Does Gentrification Deserve Our Support, or Warrant an Intervention?


In the past month, I've seen the concept defended on a local Internet forum, heard it derided in front-porch gabfests, and seen it awkwardly danced around in community meetings.

Part of the controversy inspired by gentrification may result from confusion over what the term means. What is gentrification? According to "Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices," a paper prepared for the Brookings Institution by Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard, gentrification happens when "higher income households displace lower income residents of a neighborhood, changing the essential character and flavor of that neighborhood."

No newcomer likes to be sneered at as a usurper, an illegitimate resident whose presence supposedly erodes the vivacious character of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a low-income resident of many years, a matriarch in her community, may feel aggrieved when a stranger moves into the big newly renovated house next door and begins complaining about her backyard dog or insisting she mow her lawn more often.

"There goes the neighborhood," she may say to herself, watching another well-heeled couple moving boxes into their freshly painted Victorian.

By definition, gentrification includes large-scale displacement of local businesses, churches, and people, usually poor and elderly, through evictions, increasing rent, or rising taxes. It also locks out new low-income residents who can no longer afford to move into the area. For the reason that it limits fair-housing opportunities and forces residents out, gentrification is negative for a community.

"Often, though not always, gentrification has a very clear racial component, as higher income white households replace lower-income minority households, sometimes in the very same neighborhoods that experienced ‘white flight' and traumatic urban renewal in the ‘50s and ‘60s," Kennedy and Leonard point out.

Because a significant number of original residents must be displaced in order to call the neighborhood gentrified, gentrification can be hard to identify, except in hindsight. Kennedy and Leonard describe the three stages of gentrification:

"In the first stage, newcomers buy and rehab vacant units, causing little displacement and resentment. In the second stage, knowledge of the neighborhood and the rent gap spreads, displacement begins to occur, and conflict erupts. Finally, as the effects of rehabilitation are more apparent, prices escalate and displacement occurs in force, new residents have lower tolerance for social services facilities and other amenities that they view as undesirable, and original residents are displaced at a larger scale, along with their institutions and traditions."

This is all to say, gentrification is not the same thing as revitalization.

Revitalization of a neighborhood is the physical improvement of the streetscape and buildings, a reduction in crime, an influx of new businesses increasing economic opportunity for the residents, and new services increasing quality of life for residents.

The best-case scenario for any neighborhood is a highly diverse population; young and old, rich and poor, black and white, white collar and blue, college-educated and not, all living side by side on the same street. This is a neighborhood that is equitable and economically and socially stable. A neighborhood like this will not be ignored by policy makers, or lavished with some services and resources to the exclusion of others.

The wealthy couple in the restored Victorian is not bad news when their presence adds to the diversity of the neighborhood. They lessen the concentration of poverty in an area. They have more money to spend at local businesses, if they choose to do so. They are often more politically savvy, or have connections to compel officials to listen to the concerns of the community. The elderly neighborhood matriarch may appreciate the support of the newcomers who are able to push through improvements to the local playground, a project that has been languishing for years.

In a neighborhood that teeters on the verge of gentrification, governmental policies can be put in place to ward off the involuntary displacement of people and encourage equitable development. Policies such as fixed rent, fixed tax rates, and a mix of zoning that allows apartments and single-family dwellings, large and small houses, can help preserve the character of the neighborhood.

On a smaller scale, the informal policies of a neighborhood organization, an apartment building, or even the personal policy of one household can foster inclusiveness.

The entire community should support development that allows original residents and low-income newcomers to share in the benefits of revitalization.