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This text is by Stephen Zacks in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

These Facts about Gentrification Won't Blow Your Mind

27 Points Toward a Pragmatic Understanding of Various Phenomena Confusingly Grouped under the Name Gentrification1

Stephen Zacks

  1. Gentrification is not a useful word.

  2. The word is meant to serve a critical function but gets used in reference to numerous correlated but distinct processes, making it counterproductive to improving urban policy.

  3. A critique of the discourse of gentrification takes for granted several shared goals: increasing social and economic equity, cultural diversity, environmental responsibility, improved quality of life, better governance of cities, and mutual respect among groups within communities. Identifying these as specific goals can improve outcomes.

  4. Local and federal housing, transportation, and economic policies are frequently misaligned with these goals, exacerbating economic and social division, and resulting in cultural conflict.

  5. Federal policy during the Depression and after WWII compensated for over-concentration of capital in an era of monopolistic industrialization; its goal was to prevent mass poverty and social instability, and to build a stable consumer society to sustain economic growth. It created programs to redistribute capital, build infrastructure, and strengthen the middle class within a racially segregated society.

  6. During the post-Civil Rights Era, the majority-white country’s values were out of sync with court-ordered racial desegregation. The resulting federal policy remained discriminatory, restricting home-loan insurance in black and minority neighborhoods. Federal dollars were reallocated away from cities through tax-incentives for new homeownership, and through infrastructure investments focused on highway expansion and away from mass transit, accelerating the movement of taxpayers and private capital outside of cities. Patterns of migration led to cities becoming designated as predominantly poor and “minority.”

  7. Wealthy civic leaders in places such as New York like David Rockefeller, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune and president of Chase Bank, had real estate assets to protect within cities and access to unlimited capital, which they used to rebuild and to redesign cities according to their vision and values, exercising a powerful influence over local planning and infrastructure investments. They created business associations that hired architecture firms to design plans, zoning changes, and transportation infrastructure for entire sections of the city that became adopted into official plans. Dan Gilbert plays a similar role in Detroit today.

  8. Advocacy groups, activists, and self-organized individuals often mobilized to counteract wealthy civic leaders, resulting in local policy changes and new ordinances to protect residential tenants of industrial lofts, halt undesired infrastructure, stop urban renewal areas, establish historic districts, pass and maintain rent stabilization laws, and legalize rent strikes.

  9. A series of changes in federal policy prepared the way for a far-reaching social, cultural, and economic transformation of cities: the 1966 Historic Preservation Act created a National Register of Historic Places; the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination in federal housing and insurance; the Tax Reform Act of 1976 created Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives; and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 required banks to invest in communities in which they were chartered, particularly poor, black, and Hispanic communities.

  10. Banks still lent a minimal amount of money in poor, black, and Hispanic communities in comparison to lesser-risk areas. Greater access to capital among white and middle-class groups resulted in the benefits of urban-friendly policies accruing disproportionately to these groups.

  11. In places like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and many other cities, increasing revenues from capital redirected toward municipalities supported infrastructure investments and improved municipal services. Concentration of new economy jobs, and changing lifestyles and attitudes toward race, diversity, and sustainability led to an urban renaissance.

  12. Advantages of the urban renaissance concentrated especially among middle-class whites who had greater access to education, mobility, and opportunity, reinforcing inequality and cultural divisions. Thus the discourse of gentrification was born.

  13. Several alternate terms to gentrification help distinguish between phenomena grouped under its rubric.

  14. Demographic change refers to processes by which economic, age, and ethnic groups increase or decrease their concentration in a neighborhood, city, or suburb.

  15. Demographic change describes changing populations in a value-neutral way that does not assign blame to individuals for their choices. Instead, it allows us to focus on the policy incentives and motivations for individuals’ choices in order alter incentives and identify possible protections for individuals and communities seeking neighborhood stability or equitable change.

  16. Demographic change is the cumulative result of economic policies and decisions by many individuals over time to leave or move to a city in order to seek jobs, better schools, or a better quality of life and avoid rising costs and higher taxes. It may involve moral or ethical choices, and result from greater mobility, an embrace of diversity, or the desire to seek a more culturally rich, diverse, socially integrated, and sustainable lifestyle. In the United States, no group has an inherent right to live in any given neighborhood or city, yet economic equity, neighborhood stability, and historic identity are worthwhile goals that can be reinforced through policy changes.

  17. Migration refers to the decision by an individual, family, or group to move to a place by necessity, compulsion, or seeking its best interests. Too much of the analysis of this phenomenon relies on anecdotal observation; adequate peer-reviewed studies of the reasons for internal migration desperately need to be performed.

  18. Out-migration in neighborhoods undergoing rapid abandonment (in the case of tens of thousands of homes in Detroit) or rapid inflation (such as areas throughout Brooklyn) requires better understanding in order to create better policy solutions. During the last two decades out-migration of middle-class blacks increasingly contributed to Detroit’s changing demographics, ostensibly due not to rent pressures or increasing taxes but access to better quality of life elsewhere.

  19. In many cities, rent regulations prohibit exorbitant increases in rent for existing tenants. In New York, the Rent Guidelines Board meets each year to decide on the percentage landlords are permitted to increase the rent for rent-stabilized apartments. Yet landlords can exploit loopholes in the regulations, and because rent can rise at the end of leases and after improvements in apartments, over time, demographic change is evident even in neighborhoods with strong rent stabilization laws.

  20. In cities with a greater share of homeowners, limits on tax increases can protect vulnerable homeowners who meet low-income guidelines. In neighborhoods undergoing accelerated property inflation, taxes can double and triple in a few years, forcing landlords to sell and increasing incentives to force out existing low-rent tenants.

  21. Displacement refers to conditions under which individuals and families are compelled to leave an apartment or home because of increased rent, taxes, cost of living, crime, under-performing schools, or purchase of properties by new owners. Over time, displacement of a group can result in cultural change and loss of historic identity.

  22. Displacement can be limited by implementing rent stabilization (limiting the percent increase in rent by law); tax incentives for poorer homeowners (limiting the increase in property taxes for existing owners in neighborhoods undergoing rapid demographic change); tax incentives for landlords with stabilized tenants (reducing the motivation for landlords to turn over apartments due to higher property taxes); tax-increment financing of services to defend tenants against unjust evictions and finance; freezing city fees and taxes for fixed-income homeowners to protect against rising cost of living; prioritizing low-income housing development for existing residents and residents at lower-income levels; anti-flipping policies such as higher real-estate transfer tax rates that discourage rapid resale of property; and mandating hiring of local residents in new businesses.

  23. Abandonment refers to a condition in which the value of property and quality of life in a neighborhood or a city decreases over time, resulting in larger numbers of properties left vacant that become tax-foreclosed or otherwise neglected. In many places, including large parts of Detroit and Flint, there is a stronger need to attract new tenants and homeowners in order to prevent abandonment than to limit them. Yet changes in investment patterns can happen very quickly once a tipping point is reached; property prices in many Detroit real estate markets suggest the emergence of asset bubbles.

  24. Neighborhood stability refers to a relatively calm economic, social, and cultural condition in which prices neither accelerate nor decrease rapidly. Property is adequately maintained, turnover is neither too high to maintain the character of a community nor too low to prevent vacancy, and a relatively stable and good quality of life is maintained over generations.

  25. Commercial displacement refers to turnover of small businesses as a result of increased rent or redevelopment of property. Small businesses are among the most unprotected groups in neighborhoods and cities undergoing demographic change. Commercial leases tend to be longer—five or ten years—but rarely protected against rapid rise in property values and rents. Some cities such as Delray Beach, Florida have successfully passed legislation limiting the size of commercial spaces and barring national franchises in order to protect small businesses and maintain the character of communities. Commercial displacement is among the least recognized and most rarely addressed aspects of the rapid demographic change.

  26. Cultural change refers to factors that contribute to a tangibly different character of a neighborhood, often due to a combination of new age and ethnic groups migrating to a community, changes in small businesses on commercial strips, resulting in tension or a feeling of alienation on the part of one or another group. Terms like hipster, Bohemian, artist, Yuppie, privileged are often markers of a cross between age-related factors, ethnic identity changes, and economic changes favoring predominantly white or non-traditional ethnic groups, reflecting the social tensions produced by demographic changes on the local level.

  27. Mutual respect is produced when individuals from different class and ethnic groups within a community are attentive to each other as individuals; look each other in the eyes on the street; do not make assumptions about each other because of their dress, body type, skin color, or hair style; go out of the way to acknowledge one another, and make specific efforts to build a community of common interest.

heading - footnote

Against the Rhetoric of “Gentrification”: Developing a More Useful Vocabulary to Lead Necessary Processes Urban Change

The word gentrification has made inroads into Detroit, pointing to the potential concentration of capital investment and the creation of asset bubbles that may one day affect the quality of life and affordability of the city for current residents. It’s happening in some neighborhoods already, undeniably. Yet the rhetoric of gentrification is extremely misplaced in the context of Detroit, failing to acknowledge the desperately needed access to capital in the city and the instrumental role cultural capital can play to redirect resources toward the city. It blames the Bohemians and derides so-called “hipsters” whose progressive commitment to urbanism will be one of the factors contributing to the city’s economic recovery, if it is to succeed, along with community organizations, gardeners, political reform, state and federal support, real estate investment, and countless other efforts by individuals in neighborhoods and in their own private lives to maintain homes, help neighbors and, run small businesses. The discourse around gentrification often ignores the importance of direct capital investment for the recovery of the city, improvement of services, funding of infrastructure, and the revival of places we all value.

While the rhetoric of gentrification signals an awareness of inequality of opportunity, it fails to articulate policy solutions or a positive vision for increasing equity. Implicit in the rhetoric is a fact we can all readily acknowledge: whites and blacks in the Detroit metropolitan area generally have unequal access to resources, and, to a large extent, the reinvestment in Detroit involves white artists, bankers, and developers bringing resources into the city, which is a good thing. For generations we waited for reinvestment. If you ever spoke to the residents of Oakland County, you would know that for decades the county’s racist attitudes toward Detroit combined with fear and resentment over leaving the neighborhoods of their childhood prevented investment in the City of Detroit.

Moreover, art itself is a form of embedded capital investment, bringing additional resources to communities suffering decades of disinvestments. Rather than focus on the potential for asset bubbles, a productive attitude toward the role of culture would view it as one of a number of instruments we can use to self-consciously direct creative energy and capital investment to improve conditions in the city, attract revenue to recover valuable historic buildings in danger of being demolished, and improve neighborhoods otherwise suffering from abandonment. It’s also important to recognize when a neighborhood reaches a threshold of inflationary pressures, at which time aggressive art-intervention and social practice-type work can be counterproductive to the goal of building social equity.

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This article is part of a series on art and gentrification organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – June 2015.
link - issue 15: March 2015