The fight against gentrification: How can we create equitable neighborhood change?

34 4

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.

A mural titled Victorion by Sirron Norris in the Mission District of San Francisco’s Balmy Alley (Norris). The work depicts a Transformer-like figure made of San Francisco’s signature Victorian style houses and examines the impact of gentrification on the community. Murals such as this are a common feature of the predominantly Hispanic Mission District, where gentrification is rapidly changing the working-class neighborhood.

Historical Context

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.

A redlined map of the Bay Area’s East Bay in a study by UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute. Each dot on the map represents a home that was foreclosed between 2007 and 2011. As you can see, the vast majority of foreclosures occurred in formerly redlined areas, marked as red for “hazardous” or yellow for “definitely declining” (“Roots, Race, and Place”).

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. 

A homeless encampment in West Oakland (Hahn).

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.

Macro Solutions

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.

Micro Solutions

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.

4 Comments

4 comments

  1. Alex

    Hi Erin, nice job on your presentation; you presented the history of the problem as well as the current day situation in great depth, and I was able to learn about many new things I did not know, such as that 3/4 of all residential land in many large cities is dedicated to single-family housing. You also did a wonderful job of contrasting text and images. As for myself, I will educate others about the harmful effects of gentrification and get involved in community projects to help those displaced by gentrification and to nurture the communities and neighborhoods around me.

  2. Rachel_39

    Hey Erin, your website was really thoughtful and well put together. I learned a lot about redlining, and the impact that gentrification has on black communities especially. I didn’t know that homelessness was a result of these practices, which was really eyeopening. On the individual level, I will make sure I stay educated on the subject matter to help my own community.

  3. Katrina Adewlae

    Hey Erin you did an amazing job with this.
    I’m so happy I chose to click on this because of the cool art cover, the word gentrification – which I had just recently learned about, and your great introduction video. You were able to sell and deliver! I love how you were able to not only address the main issues but also come with practical reasoning and solutions. Since it was so familiar to you, it made your overall presentation appealing and engaging. Great job!

  4. Avatar

    Hi Erin! This is a super interesting research project! I think it is really cool how you are basing your research on the perspective of a gentrifier and how other gentrifiers can slow the growth of it in their own communities. I think it is really cool how you show the maps of gentrification in other cities around the world and how they compare with each other. You also seem to be very well informed about the gentrification in your city and you do a good job of explaining ways for people to slow the spread of it. Great job!

Leave a Reply