I remember when I first learned the term gentrification. I was a small child sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car on our way to Central Park, and my dad was trying to convince my teenage sister that the neighborhood where he lived was safe.
“It used to be that you couldn’t walk around here at night without getting mugged,” he said. “There were never any nice restaurants around here, either, before all this gentrification.”
There was my introduction to the term; gentrification, I inferred from this conversation, was a good thing. It made Manhattan’s Upper West Side safe for (middle-class, white) families like us.
Ironically and unfortunately, gentrification eventually caught up with my dad, too. After owning a rent-controlled apartment a few blocks north of Columbia University since the late 1970s, a few years ago, his landlord threatened to sue him for not spending enough time there. The landlord wanted him out so that someone else could move into the apartment and, consequently, pay a significantly higher rent than what my dad paid due to rent-stabilization laws.
Around the same time, I learned that the “benefits” of gentrification are unevenly distributed depending on one’s socioeconomic background, race, age, gender and a host of other factors. Gentrification displaces lower- and middle-income people from neighborhoods where they had historically lived –like my dad, a former musician with a modest, unstable income. Sometimes, gentrification forces the poorest people to move farther away from their workplaces, to neighborhoods that may lack adequate public transportation, healthy food options and tax revenue in general. Other times, they are pushed into housing projects.
It’s easy to think of gentrification as this inevitable, acceptable process. And in many ways, it is, if you believe the free market should dictate housing, community and planning issues and that displacement and homelessness are simply unfortunate side effects of a free housing market.
But if you believe housing and stable communities are fundamental rights for all, then can you really accept the brutality of gentrification? When thinking beyond the framework of a completely “free” market, gentrification becomes a preventable phenomenon, and city planners can, and should, strive to prevent it, or at least reduce its negative impacts.
There are many tools planners can use to stop or reduce gentrification, such as rent control, which prevents landlords from raising the rent for tenants already living in designated units. Cities can also sell land to developers to build explicitly middle- or lower-income housing, prohibit large-scale luxury development in neighborhoods at risk for gentrification, designate certain blocks or buildings for residents of certain professions (like artists or teachers) and enact many other market-based solutions. Individuals and non-profits can also help stop gentrification by enacting programs such as community land trusts, like one program started in Austin.
Certainly one could argue that there are benefits to gentrification, but who are these benefits for? Are these benefits evenly and justly distributed? Most of the time, without government intervention in the market, the answer is no. And that’s precisely where the problem lies.