The Cost of Doing Good?


We tend to not to think of the downside of improving communities. This fall I wrote a profile on Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA), a community organization from Harrison, a low-income neighborhood in North Minneapolis MN. Prior to meeting with HNA’s director, I did some homework on Harrison and saw that the Blue Line light-rail transit was slated to expand to the community in the next few years. Naturally, I thought this would be a great improvement for the area and expected HNA’s director to talk about how happy they were about the expansion. While HNA’s director did indicate that the transit expansion is economically and socially beneficial for the area, making it easier for residents to find jobs and expanding the markets of local businesses, they expressed concerns over the expected gentrification. Specifically, my interviewee was concerned that the 70% of Harrison residents who are renters would see their rents raised to unaffordable levels given the rise in property value that tends to occur when communities are improved (1). I left my meeting feeling surprised and humbled. My naïve assumption that something like a public transit expansion could only be a good thing for communities and their residents had proven to be false. Having done some more research, I realized that this issue brings up especially troubling concerns when it comes to promoting equity in urban areas – residents in lower income communities are more susceptible to the negative consequences of gentrification following any efforts to improve these communities.

While many interpret the word “gentrification” to mean different things, economist David Hartley suggests that gentrification “is commonly associated with an increase in income, rising home prices or rents, and sometimes with changes in the occupational mix and educational level of neighborhood residents” (2). Rising home prices can cause displacement of homeowners as well as renters given the rising property taxes that correspond with rising home values (3). Rising rent prices have a disproportionate effect on the poor as 70% of poor renters in the U.S. spend more than half of their income on rent (4), while the average renter spends closer to 30% (5). Furthermore, while many cities such as Minneapolis often pledge to create affordable housing projects in tandem with urban developments such as transit expansions, federal classifications of “affordable housing” are generally outdated and inconsistent with contemporary costs of urban living (6). 

While some have suggested that the harms of gentrification have been exaggerated given that it can lead to financial benefits to those living in gentrified communities (2), there is a wide body of research suggesting otherwise. Research has shown a positive relationship between gentrification of communities and evictions (7). Furthermore, arguments that focus solely on the financial impact of gentrification give no regard to the social and psychological consequences of evictions or “forced moves” (informal evictions that involve no paperwork). A recent study conducted by sociologists from Harvard University and Rice University found that in addition to the “robust relationship between recent eviction and material hardship”, recently evicted mothers are far more likely to develop depression than mothers who did not experience eviction (8). Evictions also tend to cause further financial instability for low-income families. Eviction, and the subsequent search for new housing, makes it difficult for one to hold down a permanent job. A recent study found that workers who have recently been evicted are up to 15% more likely to be fired from a job than workers who have not recently been evicted (9). Additionally, residential instability has a vast butterfly effect that includes lack of school stability for children, making it difficult for them to invest in, and eventually graduate from, high school (10). Lastly, having an eviction on your record makes it much harder to find housing in the future, as landlords are legally permitted to discriminate based on past evictions (4).

Given all of this, it is clear that gentrification needs to be avoided and it is understandable that many community activists make it their primary concern. However, the answer cannot be to cease working to improve communities. There are many structural inequities that exist in urban areas across the United States that must be addressed, whether this be poor schools, old infrastructure, or lack of access to affordable fruits and vegetables. Indeed, it does not require too much imagination to consider ways in which BrightSide Produce could eventually contribute to gentrification. BrightSide is currently piloting a program within stores to improve their produce shelving and displays. It is entirely possible that work like this on a larger scale could contribute to gentrification and thus force the displacement of the people that BrightSide is trying to serve.

Given the troubling relationship that exists between work that improves communities and gentrification, it is essential that cities across the country strive to develop public policies that can counteract some of the forces that cause widespread displacement. Cities can offer tax credits for long-time permanent residents, invest further in affordable housing (that is actually affordable for people), or reform property taxes or prohibit large-scale luxury development in neighborhoods at risk of gentrification (11). There is precedent in the United States of government intervention to combat housing displacement caused by gentrification. Rent control policies, which “protect tenants in privately owned residential properties from excessive rent increases by mandating reasonable and gradual rent increases, while at the same time ensuring that landlords receive a fair return on their investment” were implemented in over 170 municipalities across the United States in the late 1970s (12). However, by the mid-1980s the political organizing of landlord associations as well as the anti-regulatory political context led to the rolling back of many rent control laws (12).

Clearly, there are no easy options available to cities wishing to limit the negative consequences of gentrification. But it seems clear that community activists and leaders should not strive to limit projects that look to improve communities. Instead, we should seek to change housing laws and other policies that create an environment where improvements end up hurting the very people they are trying to serve.

References

  1. Neighborhood data & trends for Harrison. Minnesota Compass. Retrieved from http://www.mncompass.org/profiles/neighborhoods/minneapolis/harrison
  2. Hartley, Daniel. "Gentrification and Financial Health." Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, last modified Nov 1, accessed 4/24/, 2018, https://www.clevelandfed.org/newsroom-and-events/publications/economic-trends/2013-economic-trends/et-20131106-gentrification-and-financial-health.aspx.
  3. Price, David. "7 Policies that could Prevent Gentrification." Shelterforce., last modified May 23, accessed 4/24/, 2018, https://shelterforce.org/2014/05/23/7_policies_that_could_prevent_gentrification/.
  4. Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted. First Edition ed. New York: Crown Publishers. 4.
  5. Lauren Lyons Cole. "Forget Coffee and Avocado Toast — most People Blow nearly 40% of their Money in the Same Place." Business Insider., last modified August 24, accessed 4/24/, 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-save-more-money-2017-8.
  6. Kaul, Greta. 2017. "Is there — Or is there Not — an Affordable Housing Crisis in the Twin Cities?" MinnPost, April 10,. https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2017/10/there-or-there-not-affordable-housing-crisis-twin-cities.
  7. Chum, Antony. 2015. "The Impact of Gentrification on Residential Evictions." Urban Geography 36 (7): 1083-1098. doi:10.1080/02723638.2015.1049480. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2015.1049480.
  8. Desmond, Matthew and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro. 2015. "Eviction's Fallout: Housing, Hardship, and Health." Social Forces94 (1): 295-324. doi:10.1093/sf/sov044. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1703935850.
  9. Desmond, Matthew and Carl Gershenson. 2016. "Housing and Employment Insecurity among the Working Poor." Social Problems 63 (1): 46-67. doi:10.1093/socpro/spv025.
  10. Evans, Gary W. 2004. "The Environment of Childhood Poverty." American Psychologist59 (2): 77-92. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.59.2.77. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14992634.
  11. Levy, D., Comey, J. and S. Padilla. 2006. Keeping the Neighborhood Affordable: A Handbook of Housing Strategies for Gentrifying Areas.
  12. Policy Link 2003. Rent Controls. www.policylink.org/EquitableDevelopment/content/tools/8/24-all.asp?print. (Accessed April 25, 2018.)

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