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.
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:
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: