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Thursday, July 24th, 2014

A Gentrifier? Who, Me?

I’m always amazed at the low degree of self-awareness many of those who complain about gentrification have about their own role as gentrifiers. Back in 2013 John Joe Schlichtman and Jason Patch took this on with an paper that appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research called “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.” The full piece is available for download at Schlichtman’s site.

As they put it:

At the 2009 RC-21 conference in São Paulo, a young scholar began her presentation with the premise ‘we all know that gentrification is bad’. Urban scholars rail against the process of gentrification and its destruction of working-class communities. We read about the waves of gentrifiers and the kinds of cafes, boutiques and new amenities that they bring. We express worry to our peers that the city is going to become a bastion of elitism or a generic suburb stripped of diversity. Often, we treat gentrification as a contemporary form of urban class and racial warfare (Smith, 1996). As urbanists, however, we increasingly notice an elephant sitting in the academic corner: many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves. As Brown-Saracino (2010: 356) suggests, ‘many of us have firsthand experience with gentrification’. But what difference has this made on our research? Very little. We have created an artificial distance in our analysis because we do not examine our own relationship to the data. The last few years have witnessed lively debates among urbanists on the topic of gentrification. Some of these debates have seemed quite personal. The truth is that those of us situated in the phenomenon of gentrification carry suppositions on the issue that are deeply rooted in our personal biographies.

Their approach to this is to start with themselves, and provide an overview of their “journey lines” and how their own lives and academic careers interact with gentrification. Included is an overview of some of the forces that they see driving decisions that ultimately produce gentrification. It’s worth a read. Here’s a brief excerpt from Schlichtman’s story:

Over the last 15 years, I have lived in three clearly-gentrifying neighborhoods. In all three gentrifying neighborhoods, as with four other residences that I will not discuss, an economic pull has been a key impetus in my residential decision. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in 1998, I rented a $500/month room in a subdivided brownstone of single rooms with kitchenettes where residents on each floor shared a bathroom. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, from 2006 to 2007, my wife (who grew up in the neighborhood) and I rented an $800/month apartment on the top floor of my in-laws’ brownstone. In 2009, my wife and I purchased a home in Golden Hill, San Diego. At this writing, we are in the process of a move to Chicago.

In Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant, I feel that I was an unwitting gentrifier. I use the term ‘unwitting gentrifier’ to express the fact that I chose to live in these two neighborhoods for economic and practical reasons alone, two considerations that play into every voluntary re-location choice made by any consumer. I moved to New York for graduate school in the late 1990s and lived at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn (although I attended New York University) because it was the most inexpensive housing arrangement available.

Unlike a lot of academic papers, this one is written in plain English, so don’t be afraid to read the whole thing.

26 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture

26 Responses to “A Gentrifier? Who, Me?”

  1. urbanleftbehind says:

    As I used to tell my cohort of friends who were born/raised in the nearer-in parts of the Chicago northwest and southwest side that were being gentrified: “Dont worry about those yuppies – just become a muppie”.

  2. Gerhard E. says:

    “Just as we do not ascribe the agency-laden term ‘capitalist’ to all individuals within capitalist systems who do not actively resist the system, it is not useful to ascribe to all middle-class residents within gentrifying neighborhoods the agency of being a ‘gentrifier’.”

    This is the crux of it.

    Dare say this faulty logic goes back to the idea that the ‘personal is political’–the fusion of private and public life. Richard Sennett covers this in “The Fall of Public Man” (1992).

    By the same faulty logic, for example, individuals fret over (or brag about) whatever particular recycling habits they may have, not realizing their contribution is a grain of sand on the beach in comparison to environmental decisions made by multi-nationals and governments.

    Of course we always seek what’s best for ourselves and our family–within a certain moral range in tune with context. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue changes in public policy that might ‘contradict’ what we ourselves are doing.

    In fact, the argument that the ‘personal is political’ is a kind of naturalization of a market/libertarian attitude. Sure, people make decisions in their best interest…but there is a gigantic role for law and regulation which transcends this discussion about complicity and contradiction.

  3. John Morris says:

    With the exception of 2 or 3 cities this is not or should not be an issue.

    A huge amount of midwest cities suffer from underpopulation & a high percent of infill happens in places like downtowns or industrial districts that had few or no previous residents.

    Problems happen when new people move into a neighborhood and promote policies that raise taxes, construction costs or limit new building. Then they have crossed the line into hurting current residents.

    The number of US cities with legitimate supply vs demand issues is pretty small.

  4. Brian M says:

    John Morris: As exemplified by San Francisco. One San Franciscan I have been debating with at Aeon is of the opinion that because public transit et al is “inadequate” in SF, development must stop.

  5. John Morris says:

    San Francisco is the perfect example of a place where people move because they love it and then try to slam the door on the next guy.

    Ironically, many of the old time residents of DC & San Francisco managed without cars. We now see the same trend in Over The Rhine.

    When you slam the door on others or push out current residents by advocating policies that drive up costs- (Historic Zoning, Height Limits, Parking Minimums, Fancy Restorations, Frivolous public amenities) you become a real problem.

  6. David Holmes says:

    John – you make a good point regarding cities in the Midwest and the prevalence of new urban development occurring in areas where there were few, and in some cases no, previous residents. I’m always left scratching my head over the seeming obsession with gentrification when it seems to be a problem in such a small handful of cities. In Milwaukee, the few residential neighborhoods that have gentrified have generally been historic mansion districts where the housing prices pre-gentrification were perhaps 1/4 the price needed to justify not just restoration but basic repairs ($50K new roof, etc.). These types of neighborhoods should also be off limits for discussions where gentrification is presented as a problem.

  7. Columbus has a complete circumferential highway around downtown, a new-world city wall (and a river boundary on the west) that magically doubles apartment prices inside the innerbelt. I pay an affordable $1,100 a month for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath 1,200 sq ft apartment just one block north of I-670. Just one block south of I-670; Downtown, that is; apartments go for what I call the 2-2-2. Two bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $2,000 a month.; for less sq ft! Downtown didn’t actually gentrify; there were no apartments and people before. However, the downtown rents are gentrifying me. In a matter of years I won’t be able to afford where I live, because the rents are going up because of the proximity to the high downtown cost of living spilling north over the freeway. I feel as though I’m Oakland to Downtown’s San Francisco. I like where I live; I just won’t be able to afford it in a few years.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    It’s hard to assert that “policy” causes the phenomenon cited by Dwight above. One might assert that the free operation of the market is what prices people out of certain areas.

    We’ve had the discussion about density and affordability here before: it is not typically in an investor’s best interest to do anything except maximize his selling price or rents per square foot, even when spreading high land cost among a high number of units. The operation of the free market doesn’t preserve affordable housing.

    This is especially true in places with a market-based property tax regime. Everyone’s tax assessment goes up when the neighborhood gentrifies, and so it is that long-time residents on limited or fixed incomes get priced out of their own homes whether they rent or own.

    Creative destruction is fine, until it destroys your carefully-built life.

    California once had a property tax assessment system that was (as I understood it) locked on the last selling price. So one knew what one’s assessed value would be as long as s/he owned the property. This is, of course, unfair because two identical houses last sold 30 years apart would have far different tax bases. But it did protect retirees.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    I should have written “the operation of the free market doesn’t preserve safe, decent affordable housing”. It does preserve the next ring of declined housing for a while, dooming the low income residents to constant motion outward as the inner core of a city redevelops.

    Meanwhile, many service jobs exist in gentrified areas…

  10. Derek Rutherford says:

    I think too often critics of gentrification have an urge to preserve certain neighborhoods as if in amber. In a healthy city, many neighborhoods will be in flux at a given time – that a given area is undergoing demographic change is not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly no urbanist would criticize a neighborhood that had a sudden influx of migrants from Central America? Yet, when the migrants are middle/upper-middle class anglos, urbanists get upset? Really?

    The only legitimate criticism I can think of against gentrification relates to increased cost of living in cases where there is no comparable-cost neighborhood in the vicinity. And in those few cases, I agree with @John, that the real issue is a set of local policies that prevent/discourage the creation of lower cost housing options.

    I further agree with him that this is only a real issue in a few cities, SF prominently among them. SF could use some 40+ story residential towers with good access to public transportation. And it won’t get them, at least not anytime soon.

    As for most other cities, their problems don’t include gentrification. Most cities would welcome 1000s of middle/upper-middle class migrants who wanted to live in old urban neighborhoods, even if they were mostly anglo ;-)

  11. John Morris says:

    “The real issue is a set of local policies that prevent/discourage the creation of lower cost housing options.”

    The specific neighborhood here, Fort Greene, Brooklyn is largely protected by historic preservation laws. It borders downtown Brooklyn which banned residential development in a wide area and Bushwick which had restrictive industrial zoning. The area around the old Brooklyn Navy Yard also had industrial only zoning.

    These policies helped to create an acute housing shortage.

  12. John Morris says:

    Wow, my NYC street cred is shot. Fort Greene borders on Williamsburg & East Williamsburg not Bushwick.

    Anyway, these areas and most of waterfront Brooklyn had the same issues with restrictive industrial only zoning.

    I consider the area called Clinton Hill on the map to be Fort Greene.

  13. Matthew Hall says:

    John Morris, Many of the “old time residents” of OTR weren’t really residents. They spent their time in OTR, but didn’t actually live there. Very little gentrification of previously occupied buildings in OTR has occurred. By the 1980s, even the poor wouldn’t live there.

  14. John Morris says:

    This rings true. Very similar to the Bowery and lower East Side of NYC.

    Even so, the area seems to be going straight upscale with no stops. One new building on Vine seemed to dedicate most of its space to cars. Expensive and ugly at the same time.

  15. Chris Barnett says:

    Derek, ” a couple of new 40 story towers” in SF wouldn’t be any more affordable than existing housing in SF. What developer in his/her right mind would spend tens of millions on a new tower and then charge less than current market rates?

  16. Paul Lambie says:

    It seems to me that the problem with gentrification is that it pushes lower- and even middle-income people out of walkable, urban neighborhoods that are well served by transit. So, the simple solution would be to allow for, and even encourage if not mandate, the construction of more truly walkable and truly urban neighborhoods served by transit where new neighborhoods are being developed, i.e. in the “suburbs”. Otherwise, I think most of the discussion will merely be academic.

    Despite some efforts here and there, cities will not stop upper-income residents from moving into the neighborhoods they desire, especially when the cities’ finances will benefit from such transformations. And despite the fact that gentrification only causes major concerns in a handful of cities right now, population growth dictates that all the most walkable urban neighborhoods will eventually be gentrified into upper-class enclaves, unless the trend of desiring such amenities dissipates. So, let’s start actually building more walkable, urban, transit-served neighborhoods, so everyone can enjoy them.

  17. John Morris says:

    I said gentrification SHOULD only be a big concern in a few cities with legitimate supply and demand issues.

    However, one seems to be seeing areas with very small urban populations and no real shortage of land developing these problems.

    Public policy (height limits, historic zoning, building codes, parking mandates or high end public amenities) often work to cleanse neighborhoods of poor people. Parking mandates often push actual non car owning residents out for parking. Downtown stadiums have also been a good way of removing poor residents.

    Often these areas lack enough wealthy and upper middle class residential demand to fully recover. Providence is a good example of this.

  18. Derek Rutherford says:

    @Chris, an increase in residential property supply leads to a decrease in overall property prices (not necessarily just in the new towers). SF is land-constrained due to its geography, and height constrained due to policy. In the presence of high demand (like SF currently is experiencing), constrained supply leads to rapid price increases (like SF currently is experiencing). One of SF’s constraints can be fixed (policy) and one cannot (geography).

    Of course, one of the reasons behind the current policy is that current landowners don’t want lower prices – after all, an increase in supply means smaller financial gains for them (not to mention crowding). This is a negative result of SF’s political culture, which purports to be in favor of the “working class” but in fact selects policies that drive it away. Other cities have the same phenomena (it definitely exists in Boston), but rarely to the same degree.

    Cities that combine high demand with flexible supply (Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, for example) can enjoy economic growth without driving up housing prices to the same degree (note: the cities I list also have few geographic restrictions as well). Historically, NYC and Chicago were the same way – that’s why Manhattan and the Loop/Northside of Chicago have so many residential towers, which also contributes to the heavy use of public transit in both cities.

    This is really just basic economics.

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    Show me one new tower in NYC or Chicago that is both downtown and affordable (rent or mortgage payment = 30% of area median income or less).

    Really…high cost new towers have nothing to do with what current residents want. They have to do with developer pro-forma; steel high-rise is more expensive per square foot than frame construction. The developer needs to cover higher cost of land and construction. It’s like oil and gas to a degree: the higher market price gives developers the incentive to bring out higher-cost product.

    Macro theory (increase in supply decreases price in a market) breaks down at the micro level in real estate: if an area is desirable, an increase in supply MIGHT just keep the rate of increase down to the area average. Maybe. This is so because every neighborhood/district is boundary-constrained, either by popular definition or by actual walking distance to the desirable amenities.

    At the micro level (i.e. within a desirable neighborhood) a small increase in supply will never meet the demand: witness the ever-taller ultra-luxe towers being built along Central Park in NYC. Nor will a high-cost, small increase in supply cause rents or prices to fall. If the developer can’t get his/her price in the market, s/he won’t build.

    This is true even in a theoretically non-constrained market. A pre-WW2 2-bedroom/1-bath worker bungalow on the east or southeast side of Indianapolis might sell between $30,000 and $75,000 today depending on how close to parks, trails, or other amenities it might be. And there are plenty of them available.

    But a whole neighborhood of such houses exists in the highly walkable Broad Ripple-Glendale-Canterbury area (the city’s Monon Trail runs through it) and selling prices are 2-3X what they are elsewhere in the city; it’s the one place in the metro where you can find small houses having 8×10 galley kitchens with granite, stainless, and Euro cabinetry updates.

    Yes, there are height and density limits, but only in one limited spot has anyone actually torn down old bungalows to build more density. This is because of one of the other attributes of place: part of the “bundle” of what makes the neighborhood desirable is the current built form (in this case, small single-family houses with small front yards and porches).

    As we have seen from decades of bulldozer urban renewal, wiping out wide swaths of existing walkable neighborhoods and rebuilding towers doesn’t work in anyone’s favor.

  20. Alon Levy says:

    Chris, the point is not that the new tower is going to be affordable. It won’t be. It’s that it will make other housing affordable by increasing supply. Consider the following examples:

    1. Vancouver and Toronto, both of which are very pro-development, have cheap housing by US coastal standards. Vancouverites think their city is expensive, but the rents there are lower than in coastal California. (Purchase prices aren’t; that’s a housing bubble, not terribly relevant to the renter.) Even the modern downtown towers are surprisingly cheap if you’re used to New York, where high-rise market-rate buildings are all ultra-luxury.

    2. In Tokyo, the combination of loose zoning, fast development in the inner city in the last 20 years, and population decline in the rest of Japan have contributed to drops in housing prices. Tokyo itself keeps growing, but the population of people who’d like to move there isn’t growing the way the population of people who’d like to move to New York is.

    3. In New York, the one area where the residents want and get upzoning – South Williamsburg – has relatively cheap new construction: a family-size apartment sells for $400,000. This comes from the high Hasidic birth rates: in South Williamsburg, and nowhere else in the first world except perhaps other ultra-Orthodox enclaves, the people looking for new apartments are the children of existing residents and not newcomers, which means the existing residents want to accommodate them.

    Overall construction costs for skyscrapers are a lot lower than people think. Counting only hard costs, a square meter of building costs about $2,500-3,000 in a wide range of heights. Supertall skyscrapers are more expensive, but the $2,500/m^2 figure persists deep into the three figures of height: the tallest recent tower in San Francisco, the nearly 200-meter Millennium Tower, was as far as I can tell $300 million for 107,000 m^2. Occasionally you see more expensive buildings: either they’re supertall and then they might cost twice as much (Bank of America Tower was $6,000/m^2), or they’re ultra-luxury (the Apple HQ is about $25,000/m^2, and it only has four floors), or they’re a combination of those. A lot of the really high figures you see for urban skyscrapers include land costs – e.g. the Millennium Tower actually cost the developer $600 million, counting land and such; these are exactly the costs that upzoning attacks.

    And if you can make sales price drop to construction costs plus a 25%-ish rate of return, then suddenly a 100-m^2 family apartment costs $300,000 or not much more. At the high price-to-rent ratios of expensive cities (New York is about 20), that’s $1,250 per month in rent. Long story short, depending on what you think the minimum appropriate standard of living is for housing, somewhere between the top two thirds and four fifths of the US income distribution would be able to afford market-rate housing.

  21. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, the point is that developers won’t put in a low-margin development in a high-end neighborhood. It would be irrational. Nor will the government clamp price controls on finished product.

    Even assuming such a thing is possible, $1250 a month in housing cost is not affordable for the lower half of the US income distribution, using the HUD standard of 30% of gross income to housing and depending on local utility costs and property tax levels. $1250 is affordable at about the current US median household income and above. This means that about half of what is the “middle class” by definition is locked out of affordable housing in gentrified areas even under your scheme.

    Granted, median household income in the NYC ($64K) and SF ($75K) metros are higher than the US median, and so the “problem” is that maybe only 40-45% of the population in those cities are priced out. But if existing residents in the lower two quintiles of income distribution were already living in and invested in a now-gentrifying neighborhood and get priced out of their own neighborhood, then gentrification still creates a non-trivial social problem that increased density won’t solve.

    Keep in mind that close to 65% of US households are owners, not renters. For a buyer with good credit at current rates, $1250 in monthly principal, interest, property tax, homeowner’s insurance, and utilities buys about a $200,000 home. The purchase figure would be less if there are association/coop/condo fees; this isn’t close to your capped high-rise cost. And the median size of a smaller existing home is larger, something closer to 150-160m^2 (~1600-1700sf), while the median size for new US construction is closer to 200m^2.

  22. It’s true that new development is almost always higher end, if not luxury. That’s still a good thing. It means that the demand of the high-end purchasers or renters are being satisfied so that they won’t have to resort to buying up cheaper units and renovating them or renting multiple apartments and combining them together. If the wealthy want to live somewhere, they’ll find a way to do it. Trying to limit development to keep them away only becomes self-defeating because then they buy up the cheaper housing and upgrade it, like the houses in Broad Ripple. The lower and more moderate income folks still get displaced.

  23. John Morris says:

    “A lot of the really high figures you see for urban skyscrapers include land costs.”

    Which are partly fueled by the low supply of land zoned for high rises of this type.

    How much of the cost in many American buildings really ads to the quality of life?

    A new apartment complex in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhine seems to dedicate more than 50% of land to parking. Crazy, since older rehabs in the same neighborhood are seeing demand with little or no off street parking.

  24. John Morris says:

    Shadyside in Pittsburgh has the same issue. A new building in almost every way identical to an older one built with no parking will have 10-20 spaces.

    If the old buildings have good demand without parking, why do new ones in the same location need it?

    Relative to most cities, the parking footprint in Shadyside is pretty modest but new developments seem to be going backwards.

  25. Brian M says:

    Read the comments over at Socket Site, A real-estate oriented site focusing on San Francisco (and other metros now) and you always have trolls bemoaning the fact that the newest developments in SF are providing fewer parking spaces than once mandated.

    If one needs an automobile-centered lifestyle, thousands of square miles of suburbia await your choice.

  26. John Morris says:

    The US has lots of places like Providence’s Olneyville that are “gentrifying” and declining at the same time. Clearly something is really screwed up.

    If most gentrification or price appreciation really reflected better housing or neighborhoods it wouldn’t be a problem. Too often it reflects markets hopelessly distorted by eminent domain abuse, crony capitalism, parking minimums and restrictive zoning.

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