What is gentrification?
Gentrification is a process of change that occurs when poor, urban neighborhoods see an influx of wealthier residents. This process entails increased commercial development, economic opportunities, and lower crime rates, leading many to believe that it is beneficial for the residents of these cities. In reality, gentrification stems from a long history of housing discrimination in America, and it often has harmful effects that target communities of color.
The creation of poor communities of color in cities across the U.S. was instigated by discriminatory housing practices that sought to segregate American society. The origins of these practices are seen in the early twentieth century at the start of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans moved out of the south and into northern cities (Brannen et al.). These rising black populations were met with increased racial tensions and violence, as white occupants feared the integration of their communities (Brannen et al.). As a result, the white establishment implemented residential segregation ordinances and racially restrictive covenants that legally ensured the separation of their neighborhoods (Callies & Simon). Moreover, the segregation of urban America was further perpetuated by the phenomenon of “white flight”: the mass exodus of the white middle class to the suburbs during the post-World War II economic boom (Massey). To facilitate the separation of white suburbs and black cities, redlining practices were instituted, in which the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) color-coded neighborhoods based on investment value (Massey). These ratings were largely based on racial demographics, and areas with high minority populations were outlined in red to indicate poor credit (Massey). This effectively prevented minority groups from obtaining funding for homeownership and neighborhood maintenance (Massey). Today, neighborhoods of color in cities across the U.S. continue to be underserved by local governments and remain trapped in cycles of disinvestment (Rugh & Massey). These conditions make them prime targets to real estate investors and developers looking to gentrify.
What are the consequences?
When higher-income residents move in, the rising rents, increasing property values, and higher taxes leave many of the original occupants unable to afford housing (Moore et al.). Residents are forced to move to cheaper neighborhoods or cities, and a distressing number of them are left homeless (Moore et al.). Furthermore, Melissa Archer Alvaré’s research has demonstrated that this influx of new residents results in the political and cultural displacement of the original community. Long-time residents often do not benefit from the new economic development and opportunities that gentrification entails, as their voices and concerns are overlooked by those in power who seek to recreate the image of the neighborhood (Alvaré). As new businesses that cater to wealthier clientele replace long-time establishments and character of these neighborhoods change, long-time residents often feel a reduced sense of belonging in their own communities (Alvaré). Residents of color in gentrified areas are also often criminalized as social expectations change, Alvaré found. Black communities often experience harassment or an increased suspicion of illegal activity, which is of crucial significance in the context of police brutality and the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. The potentially racially motivated actions of non-black residents and police endanger black residents in ways that many may not recognize.
What can be done to help?
In recent years, the issue of affordable housing has risen to the forefront of American politics. In the 2020 presidential election, many Democratic candidates proposed potential solutions (Dougherty). As New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty has reported, although they varied in specifics, these proposals were largely centered around increasing funding for areas experiencing housing shortages and encouraging local governments to facilitate new housing. While the implementation of any one of these proposals would increase housing opportunities and provide financial assistance to those who have been displaced by gentrifying forces, they do not ensure that this new housing is equally distributed. Moreover, the infusion of more money and resources into poor neighborhoods might only further the process of gentrification as it improves these areas economically and increases their desirability. According to Dougherty of the New York Times, “the track record of previous administrations suggests that the federal government can only accomplish so much” when it comes to the issue of affordable housing. Therefore, I believe that the issue of gentrification and affordable housing is combated most effectively on a state and city level. In my research, I have identified select policies and programs that I believe to be key to any multifaceted approach.
The implementation of new inclusionary zoning laws in American cities is a crucial step in combating the effects of gentrification. According to UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, single-family zoning laws prevent anything other than single-family homes, such as apartment complexes, condos, or duplexes, from being built in certain neighborhoods. A practice that emerged in Berkeley in 1916, single-family zoning was originally intended to prevent minority groups from moving into exclusive neighborhoods (“Roots, Race, and Place”). Presently, the practice perpetuates segregation and inhibits the creation of new housing in cities across the U.S. (Badger & Bui). Upzoning neighborhoods and eliminating single-family zoning would facilitate the creation of new, varied housing and help prevent the displacement of people in areas undergoing gentrification. This process has already begun in many states, including California, which drafted a bill that would outlaw single-family zoning state-wide in 2019 (Badger & Bui).
Additionally, the implementation of rent control policies would help to sustain affordable housing. However, since the passage of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act in 1995, the ability of cities in California to do so has been largely limited (“Proposition 21”). Furthermore, Proposition 21, which would allow rent control measures on nearly all housing state-wide, failed to pass in the most recent election (“Proposition 21”). Pushing for the enactment of affordable housing programs such as inclusionary zoning and rent stabilization would open up gentrified areas to low-income communities and create more equitable access to housing.
Many organizations are currently working to preserve gentrified communities through community land trusts, which facilitate the purchasing of housing by the larger community (“About Us”). Through donations or investments, these cooperatives purchase properties and take them permanently off the market, creating community controlled assets (“About Us”). These community land trusts also build collective wealth within historically disenfranchised neighborhoods of color, empowering existing residents to take charge in creating equitable and inclusive neighborhood change (“About Us”). There are several of such organizations within the Bay Area alone, including the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) and the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO), and similar cooperatives have risen to prominence in cities across the country. Contributing to a community land trust in your city is an effective way for individuals to join the cause.
Finally, I have listed some ways that you can help to stop the harmful effects of gentrification in your own city. On an individual level, you can:
- Continue to educate yourself and others on the harmful impacts of gentrification and its roots in racist policies and institutions
- Support your community! Contribute to local projects and organizations that nurture neighborhood growth
- Educate yourself on police brutality and support black communities. Recognize the narrative of black criminality that exists within our society
- Learn all about the rich history and culture of your city! Strive to contribute to this culture, not erase it.
- Support local small businesses
Thank you so much for checking out my website! Please take a moment to provide some feedback in the comment section below. I also encourage you to think about the impact that gentrification has on your own cities and would love to hear about your own experiences. How will you be joining the fight against gentrification? I am calling all of you to action: together, we can preserve the affected communities and create equitable and inclusive change.