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Reflections from a Dialogue on Gentrification and Community Change

Image of Katherine O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.
Katherine O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.

Gentrification, or neighborhood change, has been a topic of concern and debate for decades, and one getting increased attention amidst the continued housing affordability crisis and its resulting pressure on communities. First coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1965, gentrification has sparked much public and academic discourse, and it is a contentious issue in both dialogues.

In public discourse, no one should be surprised by the emotions such change evokes. The change affects people’s homes and communities; it raises the possibility that longtime residents could be displaced as their community gains economically, or the community altered so as to be unrecognizable to the residents who remain.

On the research side, there have been ongoing debates about its prevalence, its causes, and its consequences. There is even debate about how to define gentrification. Common definitions of gentrification not only consider the in-movement of higher-income households to lower-income neighborhoods but also frequently presume two other phenomena: (1) displacement of the original low-income residents and (2) (usually) large-scale racial change as well.

Because those two phenomena may be at the heart of why the idea of gentrification is so emotionally charged — and because we collectively (here at HUD and in communities around the nation) have a stake in avoiding or minimizing those outcomes — I prefer a broader term: “neighborhood change.” Using this term sets displacement and large-scale demographic changes as potential — but not inevitable — outcomes, opening the possibility that with the right intentional actions, we might be able to harness some of the benefits of economic gains in low-income communities without incurring those high-cost outcomes.

Given the increasing interest in the topic and HUD’s stake in the issue, the Office of Policy Development and Research dedicated our April Quarterly Briefing to “Managing Community Change: A Dialogue on Gentrification.” The event featured remarks by Secretary Julián Castro and a panel discussion among those with expertise from academia and work on the ground: Colvin Grannum, president and chief executive officer of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation; Derek Hyra, associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University; and Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning for the city of San Francisco.

As a researcher who has done much of my own work in this space, I wanted to highlight four themes from the day’s conversation that left me thinking long after the day ended.

Considering Implications for Homeowners

Much of the discussion and worry about neighborhood change focuses on rapidly rising rents and their impact on renter households. Homeowners are often thought of as being protected from displacement and damaging influences as a result of their homeownership status; they stand to benefit from increased home values, whereas renters are squeezed by increasing rents.

However, the panel discussed how neighborhood change also increases pressure on homeowners. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, Grannum shared that these pressures include increased maintenance expenses, harassment from speculators, and predatory “deed theft” (in which deeds are forged and properties stolen from owners). In addition to financial pressures, he also mentioned social pressure on longtime homeowners to hold on to their property — an inequitable “obligation” for those who are finally seeing increasing home values to forgo their profit for the sake of maintaining a foothold for longtime residents. The panel argued more broadly that housing low-income people and securing diverse communities is a collective societal obligation, not one that should be shouldered solely by homeowners, developers, or any other group.

Impacts for Moderate-Income Households

When considering the impacts of community change, the focus is usually on the impact on some of the most vulnerable residents: low-income households. However, the panel at several points noted the impacts of neighborhood change for moderate-income households. Although these households may be slightly better positioned to weather neighborhood change by virtue of their incomes, they receive few protections from escalating costs. They may have fewer resources available to them if needed, given that many government and community aids are targeted to lower-income residents.

Moderate-income households in gentrifying neighborhoods are experiencing increases in rent burdens at almost the same rate as very low-income households are. Upcoming research from the Furman Center shows that in New York City between 2000 and the 2010–2014 period, the share of moderate-income households that were rent burdened in gentrifying neighborhoods increased by 18 percentage points compared with 21 percentage points for low-income households.

Concerns about impacts on moderate-income households have implications at the household and neighborhood levels, as these households can also play an important role in the social fabric of a changing neighborhood, acting as “buffers” who help high-income and low-income people connect across the income spectrum. The panelists discussed that neither in San Francisco or Bedford-Stuyvesant was there considerable focus on moderate-income households, and the absence of moderate-income homeownership efforts in gentrifying neighborhoods means the loss of a historically important lever for upward mobility.

Consider Not Just What To Do, But How

The panel also spent a considerable amount of time focused not only on strategies and tools to protect existing residents of neighborhoods undergoing community change but also on how to surface and implement them. Kelley characterized two sets of strategies underway in San Francisco and described how the process used for identifying strategies shaped those strategies.

On process, he highlighted the importance of directly engaging communities to develop strategies from the ground up; San Francisco’s experience was that such conversations resulted in ideas such as eviction counseling for tenants and single-room occupancy hotel stabilization. Kelley considered these solutions ones the city may not have led with, but some are now in the forefront given time lags on other strategies and the voice of residents.

Another process is engaging trusted messengers to help frame the change in communities so new amenities are appropriately marketed to both newcomers and longtime residents. Existing residents may not easily see how these new amenities that come with new residents benefit or apply to them. Grannum described Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s promotion of CitiBike as a “transit equity” element in this light.

Realizing Meaningful, Equitable Gentrification

The last theme to cover isn’t new or surprising, but it was an important part of our conversation. The panel agreed on the importance of investing in community building. Expecting benefits to accrue to all residents of a community solely through the in-movement of middle- or upper-income residents assumes meaningful interactions among residents across the income spectrum, which Hyra argues does not occur because of the social segregation that remains even when diverse groups live in the same areas. As Hyra said, “If we just think about the housing and the zoning and if we don’t think about how to bring people together once we have the range of housing in a particular community, then we are going to fail because we’ll be segregated at the micro-level.”

Grannum noted that longtime residents often “don’t see themselves in the future development,” a sentiment exacerbated by historical distrust and political displacement (often typified by newcomers requesting amenities that longer-term, lower-income residents don’t value). Creating space for longtime residents to see themselves in the future of the changing community — whether by limiting political displacement, preserving small mom-and-pop businesses, or encouraging ways for residents to identify and collectively pursue mutual interests — sets the stage for what could be, in Hyra’s words, “equitable gentrification.”