Mistaking Bidding Up With Gentrification

There’s an interesting article asking if D.C.’s Adams-Morgan is losing diversity, which is a polite way of saying ‘forcing out brown and black people’, due to gentrification. It unusually for the genre, doesn’t confuse gentrification with bidding up. Here’s what I mean:

Even though prices are comparable between the two cities, there’s a lot more gentrification happening in D.C. When we look at wealthy neighborhoods in Boston (e.g., Back Bay), what’s interesting is that the population has remained relative stable for decades. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods like D.C.’s Shaw/U Street or Logan Circle, there was a massive depopulation in the 1970s and 1980s (this was largely black middle class flight, though we will follow mainstream progressive convention and ignore the Identity That Shall Not Be Named, economic class), and only have begun to recover in the last decade (and are still below their 1960s levels–though some of that could be lower household size).

In Boston’s relatively stable, but gradually growing neighborhoods, housing prices appear to be a result from bidding over a limited resource. But in places like Shaw or Logan Circle, there’s room. What I think happened is that the massive emigration from these neighborhoods made these neighborhoods–which still had ‘good bones’, such as mass transit and nice-looking houses–amenable to developers. They bought up and renovated these properties, and that renovation increased prices, and property taxes, in the entire neighborhood. At some point, lower-income people can’t afford rents or property taxes–even though these neighborhoods are still not crowded. That, combined with the change in racial composition, makes this a very explosive issue in D.C.–there are cultural and political ramifications to the demise of ‘Chocolate City.’ In Boston, however, the largely ‘white-on-white’ gentrification that has occurred has received very little attention nationally.

From the article (boldface mine):

At the Comprehensive Plan Council hearing, I had heard similar statements from other residents of Adams Morgan who claimed that the overbuilding of luxury apartments and condos had been causing gentrification in the neighborhood in recent years. I was curious to dive into this claim, so I took a look at some census data for Adams Morgan over the last 30 years (courtesy of NeighborhoodInfoDC).

Here’s what I discovered:

  • From 1980 to 2010, the population of Adams Morgan went from 15,352 to 15,630. It barely budged.
  • Over that same period, the average annual household income in our neighborhood went from $72,753 to $172,249 (a significant increase even when adjusting for inflation)
  • Our neighborhood also lost diversity over that time, going from 51% white to 68% white

In many ways, Adams Morgan is now the District’s classic example of a neighborhood that has moved from “gentrification” to “exclusion,” using the terminology of the Urban Displacement Project, a UC Berkeley initiative that measures the income levels of census tracts over time to identify areas that experience losses of low income residents paired with a growth of high-income residents. Our neighborhood is witnessing what can happen when gentrification reaches its more advanced stages…

If we compare Adams Morgan to other DC neighborhoods, it doesn’t rank highly in terms of the amount of development that has occured in recent years. The population is virtually identical to what it was in 1980, while other areas of the city have seen substantial construction of new buildings along with huge population increases.

In fact, building permit data shows that, from 2008 to 2015, Adams Morgan built only 57 new housing units, representing a mere 0.5% of the total new units in the city, despite the fact that the neighborhood holds 2.6% of DC’s population. Adjacent neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights and U Street contributed far more housing in that time period: 136 units (1.2% of the city’s total) and 877 units (8.0%), respectively…

But this lack of development didn’t ease the pressures of gentrification. New residents — primarily white and affluent — still managed to move into Adams Morgan as houses came onto the market, existing buildings were renovated, and apartments were rented out at higher prices over time. The demand they created pushed up prices, which wealthier home-seekers were able to afford while less affluent folks were not. Our neighborhood is a case study of how gentrification can still happen without development, not because of it.

Outside of Wards 7 and 8, I don’t think there’s much open space left (and even in Wards 7 and 8, it’s getting tight). It’s not like it was twenty years ago (or even five years ago), where there was a lot of room for new construction. So we’re now at the bidding up stage in much of the District and that requires a different response:

Put simply, in Boston’s Back Bay, there is little room to put more people, while Shaw and Logan Circle are still ‘filling in’, yet prices are comparable. This suggests a very different dynamic, and probably requires a different policy response than in already-crowded locations.

At this point, I think Shaw and Logan Circle have filled in (there are a couple of parcels, but they probably aren’t cheap at this point).

Mind you, there are also too many neighborhoods where the population density is just too damn low. But, at this point, I’m not sure housing prices (buying and renting) are being driven by gentrification, but rather by bidding up.

Kudos to GGWash for getting this right.

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