Gentrification is Good for the Poor and Everyone Else

Contrary to received wisdom among so-called progressives and community advocates, gentrification is good for poor people. A classic example of needless conflict is currently playing out in New York City.

The recent certification by New York's Department of City Planning of Columbia University's rezoning application for its plan to build a new section of its campus in West Harlem initiates a public review process that no doubt promises to be a contentious, rhetoric-filled negotiation. In fact, no sooner had Columbia University made its first public announcement then activists, both from the Harlem community and within Columbia itself, started their not unpredictable protests against expansionism, displacement, and, worst of all, the dreaded ‘gentrification' that might define Harlem's future.

But characteristic of their complaints is a misunderstanding of what actually happens in a gentrifying community, how, despite bringing significant change to the social and economic fabric of the community, the process of gentrification will result in positive, tangible benefits for Harlem's 300,000 residents. For a community perennially wracked with poverty, disenfranchisement, and despair, this is an end result that, one would think, all would embrace.

But in their zeal to protect residents from an ‘invisible hand' they do not trust to produce positive benefits, protestors, as they have in numerous older urban cores undergoing change, warn of a skewed housing market and evaporating affordability. In fact, gentrification does not put new pressure on housing markets and create scarcity; and an upgrade in the quality of life in neighborhoods serves as a catalyst for overall growth and development. 

How? Market conditions that encourage the building of new housing have a two-pronged benefit for the community: as new housing is created and neighborhood residents who had been renters become owners of new units, their old housing-much of it rental-is freed up for a whole new group of renters who either move from less desirable units (freeing up more units) or come into the neighborhoods for the first time. Thus, gentrification, by making a community attractive to investors, actually enables many renters to move up the housing ladder into presumably better apartments, without displacing tenants and by making their old units available for yet another set of renters below them.

Jacob L. Vigdor, professor of public policy studies at Duke University, noted that even the construction of new housing for high-income residents, say, a luxury building with 100 condominiums, benefits the overall community. "Because if we don't build those condos," he observed, "where are the people who were going to live there going to live? They're going to go to a mixed-income neighborhood and occupy units there that could have been occupied by someone lower down the economic ladder."

That also solves a major concern for activists and neighborhood advocates who see any change in the racial or sociological character of Harlem as detrimental, who aspire to preserve the idealized, and probably unrealistic, community they remember from another era.

Professor Vigdor dismisses this obstructionist fantasy, calling it the "romanticized view [that] a neighborhood is where people are born, live their entire lives." And the reality is that the Harlem for which people wistfully yearn is a community gone for some seventy or eighty years. It is not, thankfully, the Harlem of the 1990s when sociopathic teenagers strangled the community with crack use, crime, and thuggery. It is not the decade after the riots of the 1960s when over 100,000 Harlem residents fled for the suburbs. It is not the Harlem of massive housing projects, middle-class abandonment, and plummeting quality of services, resources, commerce, and lifestyle. 

Is the gentrification of older cities, changing the model from housing for the poor to housing for middle- and upper-income groups, a good thing? Research shows it is, particularly since high concentrations of housing for the poor, a "monoculture of poverty," serves as a permanent barrier to neighborhood growth. "Housing projects radiate dysfunction and social problems outward," says housing expert Howard Husock, Director of the Manhattan Institute's Social Entrepreneurship Initiative,
"damaging local businesses and neighborhood property values. They hurt cities by inhibiting or even preventing these rundown areas from coming back to life by attracting higher-income homesteaders and new business investment. Making matters worse, for decades cities have zoned whole areas to be public housing forever, shutting out in perpetuity the constant recycling of property that helps dynamic cities generate new wealth and opportunity for rich and poor alike."
Related to the misunderstanding about gentrification is the mistaken notion that it necessarily causes displacement of existing residents, usually tenants of modest means forced out by the influx of wealthier tenants. But studies suggest that, in any five-year period, populations change on their own, that almost half of the tenants in given neighborhood will move on their own-regardless of what economic factors are affecting the community at the time.

So "the typical image that people have in their minds  . . . that people are being thrown out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods" is false, says Professor Vigdor. In fact, the flurry of activity in real estate markets does not reflect displacement, but housing creation, since, as Vigdor notes, "there is usually some degree of vacancy and rehabbing of buildings that weren't previously inhabitable."

"Low-income households actually seem less likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods than from other communities," said Frank Braconi, co-author of a similar research project, the New York gentrification study by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of New York.

It may be convenient for community leaders, student groups, and activists to make a villain out of ‘gentrification,' as their way of fearing a future in which their advocacy for the chronic poor is rendered irrelevant by the rising tide of economic growth. In fact, the disingenuous cries for the ‘preservation' of the present inner-city communities by activists and some neighborhood leaders have to be looked upon as a way of preserving their own influence over the business of poverty, oppression, and victimhood.

What benefit is there in impeding a massive and wide-reaching improvement of the entire economic and social structure of a community? Isn't this precisely what neighborhood leaders have called for since the Great Society? Isn't this the end result they would all wish for their disenfranchised constituents? Rather than condemning Harlem to a state of perpetual stagnation-defined by broad tracts of public housing and widespread poverty-wouldn't a new model of economic growth hold more promise?

That is the very question that such tenants' groups, activists, and leaders, should consider before they condemn-without restraint-any wide-ranging, comprehensive upgrading in the social and economic conditions of American cities. They can continue to mistakenly characterize gentrification as a perverse process of social and economic Darwinism, or they can make an honest assessment about the critical and substantive benefits realized by all residents of a community undergoing positive change: jobs, better municipal services, decent places to live, thriving commerce, and the hope that a whole community can start stepping out of poverty once and for all.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D. is director of Boston University's Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education.