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  • Ellen Bassett

Gentrification: The Search for the Trojan Horse

In a lot of cities in the United States, gentrification is a watchword and a worry. Escalating housing prices, demolition of older homes, and the spread of steroidal infills that dwarf neighboring structures (see photo from Portland) really worry neighborhood leaders. Census data appear to support assertions that these processes are displacing lower income, often minority, residents. And while it is the largest and perhaps hippest cities in which this is most publicized (e.g., San Francisco; Portland, OR; Washington, DC and Seattle), gentrification is also affecting smaller places like the town in which I live most of the year, Charlottesville, Virginia.

One observation I have made is that localities and especially neighborhoods and neighborhood leaders appear to think that there is a simple driver of this process. So in Portland, Oregon there is outcry and worry when there is slated investment by the city in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. In this narrative, the surest sign of neighborhood doom is the escalating presence of Millennials on bikes, with or without helmets and/or tattoos. The association of biking with gentrification hit a high point in a conflict over the reworking of bike lanes on a major north-south arterial in around 2011. (See a paper by a former colleague at: ) In other places the blame has been placed on mixed use development and densification done to protect resource lands and reduce public infrastructure expenditure. Efforts to promote sustainability and green our cities are also identified as a causal factor. (See Sarah Dooling’s work on Ecological Gentrification and the displacement of the homeless in Seattle for more on that). And, of course, geographers have identified neo-liberalism and global capital as an agent, particularly in leading financial centers like New York and London. Right now in Charlottesville, blame for escalating prices and neighborhood change (or at least its threat) is being pinned on form-based codes promoted by New Urbanists. These codes encompass a lot of the blame agents above—mixed use, higher density, green infrastructure, bike and pedestrian amenities, mandated design characteristics, and space for other hipster attractants (pocket parks, craft beer).

Gentrification is, however, complex and there are myriad factors at play. These factors are socio-cultural (the return to the city), demographic (aging boomers and city-oriented millennials driving the real estate market and its offerings), regulatory (land use approvals that can drive up costs; planning systems trying to optimize land use and reduce sprawl), fiscal (reliance on the property tax and the continued operation of the growth machine), and governmental (a retreat from social welfare programs to support education and training to enable existing residents to compete in new labor markets; expansion of use of public private partnerships to provide goods and services that could be provided if we just taxed ourselves like most leading democracies.)

So what to do if faced with gentrification? If I had the answer to that, I would leap out of the academy and into private consulting. (Richard Florida sort of leapt. He had his silver bullet for redevelopment in the creative class, but now he is ruing the gentrifying outcomes. He did, however, keep his well-paying day job.) But it seems to me that we need to think about a two-pronged approach at minimum. Incomes and skill sets need to be enhanced in communities that face being priced out. We need educational systems that work and enable people to earn enough to live where they want (even need) to live. Affordable housing has to be a priority. I am a fan of using models that limit equity (like Community Land Trusts) to ensure affordability. We need to recognize that housing is more than just shelter—and it should be recognized as a basic human right. (Jimmy Carter agrees; see:

Putting public money into housing that moves out of affordability after a few years (as we did with Section 8) makes no sense. The “radical” idea that we should eliminate the mortgage interest deduction—which I do benefit from—is something that we really should entertain as a policy option. Learn more about that at Prosperity Now and their tax reform campaign. Trust me this will not be in the current administration’s tax proposal.

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