“Bring on the hipsters,” proclaims the headline in this week’s Economist. “Gentrification is good for the poor.”
The 172-year-old British magazine, not known as a cultural trend-setter, didn’t exactly pull this concept out of a vacuum. It’s been in vogue for some time, argued most effectively in a recent Slate piece by John Buntin titled “The Myth of Gentrification.” Gentrification, the idea goes, doesn’t actually displace poor people; in fact, it often helps them.
The notion is tempting to reporters for a number of reasons. It’s counter-intuitive. It aligns neatly with an increasingly popular form of neoliberal urbanism that says the key to creating better, more affordable cities is to do away with zoning limits, parking minimums, and other regulations and simply let the cities grow. And it absolves us of guilt: We, the youngish reporters of America’s major cities, are by and large the gentrifiers, as opposed to the displaced.
But it’s also incomplete, at best. The Economist piece barely makes an argument, alighting just briefly on three points: Minorities leave cities in the absence of gentrification, too; census data don’t provide much evidence of displacement; and gentrification benefits longtime low-income residents by improving their neighborhoods because the arriving professionals “know how to get things done.” The Slate story goes into considerably more detail. Citing two academic studies, Buntin makes the case that poor people don’t actually move out of gentrifying neighborhoods at higher-than-normal rates. In fact, rising rents actually appear to make low-income residents less likely to move away, as they enjoy the new amenities and safer streets that gentrification brings.
So how do the new gentrification skeptics account for the fact that people actually are being displaced?
The Economist piece makes passing reference to one of the core problems effected by gentrification—-a term I usually avoid for its ambiguity and loaded connotations, but generally referring to the displacement of low-income residents by wealthier, whiter ones, amid rising housing costs and new restaurants and shops. “In New York and San Francisco, which both have rent-control rules, soaring property prices create an incentive for property owners to get rid of their tenants,” the famously un-bylined magazine writes. “Stories abound of unscrupulous developers buying up rent-controlled properties and then using legal loopholes or trickery to force residents to leave.”
That point is made briefly, as part of an argument the piece sets out to squash. But it’s actually an important one. Imagine you’re a landlord in a D.C. neighborhood like Columbia Heights. Rents have shot up over the past 10 years, yet your apartment building is subject to rent control, meaning you can’t increase the rents by more than the rate of inflation plus 2 percent each year. The landlord of the newer building across the street is getting $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, but you’re stuck charging $750. So what do you do? You take of advantage of any loophole you can to bring your rents up to the fast-rising market levels. Is that unscrupulous? Maybe, but it’s also rational. And it can lead to tenants losing their homes in a rapidly changing neighborhood.
And you don’t really need to use your imagination. This is happening all over the neighborhood. At 2724 11th St. NW, the owner of the rent-controlled building used a so-called hardship petition, which allows landlords to raise the rents to whatever level’s needed to make a 12 percent annual return on investment, to seek a rent increase of more than 30 percent. A few blocks to the north, at 3501 13th St. NW, the owner used a capital improvement petition to get permission to double some tenants’ rents.
Finally, there’s the age-old tradition of eviction by neglect. In Congress Heights, a neighborhood that doesn’t (yet) meet most definitions of gentrification, a major property owner stands accused of trying to drive tenants away by letting their low-rent apartment building deteriorate so the company can tear them down and build a gleaming new mixed-use complex by the Metro station that will surely spur the process.
The District does have some programs to try to preserve affordable housing in newly expensive neighborhoods, like the Housing Production Trust Fund and an inclusionary zoning law, which requires new apartment and condo buildings to set aside 8 to 10 percent of their units for low- and moderate-income renters. But there’s little evidence that these programs are keeping pace with the market forces causing displacement. Take a look at this demographic map of the city from 2000, courtesy of the Urban Institute. The colorful melange in the center of the image is Columbia Heights (and parts of nearby Petworth and Park View), with light blue dots representing Hispanic residents and peach ones representing black residents.
Compare that to 2010. Now the green dots, representing white residents, dominate.
It’s not just Columbia Heights: More than half of D.C. renters now pay more than they can afford (defined as 30 percent of income) for rent, and more than a quarter pay over half their income. It’s much worse among extremely low-income families, those making under 30 percent of area median income, of whom 84 percent pay more than they can afford for housing. Nor is it just D.C.: Half of renters nationwide put more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.
But D.C.’s got it particularly bad. As Buntin notes: “Just three cities—-New York, Chicago, and Washington—-accounted for one-third of all census tracts that saw poverty rates decline from above 30 percent in 1970 to below 15 percent in 2010. Half of all the areas in the nation that ‘gentrified’ (if we still want to call it that) were located in those three cities. No wonder New Yorkers and Washingtonians think gentrification is a big deal.”
Gentrification may not be taking place everywhere. But it is taking place in some cities, and D.C. is among them.
That raises the question of whether it’s an entirely bad thing. And of course here, the gentrification skeptics are partly right. Everyone wants many of the byproducts of gentrification: lower crime, better schools, amenities like restaurants and grocery stores, and maybe added political clout. (They just want them without their neighborhoods becoming too expensive for them to live in in the process.) Homeowners see their personal wealth increase, along with their property taxes.
And when the Economist snidely advises you to welcome the “bearded intruder on a fixed-gear bike” into your neighborhood, it’s right, too. The gentrifier isn’t the bad guy. More often than not, he or she is specifically seeking a diverse neighborhood with a cultural tradition, and doesn’t want overwhelming change and displacement.
But once that bearded intruder becomes 100 bearded intruders and then 1,000 bearded intruders, the neighborhood does start to change, and the rents go up, and longtime residents feel the pinch. As a city, we still haven’t found a way to bring the benefits of gentrification without the displacement. No one has. It’s the fundamental challenge of our resurgent city, and resurgent cities across the country. But it’s not a very good excuse for pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery; maps from the Urban Institute