Evidence exposed intricate complexities of gentrification
Opinion Column: The Champagne Socialist
The term “gentrification” seems to be on everyone’s lips nowadays. Hell, it’s fueled something of a cottage industry amongst the Internet’s commentariat within the past few years. We can’t go by two weeks without a think piece or two from the New York Times, the Atlantic, Vox, Slate and so on without an article that speaks to the subject. I presume this is because these news sites are frequented by the pioneers of gentrification itself: Majority-white, liberal, college-educated millennials who’ve arrived as strangers in foreign lands.
The badlands these white libs have arrived in are the ghettoized and majority-"melanated" remains of a decades-long process of socio-economic restructuring. Deindustrialization, race riots, mass incarceration and white flight are the political choices the U.S. has made since the Great Unraveling of the late 1960s and 1970s, driving the parents of today’s urban pioneers to the suburbs. Now bored and thoroughly deadened by suburbia’s various myopic, middle-class white folks are moving back to the country’s cities in droves. They’re pricing out older communities of color, bringing their frilly lil’ coffee shops, froyo joints, yoga studios and obliviousness.
Or so we think!
A few studies have come out within recent months to affirm that the influx of wealthier, more educated people into urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty ends up as a net positive for the poor. A study last May from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and New York University’s Furman Center found that lower-income residents of public housing projects within gentrifying neighborhoods are dramatically better-off than their counterparts where poverty is more concentrated. Predictably, crime is also lower in socio-economically mixed neighborhoods and lower-income children end up with much higher levels of academic achievement. Paradoxically then, neighborhoods with greater inequality end up reducing socio-economic immobility for the lower classes in the long-run.
As for the whole "pricing out" part of gentrification guilty millennials like to wring their hands over? That neither occurs as nearly as much as we think or in the places we think it does occur. Philadelphia’s Federal Reserve found that in gentrifying neighborhoods, existing residents are a virtually non-existent 0.4 percent more likely to move out in a given year than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. And even in more rapidly changing neighborhoods, the rate inches up to a mere 3.6 percent, so involuntary displacement or "pricing out" doesn’t appear to occur much according to the existing, well-respected scholarly record. The results of the Philadelphia Fed, NYU’s Furman Center and even a 2013 Cleveland Fed study also all found the net positive increase in well-being gentrification provides to lower-income residents.
And now, there are certainly issues that ought to be attended to. Poorer residents in gentrifying neighborhoods could feel alienated from all the fancy boutiques an restaurants that pop up in their neighborhood and may have to start taking longer trips on public transit to buy groceries since that new Whole Foods two blocks away is too pricey. A middle-class family may not want to move into a gentrifying neighborhood because while residents poorer than they are may have rent-controlled public housing, the rest of the apartments are being gobbled up by folks wealthier than they are.
The solution for this would to just build more and more housing units of different sorts: single-family units, apartments of various sizes and so forth (and hopefully they can be built in something like the neoclassical Beaux-Arts or Italianate designs that make NYC’s townhouses from Greenwich to Harlem so charming or even Art-Deco, instead of the soulless sleekness and conformity of something like the Rutgers Business School on Livingston, but that’s just a personal quibble) to offset “naturally occurring” price hikes in cities with low housing supplies yet rising demands. And let’s expect demands to continue to rise.
Let’s champion our cities and rid ourselves of this guilt over “gentrification.” And as for the few negatives it does cause, they’re not intractable. We ought to ensure that cities have free and extensive public transit and a variety of public amenities and businesses for their residents to take advantage of. We should also ensure that they have wages they can live on and fully funded and integrated schools as well. But we won’t get any of those things if cities remain socio-economically segregated. So before we move toward a classless society, can’t we at least get the classes to live next to each other?
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history with a minor in political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.