. Indeed it’s the flip side of blaming white migration to the suburbs on riotous, criminally inclined blacks.

PeteFromBaltimore joins the discussion:

I think that a big problem for many Atlantic writers is that Washington DC and NYC seem to be the only points of reference for them. In Baltimore, almost all “gentrification” has been a case of upper middle-class whites replacing blue-collar whites in ethically white neighborhoods. There has been almost no gentrification in historically black neighborhoods in Baltimore.

[Here’s a snapshot of that city from a zoomable map by Governing:

(“Baltimore Gentrification Map: 2000 Census - Present”)

I would also add that there have been a few rare cases of “Black gentrification.” Those that are familiar with the DC suburb of Prince George’s County probably know that it went through a “gentrification” where many lower-income whites were priced out of the county by upper middle-class blacks.

Harvey Marx goes west:

We got 5 kinds of gentrification in Chicago:

- Going directly west and directly south from downtown, it looks a lot like urban renewal: Whatever was there before (and in most cases it wasn’t much) is completely demolished and replaced by luxury high-rises and retail. (West Loop)

- Oozing up the Red and Brown lines, a wave of investment drowns one 'hood or sometimes even one block at a time, so it rapidly and unexpectedly goes from affordable and diverse to homogenized Lincoln Park North. (Buena Park)

- In the area around the southern O’Hare Blue Line and around Pilsen, we have less focused “pioneer” migration where hipsters move out for cheaper rent but “commute” to the established trendy area for retail and nightlife until businesses notice the migration and follow them out. (Avondale, eastern Humboldt Park)

- In quieter neighborhoods with a mix of housing that favors families, yuppie couples arrive first to start a family, mostly patronize the existing businesses and the turnover is slower and less confrontational. (Edgewater, Albany Park)

- Some neighborhoods are trying to improve their own quality of life to retain their own ethnic community and/or people who grew up there, which also has the effect of drawing in a few outsiders (Bridgeport, Portage Park)

You’d think those would be ordered from most to least controversial, but the dynamics are surprisingly different. The neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown are mostly industrial, have a low population and already went through a couple rounds of urban renewal. Meanwhile, the expansion of the Mid-North neighborhoods happens slowly enough that you can sell your property for a lot of money and move into a similar neighborhood a few blocks away.

No one in the comments section talked about L.A., so for now I’ll leave it to Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n The Hood:

One more hood comes from feathered-head:

In the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, quaint family houses from the turn of the 20th century built from old growth fir are being replaced with slap-dash concrete high-capacity condo/retail complexes. The scheme was devised by our own progressive city council to create “urban villages” ostensibly to protect from sprawl the green belt around Seattle.

From my observation, it hasn’t stopped the sprawl, and now the transformation of historic neighborhoods close to downtown is proceeding at a blinding pace. Most of the new structures are over-sized, view-obscuring, bland concrete blocks built to accommodate the young transient workforce of the downtown tech corridor. Almost every new business is a bar.

On our block, all the homes are at least 100 years old, each unique and well kept. So far, the encroachment has spared our block, but just one street over, clearly within our sight, there is a charming old house due for demolition. Even five years ago, this house would have been bought by a young family who would have lovingly restored it. But it got snatched up by a developer. It feels like a death.

I've been restoring my 1903 Victorian house since we got it in 1995, with the idea that I am preserving it for future generations. I wonder though, when I look around me, if it’s all just a lost cause.

What about your hood? And what’s missing from the overall debate? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update the post with your best points.