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There’s nothing more divisive in the District than the G-word. Gentrification conjures up images of omnipresent dog boutiques and $5 lattes in what used to be working-class, wallet-friendly neighborhoods. The well-heeled people moving in call it neighborhood revival; the poorer folks being priced out call it displacement.
Except it’s not that simple. Most longtime residents of low-income neighborhoods don’t clamor for “gentrification,” exactly, but they do want the things it often brings: grocery stores and other retail within walking distance; better transit connections; reduced crime; and attention from the city government that’s sometimes been lacking.
And as a story today on NPR highlights, gentrification doesn’t have to imply displacement. In fact, according to two recent studies, it generally doesn’t. The author of one, Lance Freeman of Columbia University’s Urban Planning program, told NPR that his research has found that longtime residents are no more likely to move out of their homes when their neighborhood gentrifies; sometimes they’re actually less likely to move.
Obviously, there are a few classes of people for whom gentrification is bad news. The owner of a corner grocery store probably won’t fare well if a Whole Foods opens up next door. A family renting a house won’t appreciate the rent getting jacked up. But for others, it can be a boon. Homeowners and people in rent-controlled apartments—-60 percent of D.C. rental units are rent-controlled, and that percentage is probably higher in low-income neighborhoods with older buildings—-won’t see their costs increase substantially, but they’ll get the benefits of new stores and restaurants. There’s every incentive to stick around.
The fact is, the gentrification debate has been cast in false terms. People in low-income neighborhoods may not want exactly the stores that ride in on the gentrification wave, but they do want more places to get food and clothes and services, not more affordable housing and homeless shelters. (Of course, the city should still be providing these things, but neighbors object to the overconcentration of them in already-poor areas.) Take the Anacostia residents who loudly (and successfully) opposed plans for a six-story development in their neighborhood, largely because they wanted market-rate housing to attract middle-class neighbors, not the 100 percent affordable housing the developer planned. Or Ward 8 resident Nikki Peele, whose blog Congress Heights on the Rise constantly argues that what her ward needs is higher incomes and more amenities, with headlines like “Sorry Folks, It’s Not Gentrification but Revitalization.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has argued that his ward shouldn’t get any more rental housing, and instead needs ownership homes and retail options. The trouble, he told me recently, is that “people think we don’t have any money over here. Don’t think that we can be homeowners. Think we’re coke dealers and all that kind of stuff.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is how to attract retail and condos and the like without making a neighborhood prohibitively expensive. It’s a delicate balance that few if any cities have achieved. But even in its absence, the effect of so-called gentrification on low-income residents—-at least the ones who are able to stay put—-might not be as dire as most accounts would have you believe.
Photo of the abandoned Parkway Overlook by Aaron Wiener