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Old 04-20-2005, 10:56 PM   #1
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Gentrification a good thing?

Studies: Gentrification a boost for everyone

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

Everyone knows gentrification uproots the urban poor with higher rents, higher taxes and $4 lattes. It's the lament of community organizers, the theme of the 2004 film Barbershop 2 and the guilty assumption of the yuppies moving in.

But everyone may be wrong, according to Lance Freeman, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University.

In an article last month in Urban Affairs Review, Freeman reports the results of his national study of gentrification - the movement of upscale (mostly white) settlers into rundown (mostly minority) neighborhoods.

His conclusion: Gentrification drives comparatively few low-income residents from their homes. Although some are forced to move by rising costs, there isn't much more displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods than in non-gentrifying ones.

In a separate study of New York City published last year, Freeman and a colleague concluded that living in a gentrifying neighborhood there actually made it less likely a poor resident would move - a finding similar to that of a 2001 study of Boston by Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor.

Freeman and Vigdor say that although higher costs sometimes force poor residents to leave gentrifying neighborhoods, other changes - more jobs, safer streets, better trash pickup - encourage them to stay. But to others, gentrification remains a dirty word.

"All you have to do is talk to people around here," says James Lewis, a tenant organizer in Harlem, New York's most famous black neighborhood. "Everybody with money is moving into Harlem, and the people who are here are being displaced."

Even residents who have survived gentrification tend to believe it forces people out.

Maria Marquez, 37, has slept on the sofa for 12 years to give her mother and son the two bedrooms in their apartment in Chicago's gentrifying Logan Square area. But eventually, she says, "we're gonna get kicked out. It's a matter of time."

Kathe Newman, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University, argues that Freeman's research in New York understates the extent of displacement. But she says he has raised a good question: How, in the face of relentlessly higher living costs, do so many poor people stay put?

A hot-button issue

Gentrification has spawned emotional disputes in cities around the nation:

• In northwest Fort Lauderdale, where streets are named for the district's prominent old African-American families, three of four new home buyers are white, according to a survey by the Sun-Sentinel. City Commissioner Carlton Moore told the newspaper his largely black constituency fears displacement, even though he says it won't happen.

• In the predominantly Latino working class barrio of East Austin, the new Pedernales Lofts condominiums have raised adjacent land values more than 50% since 2003. Last fall, someone hung signs from power lines outside the lofts saying, "Stop gentrifying the East Side" and "Will U give jobs to longtime residents of this neighborhood?"

• In Charlotte, a City Council committee voted in December to remove language from a city planning department report that downplayed gentrification's threat to neighborhoods. Development could uproot some people, councilman John Tabor told the Charlotte Observer "If there are people in these neighborhoods who have to move because they can't afford their taxes, that's who I want to help," he said.

• In Boston's North End, the destruction of the noisy Central Artery elevated highway promises to attract younger, more affluent new residents and dilute the traditional Italian immigrant culture.

In the two decades after World War II, government urban renewal schemes tore down whole neighborhoods and scattered residents.

Gentrification, which appeared in the 1970s, was something else. Motivated by high gasoline prices, suburban sprawl and a new taste for old architecture, some middle class whites began moving into neighborhoods that had gone out of fashion a generation or two earlier.

Here's how it works: A dilapidated and depopulated but essentially attractive neighborhood - solid housing stock, well laid-out streets, proximity to the city center - is discovered by artists, graduate students and other bohemians.

Block by block, the neighborhood changes. The newcomers fix up old buildings. Galleries and cafes open, and mom 'n' pop groceries close. City services improve. Finally, the bohemians are joined by lawyers, stockbrokers and dentists. Property values rise, followed by property taxes and rents.

To some urban planners, gentrification is a solution to racial segregation, a shrinking tax base and other problems. To others, it is a problem: Poor blacks and Hispanics, who've held on through hard times and sometimes started the neighborhood's comeback, are ousted by their own success.

Jose Sanchez, an urban planning expert at Long Island University in Brooklyn, says some changing neighborhoods stabilize with a mixture of people. But he says the poor - and the bohemian pioneers - can also be "washed out" by scheming landlords or government policies such as rezoning and urban renewal.

The poor stay put

Freeman and Vigdor say gentrification has gotten a bad rap. When they studied New York City and Boston, respectively, they found that poor and less educated residents of gentrifying neighborhoods actually moved less often than people in other neighborhoods - 20% less in New York.

For his national study published this year, Freeman found only a slight connection between gentrification and displacement. A poor resident's chances of being forced to move out of a gentrifying neighborhood are only 0.5% greater than in a non-gentrifying one.

So how do some neighborhoods change so dramatically? Freeman says it's mostly the result of what he calls "succession": Poor people in gentrifying neighborhoods who move from their homes - for whatever reason - usually are replaced by people who have more income and education.

Freeman and Vigdor say skeptics who view gentrification merely as " 'hood snatching" should remember three things:

• Many older neighborhoods have high turnover, whether they gentrify or not. Vigdor says that over five years, about half of all urban residents move.

• Such neighborhoods often have so much vacant or abandoned housing that there's no need to drive anyone out to accommodate people who want to move in. A quarter of the housing in one section of Boston's South End was vacant in 1970; the population had dropped by more than 50% over 20 years. Today, the population has increased more than 50%, and the vacancy rate is less than 2%.

• Rising housing costs in gentrifying districts may ensure that poor residents who do move leave the neighborhood, rather than settle elsewhere in it. Since their places usually are taken by more affluent, better educated people, the neighborhood's character and demographics change.

Vigdor argues that hatred of gentrification is largely irrational: "We were angry when the middle class moved out of the city," he says. "Now we're angry when they move back."

He asks whether Detroit, which in 50 years has lost half its population and most of its middle class, would not have been better off with gentrification than it has been without it.

A housing shortage

Gentrification is a symptom of a bigger problem: Metro areas don't create enough housing, Vigdor says. When prices in the suburbs get high enough, home buyers start looking at "undervalued" urban housing. If it's close to downtown and has some period charm, so much the better.

But critics insist gentrification does real harm to real people. Lewis, the Harlem organizer, says he can't get statements from people who were forced out because he doesn't know where they went.

A surprising number of poor people, however, manage to hold on. Some explanations:

•Homeownership. Homeowners face rising property taxes, but unlike renters they also stand to gain from rising values. Idida Perez, 46, complains that taxes and escrow payments on her two-family house near Logan Square in Chicago have jumped $300 a month over the past few years. But the house, which she and her husband bought for $200,000 in 1990, is now worth $400,000.

•Rent control. Samuel Ragland, 82, pays $115 a month for his one-room rent-controlled apartment on fast-gentrifying West 120th Street in Harlem. His building is being converted into condos, but under New York law, his landlord can't move him out unless he's given a comparable apartment at a comparable rent in the same area.

•Government subsidies. Carole Singleton, 52, had to retire from her job as a hospital administrator after she got cancer. But she's been able to stay in Harlem because she pays only $300 of the $971 rent for her apartment; a federal housing subsidy covers the rest.

•Doubling (or tripling) up. After the rent on Ofelia Sanchez's one-bedroom apartment in the Logan Square area went from $500 to $600, she and her two kids moved into a three-bedroom with Sanchez's mother and her sister's family. The apartment houses 10 people. Sanchez and her son share a bed, and her daughter sleeps on the floor. But Sanchez won't move; she works as a tutor at the local elementary school, and her mother babysits while she takes classes at Chicago State University. "This is home," she says of the neighborhood where she's lived for 26 of her 27 years. "I don't know anyone anywhere else."

•Landlord-tenant understandings. In return for $595 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment, tenant Maria Marquez rakes the leaves and shovels the front walk. She lays floor tile, repairs holes in the porch and changes light fixtures. It enables her, her son and her mother to stay in an area of Chicago where two-bedrooms rent for $1,000.

•More income devoted to rent. Poor New York households in gentrifying neighborhoods spent 61% of their income on housing, compared with 52% for the poor in non-gentrifying ones, Freeman found. Klare Allen, who is in her mid-40s, has been able to keep her three-bedroom apartment in Roxbury, a black neighborhood close to downtown Boston. But she has to pay $1,400 a month - 75% of her monthly income.

•Prayer. Alma Feliciano, 46, of Boston asked God for an affordable apartment that would allow her and her four children to stay in Roxbury and continue to attend her church, Holy Tabernacle. Her prayers were granted - a unit in a federally subsidized complex. Otherwise, she says, she would have had to leave the city.

One reason poor families make such heroic efforts to stay is because the quality of life is improving - partly thanks to gentrification.

In the Logan Square area, Marquez says, an influx of higher-income newcomers has coincided with what seems like more aggressive policing.

"The gang bangers are not around as much, and you don't see the prostitutes on the corners like you used to," she says.

Idida Perez hates the rising prices but admits, "There are a lot more small cafes owned by people from the neighborhood, and I am a big coffee drinker." And new businesses mean new jobs: Someone has to pour those lattes.

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Old 04-20-2005, 11:00 PM   #2
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Do people think its a good thing? Necessary evil? Or just plain evil?

I'm actually pro-gentrification b/c the benefits to me outweigh the cost, but I may be looking at things superficially.

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Old 04-21-2005, 02:56 AM   #3
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Until we somebody invents soylent green I think that it is the best option

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Old 04-21-2005, 10:16 AM   #4
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After actually seeing it in the three major cities I've lived in during my life and seeing what it does to families and how it forces them into even worse neighborhoods and causes overcrowding of others, I'm against it. It's the borderline familes it hurts the most. The families that are living in these neighborhoods barely scraping by in order to give their children a little better school and place to grow up. Once rent rises they are forced back to the true ghettos where their children get caught up in the life of the ghetto and lose out on education.
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Old 04-21-2005, 10:17 AM   #5
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i am so guilty of this. hard to know what to think.
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Old 04-21-2005, 10:41 AM   #6
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You can't stop gentrification, and nor should you.

What we need to do is redefine "affordable housing," so that it isn't a matter of putting poor people in a separate and run down part of the city with a high crime rate. When landlords get permits to run high-rise apartment buildings, a certain percentage should remain "affordable" for poor people.

Or, even then, "the projects" shouldn't be an insult. In Canada, "the projects" are respectable and safe. Not lavish, certainly, but liveable and, from the looks of it, respectable. In the U.S., it is synonymous with being run down and open to high crime rates.

Something needs to be done to create that "happy medium."


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