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Gentrification refers to residential change that brings new residents who are disproportionately young, well educated, salaried, and professional into urban neighborhoods where poor people live. Gentrification has been occurring in cities throughout the world since the 1970s. The change in an urban population can be dramatic. For example, in Ottawa, Canada, in 1971, 10 percent of downtown residents held university degrees and 42 percent worked in white-collar jobs.
New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Toronto, London, Berlin, Sydney, and Washington, D.C., are some of the cities where gentrification has been dramatic and controversial. Some cities welcome gentrification as a revitalization of neighborhoods mired in poverty. They argue that it boosts the urban tax base while reducing blight and density. For example, between 1971 and 1996, Canada’s four major cities experienced a loss in population density of 25 percent because only some people were welcome.
Hotels and businesses in San Francisco have actively supported gentrification and promoted policies to push homeless people out of downtown areas in order to make tourists and businesspeople feel more welcome and safe. In many cities, however, community activists argue that gentrification disrupts traditional neighborhood life, displaces vulnerable residents, and causes homelessness.
Urban scholars debate the causes of gentrification. Some stress the cultural or individual inclinations of the newer residents to experience the excitement and diversity of urban life. Some scholars liken the new residents to pioneers braving a challenging, changing urban frontier. Others explain gentrification by a rent gap between the potential and current value of the land, which grows when older urban housing deteriorates and becomes devalued and thereby a good investment. By purchasing properties cheaply, investors can renovate them and take advantage of a changing real estate market to sell them for a handsome profit. These scholars link gentrification to the cycling of capital investment in and out of cities and to recurrent processes of decline and regrowth in urban neighborhoods. Gentrification also reflects larger processes of changing employment structures and opportunities and public policies for redesigning cities.
The simplest way to visualize gentrification is in its residential form. Older houses are rehabilitated and resold; inexpensive apartment buildings are converted to condominiums; old warehouses are transformed into lofts. Affordable multifamily rental dwellings are converted and “restored” into upscale single-family homes. Single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), which often house poor, homeless men, are torn down or remodeled. Toronto lost 300 SROs since 1986, and in Sydney, Australia, between 1992 and 2000, 340 boarding houses were demolished, renovated into expensive apartments, or turned into backpackers’ hostels. Commercial life also changes, because shops that serve the poor, such as thrift stores or carry-outs, give way to boutiques and antique stores.
Sometimes homeless shelters themselves are removed from gentrifying neighborhoods. In Cincinnati, for example, the Drop Inn Center Shelterhouse in the Over the Rhine community was removed to make way for a Fine Arts and Education Center linked to Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall. The shelter was considered a danger to the children using the new facility, although it housed 16,000 people, some of them children. In downtown Cincinnati, the Salvation Army Hostel building was sold to the Senator Steakhouse chain, where a retail/restaurant/loft complex is planned.
Displacement through gentrification occurs when inflated rents and prices in a changing neighbor-hood push out low-paid or unpaid older residents. Residents are displaced in several different ways. Sometimes homeowners find that as the value of their homes rises, they cannot afford to pay their property taxes. For renters, rents can become unmanageably high, or buildings may become unlivable as they are readied for conversion into luxury apartments or condominiums. Older, poorer residents may simply feel a strong pressure to sell their homes because they cannot afford not to take advantage of the new market. Families who try to stay may feel such financial stress that they triage relatives whom they could once afford to support.
Finally, a kind of exclusionary displacement occurs because poorer people who could once have afforded to live in the neighborhood no longer can, or the social networks that once helped support them thin out. Displacement also affects more people than those who are directly displaced. There is an effect on other residents who see their area changing, businesses closing to make way for more expensive services, and friendship and kinship networks being abandoned as people move away. People may leave simply because their relatives, friends, and neighbors have left and they no longer feel comfortable in the neighborhood.
Gentrification-induced displacement is hard to measure, and estimates range from 6,000 households a year in one small section of Philadelphia, to 10,000 to 40,000 households a year in New York City, and as many as 2,000,000 households a year in the United States. In Britain, Leckie (1995) estimates that 144,000 people are evicted each year and that many go unregistered.
Where do they go?
The destination and new living circumstances of those displaced after gentrification vary. Many of them have to pay more for poorer accommodations. Many remain near their prior residences in an effort to keep social networks intact. Some move in with friends or relatives, which leads to overcrowding.
Some return to rural homes; others move to less expensive suburbs. Often cities don’t keep any record of what happens to those who are displaced by gentrification. Authorities in South Sydney, Australia, for instance, declare themselves baffled about where the older traditional boarding house residents have gone, and speculate that they have moved into shelters or onto the streets. Overcrowded shelters are especially dangerous in cold climates and during the winter. In Toronto, during the winter months of 2003, 3,200 beds were needed each night and the number of available beds fell at least 500 short. Many families refuse to use shelters.
Frequently, the language that accompanies gentrification celebrates it as revitalization or rebirth and links the traditional neighborhood to images of dirt, disease, pathology, and decay. In part, such language reflects fears that poor and homeless people will hurt business and tourism.
Activists believe that stereotypes of traditional neighborhoods, which include squeegee kids, beg-gars, crack houses, sex workers, substance abusers, and mentally ill wanderers, harm institutions that serve the poor. They point out that such representations are often used to control or exclude undesirable people from public space, urban parks, and public transportation.
Avoiding The Displacement That Leads To Homelessness
Many cities have experimented with ways to protect vulnerable residents from gentrification-induced displacement. These include rent control, offering tenants the right of first refusal, and passing laws that prevent landlords from harassing tenants or denying them proper living conditions through disinvestment in their buildings. City governments can closely monitor and regulate evictions, grant lifetime tenancy to elderly tenants, offer emergency assistance to poorer renters, fix assessments or institute tax circuit breakers so that residents on fixed or limited incomes do not get forced out of their homes because they cannot pay their taxes, provide long-term tenants and owners the tools to maintain or rehabilitate their homes themselves, and institute commercial rent control to preserve public space and the stores that poor people need. Governments can also offer tax credits for poorer homeowners to do repairs and maintenance on homes in gentrifying or abandoned neighborhoods, and they can raise or lower assessments to discourage or encourage gentrification.
Cities can protect single-room occupancy housing by bringing it under public control or insisting that developers replace it on a one-to-one basis.
Governments can require developers to build affordable housing whenever they are granted rights to build luxury or commercial facilities; use zoning provisions to preserve mixed-use districts; pour public resources into areas of potential abandonment; and develop discouragement and encouragement zones for development, protecting some areas from rapid change.
More drastic measures might include capping the mortgage interest deduction for affluent homeowners, placing a surcharge on luxury housing; or instituting an anti-speculation tax to control resale prices.
Lenders’ regulations might encourage low down payment policies for poorer prospective buyers and enforce the Community Reinvestment Act and nondiscrimination in mortgage and home equity laws. Landlords could be regulated to prevent tax delinquencies, illegal conversion of rooming houses into condominiums or backpackers’ hostels, limitation of properties to adults-only buildings that exclude families, illegal evictions, and discrimination against minorities and people who depend on Section 8 vouchers. At the heart of the problem worldwide is that housing is treated as a commodity; as long as that remains the case, the use values that people find in their homes and the exchange values that properties sustain in cities will be in conflict. Unless some properties are removed from the market through community land trusts or cooperatives, or governments support use values over exchange values in some instances, gentrification will inevitably create displacement and homelessness.
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