Gentrification Without The Rise Is Just Urban Poverty

Gentrification seems to be in the news again, which always serves as a reminder that the word gentrification is usually very poorly defined. As we’ve noted before, gentrification is a two-step process. First, middle- and lower middle-class people leave a neighborhood–which might still have ‘good bones’ in terms of location and building stock. Second, upper-middle and gentry class people move back to these neighborhoods. We usually notice the second stage since, outside of Boston’s North End, where ‘white-on-white gentrification‘ occurred, the affected neigborhoods become much whiter, and more expensive. The first stage, which is absolutely critical, is often ignored since, to be blunt, not enough people care about lower-middle class neighborhoods whose residents are largely black or Latino. As some asshole with a blog noted:

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 neighborhood 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.

Which brings us to this post about places where the first step has occurred, but wealthy people haven’t moved back (yet?; boldface mine):

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black neighborhood avoidance, as Pete Saunders, one of my favorite urban policy commentators, has written about at length. Rather than being subject to displacement by gentrification, urban residents who are both black and poor are far more likely to be left behind in neighborhoods experiencing widespread vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment.

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities could be described as displacement by decline – as black middle class residents, in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

While the urban renaissance in a handful of neighborhoods gets all of the headlines, it is the rapid concentration of poverty and urban decline that is far more prevalent – and troubling….

I hope that the report’s findings serve as a wake-up-call to the many well-intentioned people in our region who worry so much about the potential downside of urban revitalization, that they are overlooking the far greater challenges of inter-generational poverty, uneven economic growth, disinvestment, abandonment, negative-net-growth urban sprawl, and pervasive and entrenched racial and economic segregation…

And let’s be honest. Those are big, messy, complicated, systemic, extremely intractable problems, and there is nothing sexy about them. They don’t lend themselves to clever yard sign slogans or quick-take podcasts. Most people would rather not think about them, because there is not a lot that the average person can even do about them.

But they are the urban problems we need to face. They are the existential challenges to our cities and to the people who live in them. They are the problems that are bankrupting and crippling our entire region

For the most part, new residential development, and private reinvestment in our neighborhoods is exactly what our cities need. Opposing it, with the best of intentions, but without a full understanding of the facts, is like bringing a fire extinguisher to a flood – it is bringing the wrong tool to the wrong disaster.

Cities that don’t have an influx of people after being depopulated will fail, but as long as the ‘repopulation mechanism’ is entirely privatized, we will have gentrification:

Last week, I was talking with someone who has lived in New York City for decades, and we both described how much cities like New York or D.C. have changed. For much of the leadership in these cities (and many others), the defining crisis was massive depopulation–and its consequences. In the sixties and seventies, NYC lost 500,000 manufacturing jobs. Not 500,000 people, but jobs. In one sector. In D.C., the city’s population plunged from over 800,000 to 525,000 (the low point was in the early 1990s). Neighborhoods like D.C.’s Shaw and Logan Circle lost nearly half of their residents.

Many cities experienced massive decapitalization. Not only did they lose people and businesses (and the associated tax revenues), but this coincided with a massive defunding of public programs that targeted cities. In short, cities were desperate. Bringing back jobs, any jobs, was critical. At the same time, cities also needed residents–and they were so empty in many places, real estate was cheap (if not always safe). Essentially, cities ‘recapitalized’ through private money, which led, among other things, to gentrification…

But the problem with private investment is that it is only interested in high returns, and middle class and working class people don’t generate those returns, so cities, having been relatively affordable (housing was cheap in many places in the 1980s and 1990s), became increasingly expensive, if not prohibitive.

What the current crop of sclerotic political leaders fail to understand is that it’s not the 1990s anymore–or for that matter the 1970s. The Bronx is not burning. D.C. is growing rapidly. Many urban areas have a housing shortage: vacancies no longer constitute the housing crisis. We do not need to find a way to increase the wealth of our prosperous urban areas by any means necessary. What we need to do is to find ways to make that prosperity more accessible to all. While much of that effort will involve federal and state policy, cities also need to understand the challenges they face today, not years ago.

What we need a policies that, in part, are not driven solely by the need for profitable returns, so that cities that are fortunate enough to be desirable, remain available to all.

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