Understanding... Gentrification

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Written by: Emily Chen, Jenny Dorsey, Edric Huang, Isla Ng

Edited by: Alicia Kennedy, Sarah Squarsino Overton, Claire Sprouse, Kimberly Yang

Last Updated: 5.25.22

 

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Overview

Gentrification is the process when a previously dis-invested neighborhood changes significantly due to investment and development in the area, often in conjunction with the arrival of more affluent residents. However, in most cases of gentrification across the U.S., the benefits of the increased investment and interest in a neighborhood are distributed unevenly and inequitably. 

In his book Capital City, urban planning scholar Sam Stein explains the current political state of places like New York City as a conflict between two opposing forces: urban planners, who are, in theory, supposed to design and regulate cities in the interest of all residents, and capital, which represents the interests of developers and big business. He argues that gentrification is what happens when “capital rules and planners follow.” 

Different groups of people tend to see and discuss this phenomenon through different lenses. For long-time residents, gentrification could be a direct threat that leaves them at risk of displacement; but for city officials and a new wave of residents, it may be seen as a transition that “cleans up the neighborhood,” makes it more livable, and improves the city’s bottom line. 

This primer explores gentrification’s long origins in the U.S., its massive scale, and its profound impact on the communities it touches. We’ll also examine popular media portrayals of gentrification, which tend to obscure the role of policy in favor of framing it as a matter of interpersonal strife. Finally, we’ll discuss ways to imagine positive change and investment within a capitalist economy that inherently encourages more (and faster) gentrification in our communities.

Table of Contents

What is Gentrification?

An overview of gentrification, how it's measured today, and how it differs from the term revitalization​

The Lifecycle Stages of Gentrification

Understanding the stages of gentrification, key actors, and its implications on a neighborhood

 

The Impact of Gentrification

Examining the impact that gentrification has had through the lens of direct and indirect displacement, increased police presence, and climate gentrification

 

Origins: What Made Gentrification Possible?

An in-depth dive into the social, economic, and political forces that diverted investment from certain neighborhoods and paved the way for gentrification 

 

Complicating the Aesthetic and Media Representations of Gentrification

An analysis of gentrification in popular culture and how media portrayal shapes public narratives and movements

 

What Can We Do To Intervene?

Ways to take individual action, coalition-build, and protest against policies that reinforce gentrification

 

Additional Resources

Relevant resources to read and learn more about gentrification

 
 

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is the process when a neighborhood changes significantly due to renewed investment and development in the area, often in conjunction with the arrival of more affluent residents. In most cases to date, the benefits of this increased investment and interest in a neighborhood—such as improved street infrastructure and new businesses—have been distributed unevenly and inequitably. A mix of social, political, and economic dynamics begins a domino effect that has now been categorized into different stages in the gentrification lifecycle, starting with displacement of long-time residents and eventually shifting the cultural character of the locale. 

The term ‘gentrification’ was first coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass. Derived from the word ‘gentry’ (the class of society below the nobility), gentrification was meant to capture how a new class of ‘urban gentry’ were invading working-class neighborhoods “until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” At the time, Glass attributed gentrification in 1960s London to changes in rent control laws that hurt tenants and increased government support of real estate development (The New York Review). 

Today, gentrification can be understood as “Reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes, and towards being spaces that generate capital for the rich” (P.E. Moskowitz, How to Kill A City). As a result, various groups relate to and understand the concept of gentrification very differently, depending on their identities and privileges. Long-time residents of an immigrant enclave may see gentrification as a threat to their way of life and erasure of their roots in the area. White-collar workers with more socioeconomic and racial privilege may view gentrification as a force for good that makes more areas of a city “livable.” City officials may regard gentrification as neighborhood revitalization that attracts new residents to the area and improves commerce. Marginalized individuals with limited mobility may fear gentrification as a force of economic violence that can push them out of their homes. 

The changing nature of gentrification makes it a term and a topic that is difficult to tackle. Popular media portrayals of gentrification tend to focus on the signs of gentrification: individual residents moving into an area (many of whom are part of what theorist Richard Florida termed the “creative class”), business owners of trendy new stores, or towering new developments in the area. For example, Becca Brennan sparked outrage when she advertised her Crown Heights, Brooklyn sandwich shop by using its bullet hole-ridden wall as a prop. In NYC’s Chinatown, new luxury apartment complexes are being blamed for the evictions of working-class residents. While these stories can help start a conversation around gentrification's impact, they tend to reduce it to a matter of cultural and/or interpersonal strife rather than one deeply rooted in political and economic systems. (Read more about this in Complicating the Aesthetic and Media Representations of Gentrification.)

“Someone who learned about gentrification solely through newspaper articles might believe that gentrification is just the culmination of several hundred thousand people’s individual wills to open coffee shops and cute boutiques, grow mustaches and buy records. But those are the signs of gentrification, not its causes.” 

                                   - P.E. Moskowitz, How To Kill A City

Understanding gentrification requires a zooming out from individual actors and actions, to the confluence of systemic forces that create conditions ripe for gentrification. First, certain areas must be purposefully disadvantaged and divested to create an arbitrage opportunity once new investment and capital becomes available. Racist federal policies like redlining and economic changes like deindustrialization are significant factors contributing to inequitable geographies within a city. (Read more about these factors in the Origins section.) 

Next, an acute change in city policy tends to kickstart a wave of gentrification. For example, after Detroit declared financial bankruptcy, it relied heavily on private enterprise to rebuild its central downtown. Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and gave governmental officials a clear path to rebuild with a very different target resident in mind. And NYC’s increasing reliance on generating tax revenue from real estate spurred more and more pro-businesses policies. (Read more about these stages in the Life Cycle Stages of Gentrification section.)

While this primer focuses predominantly on mainland U.S. cities, it’s also important to note the role of gentrification in the economic landscapes of highly desirable, tourism-dependent municipalities. Particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, wherein wealthy, white-collar professionals have increasingly sought out greener pastures from which to work remotely, places like Maui, Hawai’i and San Juan, Puerto Rico have fallen victim to an influx of undistributed wealth. 

While this may look quite different than gentrification in New York or Los Angeles, the basic underlying dynamic is the same: government regulations, or lack thereof, encourage the concentration of wealth in certain areas, while pricing out locals who may have lived there for generations, and/or identify these places as ancestral homes. In Puerto Rico, a dramatic tax incentive—the proponents of which have argued that it will help pull the island out of bankruptcy—has been increasingly attracting cryptocurrency investors. “High-earning investors in the U.S. pay up to 20% in capital gains tax and as much as 37% on short-term gains. In Puerto Rico, they pay nothing.” (Bloomberg

All together, these social, economic, and political forces that shape gentrification show it is not a natural phenomenon but a function of capitalism: it is systemic violence resulting from individuals, corporations, and governments prioritizing economic growth and profitability above the welfare of people. As Professors John Logan and Harvey Molotch write in Urban Fortunes, “the city-as-a-growth-machine is an inherent feature of late capitalism in the United States. Cities have become ways to produce, manage, attract, and extract capital.” Simply put, unaffordable housing tends to follow an unregulated influx of wealth.

To fully understand gentrification requires a zooming out from individual actors and actions, to the confluence of systemic forces that create conditions ripe for gentrification.

Measuring Gentrification

While there is no consensus on the best or most accurate methodology for classifying neighborhood gentrification, three main methods have emerged: the Freeman model, Landis model, and Urban Displacement Project Regional Early Warning System. The Freeman and Landis model are well-known measures of gentrification, with Freeman being the gold standard, while the UDP system captures a contemporary view. Each methodology uses slightly different factors, with some common ones being median household income, housing availability (or housing stock) in the area, and residents' educational attainment level. 

The Freeman model classifies a census tract as gentrifiable if it meets specific criteria, while the Landis Model only considers median household income. However, both models are limited in that they do not define any stages of gentrification. In contrast, the UDP system classifies each area into one of eight categories spanning from the early stages of gentrification to “undergoing displacement” and “advanced gentrification.” It also incorporates additional factors such as proximity to jobs and transit, housing price appreciation in the area, and loss of affordable housing units. However, the UDP system relies on the availability and collection of data that is not always publicly available, making it difficult to completely understand the extent gentrification is affecting cities across the country.

Gentrification vs. Revitalization

To some, gentrification and revitalization seem the same: investment and improvements in an area result in safer streets, better physical infrastructure, a greater selection of diverse businesses, and better public resources and services like schools, green spaces, and community centers. However, due to the myriad systemic forces at play, the actual benefits of incoming capital to an area are unlikely to be distributed evenly without deliberate planning and oversight from city officials.

The term gentrification is generally used to refer to scenarios where community investment has had an inequitable impact—for example, the displacement and/or cultural exclusion of long-time residents—whereas revitalization, hypothetically, should be investment into an area that ensures inclusion of both long-term and new residents. In reality, however, revitalization is often used as a euphemism for gentrification as opposed to actually describing the merits of a neighborhood receiving inclusive and equitable investment.

Due to the myriad systemic forces at play, the actual benefits of incoming interest and investment capital to an area are unlikely to be distributed evenly without deliberate planning and oversight from city officials.
 

This next section covers the more visible “causes” of gentrification. However, it is important to recognize these catalysts could not have been put into action without pre-existing inequities that provided the blueprint for gentrification in these neighborhoods; factors such as segregation, deindustrialization, redlining, suburbanization, and decentralization. We will cover these in more depth in the Origins section.

Researchers have been documenting the emergence of and forces behind gentrification as far back as the 1950s. Rather than identifying with a single theory of gentrification, the lifecycle of gentrification centers the role of systemic forces rather than individual actors. The pervasive role of capitalism, in particular, incentivizes policymakers and private enterprise alike to utilize gentrification as a way to change the structure of U.S. cities. 

When city governments are tasked with generating more revenue, or in cases where public resources and services require more funding than is publicly available, city governments often turn to property taxes, investments from private sector businesses (such as real estate developers), and consumers with higher discretionary spending—such as the “creative class”—to fill that gap. This creates a vicious cycle of reliance on making the city more palatable to these types of businesses and residents.

Real estate developers and corporations have become some of the largest power brokers in a city, possessing the ability to influence policy for their own profit.
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Even counterbalancing forces like city planners, who are commissioned to increase real estate values while looking out for the best interests of residents, often end up contributing to gentrification. For example, they provide developers with land and tax incentives, or specifically look to attract residents with higher incomes. As Samuel Stein outlines in Capital City, “Capitalism makes the best of planning impossible: any good that [city] planners do is filtered through a system that dispossesses those who cannot pay.”

With this economic and political context, the lifecycle of gentrification can be understood as moving through three different stages

1. Setting the Stage: Government / Policy Foundation

Cities in need of additional sources of income will use a number of levers to drive additional economic opportunities. For example:

  • Offering corporate tax breaks

  • Changing zoning laws

  • Increasing land values

  • Supporting pro-business policies

 

For some cities, this need could stem from an extenuating circumstance. For example, after Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 with more than $18 billion in debt, the city declared itself “open for immediate investment” and began prioritizing new residents and businesses (NPR). Mayor Mike Duggan applauded the merging of public and private interest, stating, “Isn't this an amazing week in Detroit? We started Monday with a historic commitment by the corporations to help transform [our] neighborhoods.”

In other cities, policy changes may be part of a gradual shift in the priorities of government officials. In San Francisco, the rapid expansion of the technology industry has driven up demand (and thus prices) of housing within city limits, making many neighborhoods unaffordable for long-time residents. Between 2010 and 2015, the area “added six times as many jobs as it did housing units.” (Urban Institute) This has been accelerated by pro–real estate/business policies. For example, the 1985 Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants and sell the units as condominiums, and has resulted in the eviction of hundreds of residents as developers purchase rent-controlled buildings, renovate the units, and turn around to sell them to wealthier tenants. 

Cities also have other stealthy ways of raising the value of property and land, such as through receiverships. In California, receiverships were first introduced in 1988 to allow the state to control problematic properties by installing a “receiver” to take control of properties that pose a risk to “health and safety.” Homeowners are then legally required to cover all related costs including the receiver, associated legal fees, and any required home improvement costs. (SF Chronicle). As a result, the state has become increasingly able to use receivers to force changes in certain areas by displacing homeowners or even demolishing their buildings. Leonard Powell is one such homeowner, who has accumulated more than $680,000 in loans after being assigned a receiver to oversee renovations for his home: although initial budgets were $100,000, they quickly ballooned to $700,000 with more than $1.1 million in fees—far more than what he could afford.

2. Intermediate Stages of Gentrification: The Power of Developers

Enabled by government policies, real estate developers will identify neighborhoods of interest based on their “exchange value”—that is, the area’s potential for economic value relative to its current value (How to Kill a City). Any area that currently has low property values, but also has characteristics that are attractive to new, more affluent residents, has high exchange value. These traits either already exist (like cultural character and history) or can be reasonably added (like proximity to a transportation route or access to a natural resource). Under this purely capitalist mindset, the “highest and best use” for poor neighborhoods would be to change them dramatically in order to attract wealthier residents. As Logan and Molotch explain, “The crux of poor people’s urban problem is that their routines—indeed their very being—are often damaging to exchange values.” 

In order to capture the most of this exchange value, real estate developers build housing complexes geared towards attracting wealthier residents. Often, this looks like luxury complexes with few—if any—affordable housing units. Even in cases where real estate developers are required to build a certain number of affordable units in new complexes, the numbers built fall dramatically short of the estimated seven million additional affordable housing units needed nationwide. 

Notably, landlords can also act as individual agents within this process. In the 1970s and 1980s in Hoboken, New Jersey, landlords allegedly set fire to their buildings to drive out tenants after attempts to buy out and threaten existing low-income residents failed (Washington Post). As recently as 2016, landlords in San Francisco were suspected of committing arson to drive out low-income tenants in favor of high-earning tech workers.

3. Advanced Stages of Gentrification: The Influence of Individual Actors

At this point in the cycle, the actions of developers, businesses, and individuals all begin to feed on themselves. Developers continue to buy and turn over properties through arbitrage opportunities, new residents are drawn to the neighborhood through a mix of marketing—such as through food—and a general need for housing due to insufficient housing stock, and independent businesses naturally come to open up shop in an area that offers more affordable rent.

Even still, there are differences in the types of new residents filtering into a gentrifying area. Researchers tend to distinguish between them using risk tolerance and socioeconomic status. The earliest newcomers—the “urban pioneers”—are often those with higher risk tolerance and lower incomes, such as students, creative professionals, and young individuals without children. (P.E. Moskowitz and Pascale Jossart-Marcelli have noted even the language of “pioneers” settling a new “frontier” in the context of gentrification enforces the colonialist mentality that “one person’s space is more valuable than another’s.”) 

Pascal Joassart-Marcelli, author of The $16 Taco, argues that by encouraging the development of “restaurants, cafés, farmers’ markets, and outdoor dining” in low-income or developing areas, previously avoided neighborhoods become new stomping grounds for white, affluent individuals (Civil Eats). Cafes in particular have shown to be a clear sign of gentrification at play; in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bushwick, researchers found a strong correlation between the number of cafes with both median housing prices and average household income—as the number of cafes increased, so had housing prices and income. (Eater) Jossart-Marcelli sums this up as the “urban food machine,” one that shapes urban growth and creates profit through food, replacing the “enclave[s] that evolved organically to meet the needs of residents.”

Subsequent newcomers drawn to gentrifying neighborhoods that offer promises of diversity, cultural experiences, and property appreciation tend to be more risk averse, and, on average, have higher disposable income. As these new residents continue to move into a neighborhood, so too does the landscape of housing and businesses to accommodate the influx in purchasing power. Long-time businesses are replaced with new ones catering to a more wealthy clientele, and more buildings are replaced with luxury complexes. The aesthetic of each neighborhood blends together; individuality is lost for uniformity. In this way, neighborhoods undergoing gentrification may become more a place to live and transact rather than an interconnected community. (We cover overall impacts of gentrification in the Impact section.)

Mainstream media tends to capture gentrification through a micro lens, focusing on the “hip and trendy” businesses and yuppies populating a so-called “up-and-coming” neighborhood. In reality, this is capturing the last stage of gentrification; new businesses and residents are not the cause of gentrification but rather only a symptom of much larger forces at play. (Read more about media representation in Complicating the Aesthetic and Media Representations of Gentrification.)

 

The Impact of Gentrification

Direct Displacement

Gentrification has been characterized by some as the fourth wave of Jim Crow policy, as it consistently and disproportionately harms already marginalized groups like Black and Brown folks, low-income households, the elderly, and disabled people. The most obvious and immediate impact of gentrification is direct displacement: as rents and housing prices increase dramatically, former residents are forced out to areas far away from the city center. It is the “first time in U.S. history [that] the majority of poor people in metropolitan regions live in the suburbs” (Moskowitz, 2018), and that shift has been replicated along the lines of race and immigration status, where “just over 50% of first-generation immigrants now live in the suburbs.”

 

This is a major problem because suburban areas, which grew rapidly starting in the 1950s due to white flight, were purposefully constructed to exclude and discourage non-white and low-income people from moving there. Restrictive covenants were put in place to bar Black Americans from owning property in the area. In New York, Robert Moses is notorious for having designed highway bridges between the city and suburbs that were “built too low to accommodate public buses, [because they were seen] as the main transportation choice of poor people and Black people” (Moskowitz).  

 

These obstacles continue to make it extremely challenging for less-privileged residents to achieve upward social and economic mobility. Displaced city residents find themselves not only in need of another stable housing situation, but effectively unable to access major networks of job opportunities and important public resources: hospitals, transportation, and even water. In San Francisco, for example, only 4% of jobs are reachable with a 45-minute commute on public transportation, or 25% if the commute is increased to 90 minutes. (Some folks also land even further in the exurbs, which are situated past suburban neighborhoods in more rural areas, and have even less in way of access and resources) (Moskowitz, 2018).

Just the idea of impending displacement, or “root shock,” can cause residents immense psychological trauma—especially for those who reside in cultural or ethnic enclaves that “function as the roots of belonging for people who are told 1,000 times a day through micro and macro-aggressions that they will always be foreigners in a strange land, regardless of their service to America or how long our families live here” (Shelterforce). In 2003, when low-income Asian Americans living in Oakland’s Pacific Renaissance Plaza received eviction notices from their landlord, the uncertainty and fear of eviction contributed to the deaths of several elderly residents.

Indirect & Cultural Displacement 

As former residents in gentrifying areas are pushed out, the updated housing prices make for indirect displacement (or exclusionary displacement). That is, where people sharing similar socioeconomic status as previous residents are implicitly excluded due to price and other factors (e.g., buildings that refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers). This then creates an environment ripe for cultural displacement, wherein the neighborhood businesses and organizations reprioritize what types of residents they are catering to. Existing residents of a neighborhood deemed as lower value due to their discretionary spending may find themselves feeling excluded even more as amenities become available.

 

As LA-based reporter Jimmy T. writes on the lines at now-infamous Sqirl restaurant in gentrifying Virgil Village, “The restaurant’s lines were a frequent reminder for local immigrant communities of just how many people could still afford more than $15 on a salad, even while on the same block families struggle to make $15 an hour…so much as passing through the area imposes a mental tax on long-time residents due to the prospect of further displacement.”

 

This “mental tax” is not metaphorical. Those able to stay in a gentrifying area can still experience a whole host of negative outcomes. For example, elderly residents in gentrifying areas—already disadvantaged due to physical ability, technological illiteracy, and limited social networks—were found to have more depressive and anxiety symptoms compared to their counterparts in moderate-to-high income neighborhoods. Even when these residents remain in subsidized units, higher rent without parallel increases in their social security payments cuts into their budget for necessities like food and medicine.

 

The removal of long-time residents also mirrors the loss of a sense of community for those who stay behind. New residents may be more transient and not share in the same sense of community that may have existed based on cultural or socio-related similarities. While these individuals may economically support their neighborhood through purchases made at local businesses, they do not necessarily feel any responsibility towards the longevity of the neighborhood. Such is the insidious nature of gentrification: it causes a loss of community for long-time residents while simultaneously depriving incoming residents of the feeling of community and cooperation that is needed to fight against gentrification. 

Additionally, the aesthetic changes often seen in conjunction with gentrification, and its resulting emotional and cultural displacement, are well-documented. As former American Institute of Architecture CEO Robert Ivy notes

“When a city is lost, or a segment of a city is lost, we face something that’s more complex because it isn’t about the individual unit.

It’s about the relationships of the pieces and parts. It’s the space between the buildings that held the movement and the life. The value of these nuances—the built-up odors and tactile and sensory experiences—is very difficult to argue for in a rational and economic sense.” 

Notably, these above frameworks of displacement do not include previously or newly unhoused folks. With formerly affordable neighborhoods gentrifying far faster than new affordable housing can be built, those already in poverty—especially families headed by single mothers—are pushed into transitional housing or the streets. In fact, a 2021 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that “a full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford a two-bedroom rental in any state, county, or city in the country, and they can afford a one-bedroom rental in a mere 7% of all U.S. counties.”

 

Add to this that relocation and criminalization are the cornerstones of most cities’ unhoused policies, the long-term impact of these displaced residents is severe. In 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department used force 1 in 3 times when engaging with unhoused residents, and hundreds more were cited for “crimes” like sitting on the sidewalk or possessing a shopping cart. Even when unhoused folks attempt to secure public services, they are often turned away; in fact, the city of Lancaster (outside of LA) had considered closing their commuter rail station to discourage unhoused folks from entering city limits.

Increased Police Presence

In an effort to make gentrifying areas feel more welcoming for potential new consumers and safer for incoming residents, there is typically a marked increase in neighborhood police and overall security presence. As a city shifts to attract an influx of what theorist Richard Florida calls “the creative class,” or knowledge-based workers that are generally of higher socioeconomic status than industrial workers, the policing style of the area is seen to also “emphasize heightened order maintenance [policing].” And as the city’s economy grows “reliant upon the creative class elements…the greater the priority given to…social control efforts [like order maintenance].” (Sharp 2013)

 

The theory of order maintenance policing (OMP) is the social control practice of addressing the fear of crime by punishing minor offenses in an area in hopes of discouraging further issues. It is heavily influenced by the “broken windows” theory of crime and policing, which notably gave rise to NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws that were later deemed unconstitutional. This practice has been referred to as a “project of reassurance” for city officials to “cleanse [the area] of anything which might evoke in the middle-class imagination images of danger, disorder, or urban decay” (Gibson, 2004)—for example, the presence of unhoused folks and public intoxication. The effect is not contained to only gentrifying areas, either: a 2017 analysis found that in addition to the “association between gentrification and Stop and Frisk to be strong and positive,” there was heightened “policing in adjacent or neighboring [areas]” (Laniyonu, 2017).

 

While OMP may seem theoretically logical, its enforcement does little to actually treat the systemic factors contributing to these social problems. Instead, officials like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani “reformulated [issues like] homelessness as a ‘quality of life’ [problem], which allowed him to treat homelessness as a criminal justice issue and not a social services one…[switching] the focus of urban social policy from improving housing, employment, social services, and fighting poverty, to using police to control public disorder.” (Vitae, 2008) Furthermore, since OMP “features particularly heavy use of police discretion,” (Sharp 2013) it creates far more opportunity for police profiling “reflective of racialized and class-based perceptions of crime,” and creates further division between long-time and new residents. (Laniyonu, 2017)

 

In the case of Detroit, OMP extends beyond public law enforcement into private investment. The city’s resident billionaire Dan Gilbert—who founded Quicken Loans and owns 75 buildings in Detroit’s gentrifying downtown—runs his own security force to ensure the premises feel “safe” for workers and customers. When the Detroit Police Department is “chronically short of cash,” “roughly 190 guards [are allowed] to pass through public spaces” without much oversight during parts of their patrol. Not only does this effectively remove local law enforcement’s accountability to its residents—who cannot participate or influence how the security force is directed or maintained, regardless of how active they are in local politics—it encourages a continued reliance on third-party intermediaries (police, security) to address conflict in lieu of communication and relationship-building.

 

This struggle to claim some priority of ownership over public space is part of a mentality writer and activist Sarah Schulman calls “the gentrification of the mind.” Laniyonu found that gentrifying areas had “significantly higher rates of 311 calls [related to OMP] per capita.” That is, calls concerned with “community disagreements or conflicts over the proper use of public space such as noise complaints, public drinking, or skateboarding on the sidewalk.” Law enforcement officials have become a way for new residents to exert pressure over neighbors and city government alike to acquiesce to their ideals of living, further reinforcing the cycle of cultural displacement.

 

As Moskowitz writes, “As our cities’ landscapes have changed, we have too, increasingly viewed ourselves not as community members with a responsibility to each other but as purchasers of things and experiences.” The rise of policing in gentrifying areas simultaneously causes gentrification (by way of city governance strategy) and is a result of gentrification (due to police becoming the default source of conflict resolution). Adding in the U.S.’s history of discriminatory profiling and police brutality, the overall result is that gentrification can become a force that puts residents’ livelihoods and actual lives at risk.

map charting business of displacement in NYC

Environmental Racism, Green Gentrification, Climate Gentrification

The impacts of environmental policy and climate change have long been understood to be unevenly distributed. In The Color of Law, Professor Richard Rothstein traces the use of industrial and toxic waste zoning by city and federal legislators to “turn African American neighborhoods into slums” in cities across the country like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Houston. As the volume of commercial waste rose with the industrialization, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in 1991 that “a disproportionate number of toxic waste facilities were found in African American communities nationwide.” (This resulted in an executive order from President Bill Clinton to avoid this sort of impact in future zoning decisions, but did not call for remediation of existing facilities.)

 

Still today, middle-class African American neighborhoods (where annual household incomes are $50-$60K) were found to be more polluted than even very poor white neighborhoods (with household incomes below $10K). The damage begins before children are even born: long-term exposure to industrial toxins like lead (which is still poisoning the residents of Flint, Michigan), DDT, benzene, mercury, and more dramatically affect prenatal care (Washington, 2020). It has led to racialized myths like the “‘crack baby epidemic’ [that] further stigmatized Black women…[when] in reality resulted from the various medical risks of poverty and poisoned environments, not drug use.”

 

In later child development, these environmental toxins hinder child development and contribute to the educational achievement gap. Researchers found that 69% of Hispanic children, 68% of Asian American children, and 61% of African American children live in areas that exceed EPA ozone standards, and BIPOC breathe 38% more polluted air than their white counterparts. In “Harlem, the South Bronx, and other heavily industrialized ethnic neighborhoods are marked by higher asthma rates and lower vigilance over environmental pollution. This results in more than 138,000 asthma attacks among New York schoolchildren and at least 100,000 missed days of school a year…African Americans and Hispanic Americans are three to four times more likely than whites to be hospitalized or to die from asthma.” (Washington, 2020)

 

For decades, environmental justice activists have protested how the brunt of human-made toxins used by private business, as well as infrastructure projects like underground crude oil pipelines (which inevitably spill into surrounding water systems), have been purposefully relegated onto primarily BIPOC and lower-income neighborhoods. Especially in cities where land is finite, increasing concern over these environmental impacts have spurred new restoration and preservation projects for natural resources and habitats, as well as the building of urban green spaces. However, this attention and investment has resulted in what is now termed “eco” or “green” gentrification, where areas seeing improved environmental protection also experiences a wave of new development that displaces long-time residents.

 

The neighborhoods surrounding LA’s river, for example, have been historically Latinx and Asian American. Now that river revitalization efforts are finally seeing major traction, there is growing concern that long-time residents, especially those in subsidized housing, will be pushed out to make way for expensive new developments. In fact, one of the proposed developments in nearby Chinatown, which would “contain 920 upscale residential units, has already led to reports of landlords harassing and even evicting long-term neighborhood residents.” (NRDC) This is a progression referred to as the “High Line effect”: when the previously-redlined Meatpacking District in NYC saw the creation of an elevated greenway now known as the High Line, developers made quick work reshaping the area to attract wealthy New Yorkers looking for a green lifestyle within urban limits. “Homes within 80 meters of the High Line experienced 35.3% higher sale prices” than those farther away, pricing out long-time tenants that were then “displaced to areas with fewer public amenities like green space, worsening the green-equity deficit.” (Black and Richards, 2020)

“Eco” or “green” gentrification is where areas seeing improved environmental protection also experiences a wave of new development that displaces long-time residents.

In addition to promoting healthier lifestyles for residents, better understanding of climate change—and the risks it poses through natural disasters—have encouraged more investment in environmental resilience measures, such as storm-surge-proof seawalls, stormwater detention basins, or the above-mentioned greenways and parks. Yet these areas gaining “green resilient infrastructure are also those that become the most gentrified.” In Philadelphia, for example, flood-fighting infrastructure investments between 2000 and 2016 resulted in the displacement of many Black and Latinx residents, who had to move to areas that received the least flood-fighting infrastructure. (Shokry, Connolly, Anguelovski, 2020

 

(For those that are able to stay, there is also the sociocultural displacement factor to

 consider. In East Boston, for example, interviews “revealed that many long-term residents feel socially and culturally excluded from some of the new green spaces built along the waterway” as they were “designed for higher-income residents.”)

 

This “climate gentrification” concentrates the longer-tailed impacts of climate change into already vulnerable areas. As urban geographer Isabelle Anguelovski explains, protecting, “one neighborhood so that [storm]water can’t flow inland means the water goes somewhere else. The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door.” Longtime organizer and activist, Paulette Richard details her experience with “climate gentrification” in Miami where rising floodwaters due to climate change have led developers to build luxury condos further from the coast into communities such as Liberty City where she lives. As these developers are driven to build in communities further above sea level, residents of these communities are continually deluged with offers to purchase their homes for less than they are valued simply for them to be demolished to make way for condos.

 

Furthermore, when a major disaster strikes—such as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out entire swaths of New Orleans—it can conveniently pave the way for gentrification. In the case of Katrina, an estimated 100,000 Black residents of New Orleans were permanently displaced due to the hurricane. This effect was intentional: government-issued grants for city residents to restore their former homes were found to be “distributed in a racially biased way,” making it difficult for Black residents to appropriately fix up their homes before the city “considered [the] home blighted.” Once blighted, the owner is charged steep fines and required to fix the home “within a month…[or] the city imposes a lien on the property…claims the property as its own and puts it up for sale in an online auction.” Since 2010, New Orleans has “sold off or demolished at least 13,000 properties…many of which are in rapidly gentrifying areas.” (Moskowitz, 2018)

Origins: What Made Gentrification Possible?

 

In order for gentrification to be possible, a confluence of social, economic, and political forces were needed to create deeply inequitable geographies within American cities to begin with. This section explores some key policy decisions over the course of the 20th century that purposefully diverted investment away from certain areas, setting the stage for their gentrification today.

Zoning & Land Use

In order to fully understand how gentrification unfolds in any given city, it’s important to take a closer look at the urban planning mechanisms that allow for this process to take place neighborhood by neighborhood, lot by lot. As discussed thus far, gentrification happens when “capital rules and [city] planners follow” (Stein)—so what does “following” in the steps of capitalism actually looks like at the local level? In this section, we will take an introductory look at zoning, a foundational component of planning, and how it can play a role in perpetuating and/or fighting gentrification. 

Zoning refers to a set of codes and regulations created by city planners that control where certain types of development can take place within a city. Zones are generally defined by two categories: use and density. Use refers to what that zone will be used for, e.g. residential, commercial, or manufacturing; whereas density refers to how much space, including vertical space, those activities can take up. (DCP Zoning Handbook 2018) Zoning is the primary tool by which planners shape a city, with the power to structure cities in a way that makes some areas particularly vulnerable to gentrification. (In the Deindustrialization section, we’ll also cover how zoning can be used to drive out factories and working class jobs. This degrades the livelihoods of working class people over time by replacing manufacturing zones with office buildings and residential space.)

The effects of gentrification can be seen most immediately when one residential zone changes in density. For this reason, local city government officials and planners tend to speak broadly in terms of upzoning and downzoning. Upzoning, in the context of housing, means an allowance of taller buildings, and, in theory, an increase in the number of housing units in which people can live. (Conversely, downzoning refers to a decrease in the number of available units.)

 

In particular, the upzoning of low-income communities to allow higher density tends to set off a cycle of gentrification as it creates an incentive for developers to buy up existing properties in the area. “When a city upzones a particular lot, it makes that land far more valuable by increasing the amount of rent-producing units a developer can build. Upzoning can therefore encourage developers to buy existing properties, knock down the buildings and build something bigger” (Stein). As developers buy up more cheap lots and build upwards, this drives out the current residents and increases the cost of living for those who are able to stay.

In Chicago’s historically Latinx Logan Square, for example, one upzoning plan is currently being considered as a way to help alleviate the low supply of housing. However, some community advocates argue this expansion of market-rate housing (or housing that is priced based on market demands, not set by the government) often ends up attracting wealthy residents into the city from the suburbs, rather than helping current residents struggling to pay their increased rents. Chicago city council member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa argues that merely increasing the number of available units does nothing to fight gentrification–unless those units have been specifically designated as affordable housing. “When the market can’t provide, the government must get involved.” (Chicago Sun Times)

If developers are so eager to make money by building highrises, one might ask why these shiny new buildings are not constantly appearing in already-desirable, wealthy neighborhoods. One important reason is that residents–particularly homeowners and representatives of wealthy, quiet neighborhoods with great schools and transportation options—go to great lengths to lobby against upzoning. (The term “NIMBY,” or “Not In My Backyard,” arose to describe just this type of interaction.) Unsurprisingly, a major study in New York City revealed that zoning decisions tend to preserve the low density of wealthy white communities, while allowing for unfettered commercial development in historically working class neighborhoods (Curbed). 

In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill Deblasio attempted—and ultimately failed—to instate a rezoning plan that would provide more equitable housing options. Wealthy homeowners used aggressive legal tactics to stall the project from getting off the ground, protesting under the pretense of preserving the environment, neighborhood character, or historic landmarks. In reality, many homeowners believe that the influx of lower-income and/or racially diverse residents will result in lower property values—a standpoint that has been historically enabled by racist actions like blockbusting and policies like redlining. (Read more about both in the Neighborhood Segregation and Redlining section.) In fact, one housing advocate went so far as to say that the Mayor’s administration viewed the rezoning of wealthy neighborhoods as politically impossible

In response to these wealthy residents who want access both to the comforts of suburbia and the convenience of the city, Assistant Professor Moses Gates writes:

"Well, of course. We all would love the best of the suburbs and city together: well-funded public schools and spacious backyards, together with express trains and 24-hour grocery stores down the block.

But this raises a particular question: during an affordable housing crisis, should our public infrastructure, designed for dense neighborhoods and paid for by city taxpayers, go toward subsidizing best-of-both-worlds, suburb-in-the-city enclaves for wealthy households?"

It can be helpful to think of zoning as the floodgates controlling the flow of capital. While upzoning doesn’t inherently result in displacement or increased rents in a working class neighborhood, it does mean there’s little stopping developers from flooding that area with big box stores and highrises—forms of capital that may have a negative impact on current residents in the future. However, policies that prevent the building of new housing can also do just as much damage, and reasonable minds can differ about what the impact of a particular rezoning plan will be. 

For example, California Governor Gavin Newsome recently passed a progressive upzoning policy intended to ease Los Angeles’s unhoused crisis and make home ownership more affordable for young people. However, some residents—particularly Black homeowners in Leimert Park and Park Mesa Heights—fear that the rezoning might lead to development that undermines the long-term health and cultural character of their neighborhoods. While most progressive-minded Angenelos still agree that these zoning changes are necessary in light of the current housing crisis, the uncertainty around final future impact goes to show how fickle rezoning can be. As noted earlier, rezoning is like a floodgate: it is a powerful but imprecise tool.

Neighborhood Segregation and Redlining

Unequal zoning laws did not happen by accident. As Professor Richard Rothstein lays out in The Color of Law, inequitable neighborhoods were purposefully created through racist federal housing policies, which applied to both federally financed housing as well as private construction. As a result, marginalized groups like Black folks and immigrants had far less access to home ownership; being renters and/or homeowners under predatory conditions, they are now particularly susceptible to displacement as gentrification continues across cities nationwide.

During the economic boom of WWII, the sudden influx of both Black and white workers to war-time industry sites like Richmond (across the Bay from San Francisco) spurred the need for federally financed worker housing. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sex, etc., and the homes constructed were “officially and explicitly segregated.” This meant houses built for Black workers were located in less desirable—typically more industrial and polluted—areas, and of far poorer construction, than those created for white workers. This was also true of public family housing projects, which created segregated areas “even where there was no previous pattern of segregation,” and continually pushed Black Americans to poorly built and maintained projects “while eligible whites were given vouchers for rentals of private apartments to subsidize.” Furthermore, the government also refused to insure bank loans to Black Americans, making housing improvements financially unfeasible. 

During this time, segregation was continually enforced through policies that prevented Black and white Americans from moving into areas not “designated” for them. For example, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) refused to insure mortgages that would allow for integration, which in turn influenced state-regulated insurance companies as well as state banks to follow suit. In white neighborhoods, racial zoning laws maintained single-family structures in residential areas, and forbade sales of property to non-white owners. (Private home deeds similarly banned non-white owners.) Meanwhile, Black neighborhoods were up-zoned for higher population density with multi-use buildings, while others were regularly destroyed to make room for new structures like highways, forcing former inhabitants to crowd into the remaining Black-only areas in the city. This is what Rothstein points to as the creation of the “ghetto.”

These racially motivated housing policies were codified in guidelines like the FHA’s Underwriting Manual, which correlated the presence of Black homeowners to “instability and a reduction in [home] values,” and redlined maps used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), where any neighborhood with Black Americans would be colored red and barred from mortgage refinancing options. (Hence, the term “redlining.”)

 

With extremely limited options, Black Americans who wanted to own homes in the few areas that allowed them to were forced into the predatory contract sale system at inflated home prices that offered homeowners no equity over time, and made them particularly vulnerable to being evicted. Similarly, the act of “reverse redlining,” or the “excessive marketing of exploitative loans in African American communities” made these homeowners susceptible to default: “as the housing bubble collapsed, African American homeownership rates fell much more than white rates…for these families, the contract buying system of the 1960s [was] now making its return.” This has set the stage for depressed housing values in actively dis-invested neighborhoods that can now be gentrified.

Deindustrialization

In tandem with urban planning and housing policies that created inequitable neighborhoods, the deindustrialization of cities over the last century also removed socioeconomic security for many city residents. That is, the gradual decline or removal of the industrial sector—like manufacturing—that were once the foundation of most major cities in the 20th century. While urban factories may not seem idyllic, they offered stable jobs for working class residents and allowed them to live within city limits and access the resources cities could provide.

By the 2000s, most U.S. cities had divested from factories in favor of extracting more profit from city land through construction of expensive housing and commercial buildings. This shift underpins a fundamental requirement for gentrification: when governments treat real estate as a commodity rather than a resource. New York City serves as an extreme example: “from the 1950s to the 1990s, the city lost 750,000 manufacturing jobs while its land values soared from $20 billion to $400 billion.” (Samuel Stein, Capital City).

While deindustrialization of cities is generally regarded as part of the larger trend of globalization—where advances in technology, decreased cost of transportation, and access to a global pool of less expensive labor abroad has made manufacturing jobs less relevant—some argue it was not just a byproduct of a globalizing economy. In his book The Assasination of New York, Robert Fitch argues that the deindustrialization, or the “planned shrinkage” of New York City, was a targeted campaign against the city's working class carried out by the city government:

City elites came together in the 1920s to hatch a plan for clearing out the working class. The deciding factor was less naked prejudice or discrimination than the pursuit of profit: the land occupied by the working class had the potential to be very valuable, if only they would leave. 

The campaign Fitch refers to was started in the 1920s by the pro-business Regional Planning Association (RPA), and laid the groundwork for practices that would continue well through the 1950s. With zoning as their primary tool, the plan intentionally drove out densely populated areas and manufacturing zones in favor of “office buildings and upscale homes…all of which would yield exponentially greater rent returns for the capitalists who owned the properties, and could be sold at increasingly staggering prices.” (Fitch) Not only did this shift decimate class diversity, it also decimated the economic diversity of the city, turning it into one dependent on generating profit from ever-rising land values. 

For those whose jobs disappeared due to deindustrialization, many have instead been pushed into the service sector. “Nationally, jobs in retail and food services outnumber those in manufacturing by more than two to one. The country’s largest private employers include Walmart, McDonald’s, Kroger and the conglomeration of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” (NY Times) New York’s Chinatown is another excellent case study. Even as late as the 1990s, Chinatown was a hub for the garment industry, providing a high volume of jobs for local residents. However, it has undergone a radical shift in recent decades:

By now, most of Chinatown’s factories have been converted into offices, hotels or condominiums, forcing the workforce that sustained them to shift to service-sector jobs, while enabling the industrialists who ran them to move on to other, more profitable pursuits. John Lam, one of the neighborhood’s most infamous garment titans, went from owning fifteen factories, employing 1,200 workers and doing over $40 million in business annually to being one of the undisputed titans of Manhattan’s hotel scene.

                                                 -Samuel Stein, Capital City

The transition from industrial to service-sector labor has not been a clean one. As movements like the Fight for 15 have revealed, service sector jobs tend to lack the union infrastructure, bargaining power, and promises of financial security that the manufacturing-based working class of the previous century enjoyed. Ongoing gentrification threatens the ability of working class residents to afford to live within the cities that need their labor, while their housing options elsewhere remain limited due to the planned obstacles built into suburban areas designed for more affluent residents. (Read more about suburbanization in the next section.)

White Flight and Suburbanization

During the era of widespread racism in financing regulations and zoning laws, private developers and real estate agents used blockbusting to manufacture profit opportunities for themselves. Blockbusting is the deliberate act of encouraging white homeowners to leave an area in order to then sell their vacated homes at inflated prices to Black buyers with limited options (for housing and for mortgages). Specifically, these agents would purposefully buy “property in borderline Black-white areas; rent or sell them to African American families at above-market prices; persuade white families…that their neighborhoods were turning into African American slums and that values would soon fall; then purchase the panicked whites’ homes for less than their worth.” (Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law)

Blockbusting, in tandem with anxieties around the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling against segregation and the civil rights movement gaining momentum across the country, spurred the white flight of the 1950s and 60s out from the urban core (or city center). That is, the large-scale movement of white Americans out of the city into suburban areas. The Federal Housing Association (FHA) also blatantly encouraged this with their Underwriting Manual which backed mortgages for constructions in residential, low-density areas. For example, between 1934 and 1960, only 12,116 mortgages in the city of St. Louis were backed by the FHA, while the suburbs outside of it received almost 63,000 FHA-backed mortgages (P.E. Moskowitz, How to Kill A City).  The agency later “admitted [they knew] the guidelines would end up concentrating poor African Americans in city centers,” and spreading wealthier, white Americans into the suburbs—a process referred to as ‘filtering up.’ In fact, we are still subsidizing suburban sprawl to the tune of $450 billion a year.

As the suburbs became predominately white, the increasingly non-white city centers fell into disrepair and its residents were further dislocated from necessary social services. Termed “urban decay,” cities saw less and less of government funds directed towards proper maintenance of neighborhoods: “once African Americans had been pushed to the Eastside [of Austin, TX], municipal services declined…streets were more likely to be unpaved; sewers were poorly maintained and often clogged; bus routes that served the Eastside were suspended…[and] zoning rules were not enforced, leading to the establishment of industrial facilities in the area” (Rothstein). 

To maintain a stark divide between city and suburb, new highways were purposefully built to destroy Black neighborhoods (for example, Sugar Hill in Los Angeles) and prevent Black Americans from accessing goods and services available to those in the suburbs. These so-called “urban renewal” projects were intentionally used to “destroy areas of the city based on the fact that the area’s residents took more tax revenue in the form of government services than they provided in the form of property taxes” (Moskowitz). There was also the racially motivated placement of, and investment into, schools: pre-Brown, segregated schools were placed in areas the city government wanted Black Americans to move to; post-Brown, “white schools in the area designated for African Americans were closed or allowed to deteriorate,” while well-funded, advanced schools were built in the (inaccessible) suburbs. 

Despite these glaring infrastructure issues, Black homeowners were forced to stay behind in urban areas because their contract buying clauses would not allow them to move until their house was paid for in full. Those who were renting could hardly afford to move to the pricey suburbs that also had little in way of transportation options back into the city (where most jobs were located). But even when suburbanization slowed in the 1990s and cities began to see renewed interest and migration, most of these already marginalized, long-time residents saw little upside. Instead, the influx of higher-income, primarily white folks into cities incentivized private owners to demolish older properties to make way for new developments that yielded higher rent (and for the city, higher property taxes). Thus, gentrification has now forced folks previously barred from the suburbs into these faraway areas not built with them in mind, disconnected from the services they may need (e.g., public housing, welfare, food banks).

Divestment from Public and Subsidized Housing 

Those concerned about gentrification and the nationwide housing crisis may find themselves asking if large-scale public housing efforts on the part of the federal government might be an expensive but straightforward solution. Many point to urban locales like Singapore, where public housing is meticulously maintained, relatively attractive, and desirable to the majority of people, not just the very poor. In fact, more than 80% of Singapore’s population lives in public housing. Unfortunately, the history of public housing in the US is anything but straightforward, and is marked by policy decisions that have compounded its inadequacy over time. 

 

Recent legislation brought forth by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar explores the building of brand-new public housing units as a potential solution to both unaffordability and structural inequality more broadly. Rep. Omar’s 2019 Homes for All Act called for the production of 8.5 million new public housing units; currently, there are only 1,002,114. However, large-scale public housing efforts lack bipartisan support, and even broad support among the public. This is for two main reasons: one having to do with the history of public housing, and the other with the relative cost. 

 

Public housing has gone through cycles of divestment and decline for decades. In terms of large-scale federal legislation, public housing has been heavily divested from twice, once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. In both cases, the pattern remains the same: when a service like public housing performs “poorly,” public opinion turns against it and creates political momentum to cut funding. This merely exacerbates the issue, and the cycle repeats itself. In 1998, the Clinton administration responded to bipartisan consensus that public housing was a failed project with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act. This repealed a former rule that required the replacement of any demolished public housing unit on a one-to-one basis. Since then, the stock of public housing units has dropped from 1.41 million to just over 1 million in 2021. 

 

While the overall low stock is public housing’s primary obstacle, issues like how to deal with a backlog of repairs and maintenance are just as daunting—New York City alone will require $45.2 billion over the next twenty years just to keep its existing units in use. Given these issues, many experts in housing policy and officials within the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) argue that large-scale revamping of traditional public housing is too expensive, and that the government should instead rely on voucher programs, such as Section 8, wherein low-income residents receive funding to pay for already-existing market-rate housing. 

 

However, the reality is that any government solution that depends on the cooperation of private interests comes with its own set of problems. Recipients of Section 8 vouchers regularly report discrimination from landlords who flat-out refuse to rent to them. Landlords argue that renting through the voucher system forces them to deal with delays associated with the inspection process and other administrative steps mandated by public housing authorities. In one 2018 study, the Urban Institute found that in Los Angeles, 76% of landlords said they would refuse to rent to a tenant using a voucher. But even if this disconnect were resolved, one simple fact remains: there just isn’t enough funding. Under the existing program, only one in four people who qualify for federal housing assistance receive support, and those who do wait an average of 2.5 years to receive their voucher. 

Complicating the Aesthetic and Media Representations of Gentrification

 

Conversations about gentrification have certainly become more common over the last few decades. However, linguist Gabriella Modan and geographer Katie Wells (2015) note that mainstream coverage of gentrification tends to characterize it as “as a natural and agent-less force.” The only actors that often appear in media narratives are individual gentrifiers–both retail and residential–who bring cultural preferences and practices with them that clash with those of long-term residents.

This condenses gentrification from a complex process into individualized moments of conflict with a “before” and a radically different “after.” The differences are rooted in culture and preference, as opposed to economic shifts or structural and historical forces. Past residents are pitted against incoming ones; disinvested “ghettos” are transformed into Trader Joe’s and high-rises; and responses tend to be marked either by off-the-cuff expressions of exasperation, like  Spike Lee’s “Get the [expletive] outta here” speech” or a resignation to inevitable, rapid change. News stories leverage these binaries to create virality, and angry readers are mined for profits. Gentrification is discussed in terms of the new residents moving in, and is associated with the mere fact of their wealth, race, or upbringing, relegating a highly complex and historical phenomenon  to the domain of individual responsibility and choice. (This is what P.E. Moskowitz describes as the “plastic straws” of gentrification.) Meanwhile, terms like “demographic change,” “neighborhood trends,” and revitalization are used by media outlets abstractly and synonymously. 

Take the world of reality TV as an example. “Home improvement” shows follow wealthy individuals as they flip “rundown homes” into “stunning remodels,” as directly quoted from the blurb of Good Bones on HGTV. At one point in the show, the mother and daughter hosts say, “Our mission is the same: saving our community, one house at a time.” House flippers and the (generally white, middle class) families they serve are framed as underdog protagonists, boldly entering uncharted territory and digging into their “tight budgets” to carve out a home. Never shown are the evictions of the former residents, and rarely addressed is the reality of construction workers scrambling to meet incredibly tight turnarounds. In Flip or Flop Season 6, Episode 14, the hosts renovate a place that they refer to as “tenant occupied”—a subtle euphemism that the tenants will be kicked out of their homes once it is sold without their consent. 

 

Writer Ann-Derrick Gaillot comments on this deliberate exclusion in the Citations Needed podcast: “It’s the absence of not seeing many people of color at all…or residents of the communities on these shows that makes the stakes seem not human.” When the conversation around gentrification becomes about the renovated home or beautified neighborhood–unencumbered by economic realities such as rising rents, unaffordability crises, and increased socio-economic polarization–gentrification continues to become about individual taste. It is now excusable, because all they’re doing is building a home. 

 

Some pop culture has begun to focus on those impacted by gentrification, such as In The Heights (2021) or the Netflix series Gentefied. Both of these productions by Latinx creators add a layer of nuance to conversations about gentrification, especially along intergenerational, intra-communal, and other intersectional commentary. However, as Leonardo Vilchis, co-founder of Union de Vecinos in Boyle Heights, noted in an interview with Shelterforce

 

“Both [In the Heights and Gentefied] present the idea that somehow we have to accommodate this progress and somehow we have to adapt. That is highly problematic in the sense that we don’t see the sacrifice and the amount of people and relationships that are sacrificed through that accommodation, through that acceptance, and through negotiating our defeat without a fight.”

 

This is not to discount the impact of either show, both of which also explore the power of organizing and protesting as a means of political activation. However, in the end, gentrification becomes a narrative that we are asked to accept, a way to beautify a locale, and a means to a happy ending that is too seductive to sacrifice. 

Caught between NIMBYism and YIMBYism: Racial Contours of Gentrification 

Gentrification often becomes a divisive hot topic in the media when city governments, local community boards and residents, and developers collide in debates over new housing. Namely, two major cultural movements have emerged as major players that encourage gentrification and economic exclusion, even if the media does not always cover them as such: NIMBYism and YIMBYism, which are acronyms for “Not In My Backyard” and “Yes In My Backyard,” respectively. Both of these movements are referring to the development of new housing, and while they seem to be on opposite sides of an argument, they actually rely on similar logics of racial capitalism. 

 

NIMBYism emerged in American politics in the 1970s, when homeownership began to be promoted as a way to acquire wealth. (This coincided with federal subsidies for white homeowners as well as the rise of the suburbs, as mentioned in the White Flight and Suburbanization section.) Once homes became a (white) American’s greatest asset, homeowners began to take more seriously anything they feared would harm it:

 

“The mere possibility that a funeral home three blocks away might cause a funeral procession to go down a street just when a buyer’s there, these remote threats—almost imaginary threats—start to become more resonant.”

-William Fischel, Economist

 

Homeowners began to share a conviction that owning land gives them the right to shape the neighborhood even beyond their property lines. In an effort to “protect” their homes, homeowners vehemently rejected the development of high-density affordable housing units nearby, as it could bring in residents with different racial and socioeconomic status.

 

YIMBYism most notably appeared in popular culture in California in 2017, as a group of “angry millennials” who were fed up with the affordability crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area. As California YIMBY CEO Brian Hanlon told the Orange County Register has said:  “Housing policy in California has been a disaster for young people for decades. It’s gotten so bad that middle-class young people say there’s no future for me in California if we don’t get these housing costs under control. In order to do that, we need to build much more housing.” 

 

YIMBYs believe the problem is that a housing shortage was driving up rent prices, in the logic of supply/demand and trickle-down housing policies. Thus, more market-rate apartments would drive down rents, and thus, developers should be given free reign to build and create “room for everyone.” YIMBY movements have tried to push forward land use deregulation bills to allow developers to build, often with the support of real estate-backed politicians and Big Tech. However, YIMBY logic ignores the fact that existing landlords charge outrageous rents and developers demolish rent-controlled apartments to turn over land for new properties—properties that do not have the livelihood of low-income folks of color in mind. Instead, YIMBYs often demean housing justice advocates for their lack of an awareness of “Economics 101,” and falsely conflate the fight for affordability with NIMBY’s preservationist agendas.

 

YIMBYs claim that San Francisco progressives and NIMBYs have used local zoning laws to keep new (and “necessary”) housing from being approved, but social scientist Calvin Welch points out that 50,904 units were approved between 1996 and 2015, and another 16,000 were approved since 2010 (Welch 2017). They were simply not the luxury units YIMBYs envisioned. Erin McElroy and Andrew Szeto (2017) write in the Berkeley Planning Journal that aesthetic desires are in fact integral to YIMBYs, whose ideal, high-rise future is “contingent upon a market driven by specialist desire and speculative eviction.” YIMBYism co-opts some of the language of housing justice, but in reality wants a very narrow range of housing to be built in their favor, pushing out communities of color who cannot afford to live in those kinds of housing units. 

 

Ultimately, NIMBYism and YIMBYism are rooted in the same racial logic. The “build, build, build” mentality of YIMBYs, similar to NIMBYism, fails to recognize that luxury development is built on race and class-based violence. Freeing the market and letting capitalism have its way with the housing market will never lead to equitable housing for all.

Ultimately, NIMBYism and YIMBYism are rooted in the same racial logic. The “build, build, build” mentality of YIMBYs, similar to NIMBYism, fails to recognize that luxury development is built on race and class-based violence. Freeing the market and letting capitalism have its way with the housing market will never lead to equitable housing for all.
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What Can We Do To Intervene?

 

Gentrification, with its complex roots and wide range of expressions across U.S. cities, often feels too big and impossible of a force for any one individual to be empowered to intervene. That being said, we each have a role to play in agitating for change: starting with understanding the policy decisions that reinforce gentrification, and applying pressure on them through coalition-building, collective action, and protest. 

Below are some starting points for individual action, and by no means a comprehensive list of interventions. We very much welcome additional resources—especially city-specific ones—so please send any suggestions you have to us at hello@studioatao.org and we’ll keep adding to this list! 

Questions to Consider

1. How can cities sustain economic growth while minimizing negative impacts of gentrification?

2. What inequalities do we regularly maintain that enable and allow the forces of gentrification to take place?

3. How do current media narratives of gentrification falsely capture who should take the blame and responsibility for gentrification?

Cultivating Community

1. Get involved with your local community oversight organizations, such as neighborhood councils and community board meetings. If you’re a newcomer in the area, take initiative to first listen and learn about what the issues others in the community are concerned about. Support their efforts in the ways you are able by activating your network and resources to advocate for positive changes in the neighborhood.

For long-time residents, make your visions for the neighborhood clear—whether they be concerns about future changes, or visions on what you want to see in the area. In particular, demand your representatives to be clear on what local-level implications are to be expected from the policies they are implementing, such as rezoning efforts, public improvement projects, and new housing developments.

As P.E. Moskowitz documents in How to Kill a City, the impact of just one community member—Alicia Boyd, who lives in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in New York City—has been critical in halting “inclusionary rezoning” efforts in her neighborhood and even removing some members of the community board. 

2. Discourage police presence in your neighborhood. To start, learn about the repercussions of calling the police on people in your area, as well as the long-tailed implications of more overall police in a community. In addition to issues like racial profiling and excessive use of force, police presence hasn’t been shown to consistently decrease crime. 

Instead, learn about relationship and community-based interventions that center accountability and harm reduction. This can range from friends- and family-based support networks to institutional support (e.g., crisis hotlines, shelters, counseling) that more specifically address the root of the issue. Develop a range of response options for a range of conflict and violence, recognizing there is a lot of nuance that goes into responding to each type of issue.

Resource: Creative Interventions Toolkit is a thorough, 500+ page document with suggestions on how to design, cultivate, and sustain community-based interventions to interpersonal violence instead of utilizing police force.

3. Related to the above, learn (and practice) de-escalation methods for conflict, as well as bystander intervention methods. Find alternative services in your area to call in the event of  vandalism, mental health crises, or noise disturbances. Consider the situation and whether you need to take action; evaluate your bias towards actions or people you may deem ‘suspicious’ but that do not require police intervention.

Resource: Alternatives to Calling the Police

 

4. Support and engage in mutual aid efforts. You can search for mutual aid groups near you using this map.

5. If you are a local business owner, consider how you can support the local community—even if they may not be your regular customers. For example:

  • Allowing anyone to use the restroom in your establishment

  • Accepting cash to make your services/product more accessible to a larger group of people

  • Having a stash of simple resources available, such as bottled water, feminine hygiene products, and Naloxone 

  • Donate free food and/or support local food access organizations

  • Display signs of support for marginalized groups, like those explaining the rights of undocumented workers, or even that “ICE is not welcome here”

  • Offer local discounts for residents

  • For food establishments, accept EBT 

  • Sponsor and/or partner with local organizations for community engagement and outreach 

 

We at Studio ATAO are currently working on an initiative called The Neighborhood’s Table that specifically addresses actions the hospitality industry can take to combat gentrification. To stay updated on our learnings, sign up for our mailing list.

6. Support local tenants unions and other advocacy organizations. There are incredible folks who have been agitating for housing, zoning, and land use policies for a long time. Donate to them monthly, sign up for their mailing list to be kept abreast of what they are currently working on, add your name to petitions they may be organizing, and volunteer your time and resources whenever you are able. You can also form your own tenants union.

Some chapters:

 

7. Support affordable housing in your neighborhood. Turning the tide of gentrification requires long-term solutions to the nationwide housing crisis. Learn about proposed new developments in your area, and demand that they offer permanent (rent regulated), actually affordable housing for those who need it. This requires you to get to know your elected officials and stay updated on their proposed legislation: sign up for their newsletter, and set a realistic goal for yourself to attend an upcoming Town Hall, even if it is just one every few months. 

 

8. Participate in and/or encourage worker co-ops and unions. Advocating for more employee and member-owned initiatives in your neighborhood helps keep the community involved in private development and business decisions that will affect everyone. 

Resource: Project Equity supports independent businesses to become employee-owned

 

Resource: Learn how to form a union 

 

Additional Resources

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Books

 

Films

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Is it possible to achieve neighborhood revitalization instead of gentrification? Yes—but it requires government intervention. One example is the Homestead Exemption, which was implemented to “offer caps or breaks on property taxes for longtime residents…[that] help the elderly on fixed incomes remain in their homes even while their home values increase.” These well-intentioned policies also need to be defined and enforced clearly. For example, Washington State has an “inclusionary zoning [policy that] requires up to 10 percent of new or renovated residential apartment buildings be maintained as affordable housing,” but these units still end up displacing residents when the benchmark for “affordable” rent is still too high for many living in the area. (Washington Post). 

To date, there have not been many cities that can boast of revitalization instead of gentrification. However, there have been some wins—especially through Community Land Trusts (CLTs). These are organizations that buy land, often with housing units attached, and rent out the building(s) to community-based organizations that are committed to keeping prices truly accessible for the neighborhood. In San Francisco, a CLT just purchased a 40-unit building in the Tenderloin district with clear intent to make it “permanently affordable.”

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, Professor of Geography at San Diego State University and author of The $16 Taco: Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification explains how gentrification differs from terms like revitalization or neighborhood change, as well as how the foodscapes of different landscapes can affect the gentrification process at our industry Town Hall on the intersection of gentrification and hospitality.