An Honest Look at Gentrification & Sprawl

(edited on 12/4, 10:00am)

The term gentrification has been thrown around for decades. A quick search will reveal seemingly countless articles and blog posts on the subject. Yet, even now it seems few people agree on what gentrification actually is. In the public realm some see gentrification as a process by which lower-income minorities are pushed out of an urban neighborhood; others see it merely as positive reinvestment in a formerly “forgotten” part of town.

I, too, struggle with defining this phenomenon. Does gentrification automatically lead to displacement of long-time residents? If reinvestment in an area can be done while avoiding rapid displacement, does it still count as gentrification? And, is it still gentrification when middle-income households are the existing residents seemingly priced out of a neighborhood by those of an even-higher income bracket?

While researchers continue to study and debate the manifestations of gentrification, I believe a more expedient question is whether gentrification is more or less preferable to sprawling development. In other words, whose impact is more positive or negative: gentrification or suburban sprawl?

If we take the basic assumptions about gentrification as factual, then evidence of gentrification would include construction of new housing—whether single-family or multifamily; “filtering up” of existing housing to wealthier residents; demolition of blighted or so-called “obsolete” properties; changes in commercial tenants to those catering to middle- and upper-income consumers; and, sometimes, improvements in public school performance measures. Side effects of this phenomenon can include increases in property taxes, spikes in rent, reduction in crime, loss of cultural or racial diversity, greater architectural variety, increased investment in local schools, and potential loss of cultural or historic assets.

On the other end of the spectrum, suburban sprawl is evidenced by new development on greenfield sites—that is, land that was previously in its natural or agricultural state; housing that is segregated by even small differences in value; land uses that are purposely disconnected from one another; larger and newer buildings; and, wider streets with higher speed traffic. Side effects of sprawl can include increased vehicle miles traveled, increased per capita emissions, lower per-square-foot costs of land and housing, loss of arable land, impervious surfaces that lead to greater flash flooding, inequities between suburban and urban schools, disinvestment in inner-city neighborhoods, increased maintenance costs for extended infrastructure, higher city expenditures to cover required public safety needs, and a reduction in accessibility for transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians.

My point is this: how can we advocate against both suburban sprawl and gentrification without thinking realistically about the implications of either phenomenon? Yet, this is precisely what we are seeing from politicians and advocacy groups all around us. We have mayoral candidates in Austin claiming that salvaging housing affordability and relieving traffic congestion are crucial, but in the same breath suggesting that inner-city neighborhoods should be allowed to opt out of the types of development that allow for anticipated growth—even when those development types serve to protect historic resources. I’ve mentioned here before the audacity of residents to publicly oppose regulations that allow more accessory dwelling units (a.k.a. granny flats or garage apartments) to be built in existing neighborhoods, even when they benefit financially from such units themselves. Unfortunately these biases are not unique to Austin.

In Hartford, Connecticut, some are now questioning what constitutes a family after a group of eight adults and three children living under one roof were hit with a cease-and-desist order when neighbors complained—despite their home’s nine bedrooms in 6,000 square feet, and even a concession by neighbors that the residents “are nice people,”—all because they don’t fit the definition of family outlined in the city’s zoning ordinance.

When it comes to discussions of gentrification, or sprawl for that matter, fostering or advocating for neighborhood exclusivity is antithetical to the broader goals of affordability and sustainability held by many communities.

For starters, using gross hyperbole to sell one’s view of either gentrification or sprawl gets us nowhere. And nowhere is this more evident than in an article that came into my work inbox this week entitled, “How Oligarchs Destroyed a Major American City.” In this diatribe by Anis Shivani, he laments the changes in his long-affluent Montrose neighborhood of Houston, calling it “…the most monstrous example of gentrification…” Sadly, that is just the start. I began highlighting all the colorful language throughout his op-ed piece, and here are but a handful of those highlights:

“Houston has transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism…”

“…the city is being hollowed out…”

“…victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space…”

“…gangsters dressed in nice suits.”

“…displaced by unoccupied zombie high-rises…”

“…gratuitous violence against helpless tenants.”

This all sounds like it came from a novel, don’t you think? Then it occurred to me while reading this piece that Shivani is primarily a fiction writer, and it seems he has used his literary prowess to paint an imaginary portrait of gentrification where the evil, money-hungry monster developer is colluding with corrupt politicians to bulldoze idyllic utopian neighborhoods and replace them with a treeless landscape of windowless castles for the one percent of the one percent.

Another fiction writer, Vann Newkirk II, also used quite the paintbrush to describe gentrification in one Washington, DC neighborhood:

“The Safeway…was a disaster. Rotten meat regularly rested on refrigerated shelves and the stench spilled into the parking lot…This was the story for years until 2012, when the building was demolished to make way for the construction of a new incarnation of the store,” he began. “The new sprawling citadel of a Safeway returned triumphantly in 2014 to a coffee-scented community of swanky condo blocks, cyclists and more young white faces than ever.”

He goes on to make an interesting conclusion:

“Perhaps, then, it’s adequate to look at grocery stores more as agents of gentrification and potential weapons of cultural violence against the poor than as saviors for our country’s obesity epidemic.”

And here I thought grocery stores just sold food.

In all seriousness, there are real beings living with the negative consequences of both gentrification and sprawl. But, we cannot vilify both without offering real solutions, because today there appears to be little alternative without intervention.

So what does that intervention look like?

First and foremost, we must learn to identify where gentrification is happening and where it is not. Anecdotal stories of pawn-shop-turned-café and eviction notices will not suffice. This requires a close examination of changes in property values relative to other neighborhoods in a city, changes in rents over time, changes in both numbers and percentages of racial/ethnic groups, data on school enrollment and test scores, changes in both numbers and percentages of housing types, changes in availability of subsidized housing, and a breakdown of housing availability by price point.

If this data indicates that people are truly being displaced, another important step is to determine the fate of those residents. Were they involuntarily displaced or did they leave on their own accord? Were they compensated fairly for their property and/or for relocation costs? Where did they move? Are they satisfied with their current living arrangements?

News reporters and fiction writers know that coverage of the elderly woman sobbing at the thought of being ripped from her longtime residence is what tugs at our heart strings. We have made that the face of gentrification. But rarely, if ever, do we learn that developers often provide even more relocation assistance than is required by law or even what many employers might cover for relocating one of its own employees to another city. We fail to catch a glimpse of the hopeless conditions in which many of these people being relocated were facing each day. We also fail to ask later if the ones who relocated have improved their quality of life as a result.

I want to be clear: I am not advocating displacement as an appropriate first measure to revitalization in most instances. We must work, instead, to break the inequities our current system can cause. I simply mean to caution against jumping to the conclusion that developers and city leaders are driving street-by-street with demolition orders in hand. That is rarely ever true.

Next, we must learn to identify future stages of gentrification, whether in currently gentrifying neighborhoods or in neighborhoods most at-risk. Is the trajectory of housing prices still heading upward at a rapid pace, or has the growth slowed? Are there plans in place for some catalytic project, like a technology campus or rapid transit line that could boost the desirability of an area? Is there a strong inventory of architecturally significant housing in need of restoration? Are local businesses beginning to see a loss in clientele due to their relocation?

Then, we can begin to identify development types and policies that will have the most positive outcome for both new and existing neighborhood residents. Some researchers recommend infill housing as a first defense to the negative effects of gentrification; that is, building new housing on vacant parcels and in place of undesirable properties such as abandoned warehouses. Acquiring these properties while values are still relatively low can help provide this early housing at a reasonable price that meets the initial demand in a neighborhood while other policies are put in place to protect long-time residents.

Such policies for existing residents may include offering housing rehabilitation assistance to homeowners that help bring their homes up to code; offering rehab assistance to both residential and commercial landlords in exchange for limiting rent increases to tenants; targeting housing vouchers to gentrifying areas to allow existing residents to meet mounting expenses; offering counseling to residents who may want to sell their homes; initiating property tax freezes for residents who have occupied their homes for a specified time period; mandating relocation assistance for residents being displaced from unsubsidized developments; and, considering legislation that caps rent increases in the same manner that many states cap property tax increases.

As housing stock does begin to turn over, it is also imperative that these urban neighborhoods foster increased density to accommodate the population growth of our cities. While people often assume this means adding high-rises to single-family neighborhoods, this is generally not the case—nor is it legal in most places. Rather, many development types that have largely disappeared from the housing landscape since World War II are those in-between solutions that fit well into the context of an existing neighborhood. Appropriately called “missing middle” housing because they fall between single-family homes and traditional apartment complexes, these include well-known examples like duplexes and townhouses, but also less common models like micro units, accessory dwelling units (as I mentioned earlier), bungalow courts, small condominium buildings, small lot subdivisions, and live-work units. What is especially promising about these missing middle developments is that some can offer direct protection for long-time neighborhood residents by allowing them the opportunity to earn rental income to offset their growing housing costs. Even a nonprofit could help finance the construction of accessory dwelling units on the properties of lower-income homeowners, allowing them to generate that needed income in exchange for a manageable monthly fee and partial lien on the home, as one friend had considered pursuing. Some jurisdictions may consider requiring that those ADUs be kept available as affordable housing.

Some broader obstacles still exist that prevent missing middle housing from being built in many cities. Often, lenders prefer to offer credit for the most proven development types—namely, single-family housing and single-use commercial development. Working with lenders and finance policymakers to increase the availability of funds for less conventional housing types will be critical. Also, many centrally located parcels are designated with zoning that keeps these more affordable housing types from being built. Upzoning some these parcels to allow for more flexible development is one way to move these forward. Similarly, high minimum parking requirements often artificially limit the number of units that can be built on a parcel. Relaxing these minimums in walkable and transit-rich areas can help to increase the availability of affordable housing in areas that may be starting to see some of the pressures of gentrification.

Finally, we must counter the resistance to development types that are unfamiliar or may at first appear to have an undesirable impact on a neighborhood. We tend to associate these housing types with past memories, and more often than not, those memories are negative. Duplexes, for example, tend to be associated with concentrated poverty. Micro units tend to be associated with overcrowding. However, neither of these associations is actually true. Working with residents to break these stereotypes and ensure they understand how these missing middle housing types will result in a net benefit to the neighborhood is imperative to their adoption.

At the end of the day, it remains a challenge to define gentrification in a definitive way. But we all claim to know it when we see it. Rather than continue to beat the proverbial dead horse over semantics, we need to work together to remove the obstacles to revitalizing our centrally-located neighborhoods while also protecting the people and assets that make these communities attractive in the first place. This means gathering data that may seem difficult to obtain, advocating for equitable policies that may not always suit a city’s wealthiest or most powerful constituents, and breaking down the barriers to development types that represent a growing number of our citizens’ American Dream. It even means challenging the vocal few who refuse to dialogue honestly about the collective needs of the community (rather than just their individual desires) and instead reject change altogether simply because it is uncomfortable.

Where does this leave suburban sprawl? My personal perceptions of suburbia aside, it is not until we remove the hurdles to inner city redevelopment and restore equilibrium to the burden caused by greenfield development that we can slow the unnecessarily damaging expansion happening at our peripheries. What does that mean exactly? It means restoring balance to the costs of development—that is, ensuring households living farther from the core pay their share proportionally necessary to offset both the visible and invisible weight we place on our infrastructure, including the additional miles of roadway to serve these areas; the added length of sewer lines, water lines, and power lines; the potential flooding impacts associated with increased paving; the loss of valuable wildlife habitat; the extension of transit service into the broader commuter shed; the stress on our water supply caused by excessive landscape irrigation; the stress on our power grid caused by heating and cooling our ever-larger homes and commercial buildings; and, the costs needed to construct and operate public facilities in order to keep emergency response times low as well as maintain desirable recreational amenities.

Whether our preference is for an urban lifestyle or a more suburban one, we can no longer accept the premise that either is without its costs. The truth is that our current system—complex as it may be—creates winners and losers in both circumstances. Gentrification often threatens the cultural assets of established neighborhoods, while sprawl exploits nature to create new ones. Mitigating these destructive patterns at both ends will only make us better neighbors, better citizens, and ultimately better people.

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