Gentrification Done Right Can Bridge the Class Divide

Gentrification is an opportunity to listen, learn, heal, and build together. 

But you might not know that, given the tendency for gentrification to disrupt communities and destroy neighborhood identities.

Can gentrification be a force for good?

Let’s start with two of the key reasons gentrification occurs: an increasing population and a shortage of housing. Shrinking housing supplies and increasing home prices put once affordable neighborhoods out of reach financially. When that happens, more people become willing to either accept a longer commute to work or live slightly farther from their favorite part of town. In exchange for less expensive and larger houses, they begin buying property on the periphery of the city, “gentrifying” lower middle class enclaves. As property values increase in the gentrifying neighborhood, new businesses spring up to meet the needs and wants of a more affluent demographic. Meanwhile, the poorer people who used to live in the “old” neighborhood find themselves getting pushed farther and farther out or, in the worst cases, literally onto the streets.

Rising land values and increasing income disparities may make it seem like, for many neighborhoods, the prospect of gentrification is inevitable. But is there a way to “gentrify responsibly,” so communities and the people who live in them — no matter where they sit on the financial spectrum — all come out ahead?

Both Jane Jacobs, noted anthropologist, sociologist and urban planner, and Liz Ogbu, San Francisco-based architect and spacial justice activist, would say there is.

In her ground-breaking 1962 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs defended the need to protect the unique character of a neighborhood, the diversity of its houses, buildings, public spaces and the diversity of its residents— its identity.  Jacobs also believed that on a micro level, interactions on city sidewalks reflect and shape the macro— the country as a whole. “Trust within a city is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts,” Jacobs said, adding that “sidewalk contact and safety, together, can thwart segregation and racial discrimination.” (P.56) 

Jane Jacobs Animation – Credit @ The Atlantic

Jacobs wasn’t opposed to change. Her point was to recognize the value that exists within a city and then to add to it and strengthen it, as opposed to the concept of urban renewal, which suggests wiping out the old and building anew. In fact, to Jacobs, gentrification benefited neighborhoods, “but so much less than it could have if the displaced people had been recognized as community assets worth retaining.” (Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead, P. 214).

Jane Jacobs, Riding Her Bike, 1960s

Urban Planning — According to Jacobs 

Jacobs blamed modernist planners that use deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan cities. According to them, a shortage of housing means build more, build taller. She considered rapid re-development and urban renewal dangerous and potentially destructive. Urban planners have become lost in strategic planning, master planning, zoning and landscaping, she argued. Yes, these concepts are important, but not at the expense of the most vital ingredient: the role of space, particularly public space, and what exists between public space and buildable space.

To Jacobs, cities thrive due to diversity, specifically the social diversity of people and the economic and physical diversity of locations, like parks, buildings, bars, and restaurants. Perhaps how we develop and address the microcosm of the city economy reflects on the macrocosm, the country, she suggested. Jacobs lashed out against the Utopian vision of perfect, static designs she called “the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and be served.” (Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, P. 15)

The Alternative? Gentrify Responsibly

In her recent Ted Talk, San Francisco-based architect and spacial justice activist Liz Ogbu proposes that maybe cultural erasure and economic displacement don’t have to be inevitable consequences of progress or gentrification. She argues that too often we see the lifestyles of the have-nots bull-dozed to make way for the lifestyles of the haves. According to Ogbu, “poor people don’t hate gentrification, they just hate that they don’t get to hang around to watch its benefits.”

Liz Ogbu – Photo Rights

Ogbu goes on to say that, “If you’ve ever been displaced, then you know the agony of losing a place that held your story. Imagine walking home from your favorite local spot and opening a letter from your landlord that says your rent has been doubled.”

Similar to Jacobs’ notion that you have to listen to the local voices to understand what would help rejuvenate or build on a local place without replacing the fabric of the neighborhood, Ogbu suggests that “we cannot create neighborhoods for everyone unless we’re willing to first listen to everyone.” Ogbu goes on to say that she’s never visited a gentrified neighborhood where pain didn’t exist and the potential for healing was absent. And that healing isn’t just for the have-nots. She asserts that “for those of us with privilege, we have to have a reckoning with our guilt, discomfort and complicity.”  

The rich or even middle class might hear “gentrification” and think about how they’ll get in on a good real estate deal and make an investment that will pay off in the foreseeable future. Even so, the concept of gentrification probably makes them feel uneasy, even guilty, about those displaced.  Yes, they want a cool or new or hip place to live, but even so, they don’t want to kick other people out of their homes. She goes on to say that we can find value in the old stories and the new ones too as long as we “make a commitment to build people’s capacity to stay, to stay in their homes, to stay in the communities, to stay where they feel whole.”

There are great examples of cities gentrifying responsibly all over the country.  

Kalima Rose’s in-depth analysis Combating Gentrification Through Equitable Development, lists four core anti-displacement strategies along with a list of tools and examples of cities like Brooklyn and East Palo Alto that help establish equitable development for the current residents. The four core strategies are: Stabilize Existing Renters, Control Land for Community Development, Build Income and Assets Creation, and Develop Financing Strategies. Rose goes on to provide a list of tools for each of the core strategies, which include: Community Land Trusts (CLTs), Limited-Equity Housing Cooperatives, Housing Trust Funds, and Inclusionary zoning and Below Market Rate (BMR) Ordinances.

According to The Daily Texan, a new Anti-Displacement Task Force was put together in Austin in January of this year collaborating with university professors to tackle gentrification. Austinites are discussing strategies similar to those Rose mentions above, including a low-income housing trust fund, rent and eviction controls, and a “right to stay” program. Both Ogbu and Jacobs would be proud of the task force’s primary goal, which is for its members and the residents of Austin to gather, speak and listen. “Coming out to hear people speak, we are hearing what [Austinites are] going through, what could be done or should have been done a long time ago,” said task force member Yvette Crawford-Lee.

San Diego-based writer Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi said she believes rent control can aid in alleviating California’s housing crisis. In her article Demystifying Rent Control, she states, “Rent control can help solve California’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis by decreasing displacement and protecting the rights and dignity of working families, the elderly, and long-term tenants.” Since 2016, rent control ordinances have been successfully enacted in Richmond and Mountain View, and rent control campaigns are underway in Long Beach, Glendale, Santa Cruz, Pasadena, San Diego, Inglewood, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, and Concord so long as the ordinances are “reasonably calculated to eliminate excessive rents and at the same time provide landlords with a just and reasonable return on their property.”

On March 18, 2018, community members, leaders and organizers gathered in New York for the official launch of the 7-Train Coalition. The coalition “formed to fight gentrification and housing privatization and end displacement in neighborhoods along the 7 line (Long Island City, Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona and downtown Flushing). The coalition is made up of Queens-based grassroots organizations, including the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, Anakbayan New York, Migrante New York and the Coalition to Defend Corona.

“The idea is to build a bottom-up vision and plan for the community, to come up with our own — not big businesses’ or nonprofits’ — ideas of how to improve the neighborhood,” said Mike Legaspi, one of the event organizers. “While it’s true there are a lot of things to fix, we as a coalition believe that this development needs to be community-controlled, not corporate-controlled.”[1]

Obstacles can present themselves in the form of municipal NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). Greed from state and local leaders who equate gentrification with dollar signs from increasing tax revenue present another barrier.  For example, California legislators have been stuck mulling over statewide rent control and the repeal of Costa-Hawkins, a law that currently prevents rent control from applying to properties built after 1995.  In efforts to alleviate the housing and homelessness crisis, simply changing the 1995 to 2005 would make a drastic impact.

In Adding one short sentence to the state law can save 50,000 from homelessness, the Sacramento Bee’s Daniel Bramzon recently reported that, “In 2017, with virtually no fanfare, the appellate division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court wiped out a critical piece of West Hollywood’s rent stabilization ordinance. The provision allowed tenants to get reimbursed for attorney fees when victorious in standing up for their rights during eviction proceedings. Because of this provision, tenants in West Hollywood were more likely to have a lawyer with them and, consequently, were some of the least likely tenants in California to be evicted and become homeless.”

Without this provision, tenants in rent-controlled buildings are not as likely to appeal an eviction with the help of an attorney for fear of losing and being responsible to pay their attorney fees.

In other words, without this provision and similar legislation designed to protect the low-income residents of these neighborhoods, gentrification is likely to continue apace, pushing out long-time residents and undermining the community as a whole. 

If we don’t want it to be so, we need to organize, we need to unite, legislative measures need to be put in place to protect low- and moderate income families from developers, along with public spaces that promote connectivity, from gentrifying development. If people across the income and class spectrum organize, hear one another, and build together, “gentrification” can come to be welcomed rather than abhorred.




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