Considering housing shortages and gentrification together

An MIT economist looks at the relationship between gentrification and a shortage of cheaper housing:

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods…

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Four quick thoughts on this argument:

1. This reminds me of my post from the other day comparing the perspective that there is not enough housing and there is plenty of housing but it is not cheap enough. This piece suggests there are multiple housing issues at work and policies might tackle one particular issue and not others (or even make other housing issues worse).

2. Does the multiplicity of housing issues require that Americans prioritize which issue matters to them most? If middle-class people want cheaper housing, that will lead to different approaches (public policies, legislation, urban planning, decisions by developers, etc.) compared to a consensus that gentrification is not desirable. Historically, Americans have tended to prioritize housing for the middle-class (broadly defined) at the expense of housing for the poor or homeless.

3. To truly address all of these issues, metropolitan-wide approaches are needed. Individual neighborhoods or municipalities are often left to tackle these on their own even though decisions by nearby neighborhoods or municipalities have significant effects on their housing.

4. Additionally, a comprehensive housing policy is needed, not just one that tackles the most important or noisiest issue at the moment. On one hand, many Americans would not want the government to become involved in such issues even as the government has promoted suburban homeownership for roughly a century.

Novel suggests McMansions gentrify small suburbs

A new novel suggests McMansions can upset small suburbs:

Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end...

White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.

I believe that McMansions can upset residents’ conceptions of their neighborhood or community. There are plenty of cases in the last 10-20 years that suggest some believe McMansions, whether in new subdivisions or as teardowns, ruin locations they like.

On the other hand, the description above of how all this works seems a bit odd to me. A few questions:

  1. How many inner suburbs become home to many teardown McMansions? Inner suburbs can be wealthy, working-class to poor, or somewhere in-between.
  2. My guess is that McMansions and more expensive housing do not just pop up in a community: there are precipitating qualities of the community that lead developers and local officials to think that the more expensive housing would take off. In other words, wealthier communities beget more housing for wealthier residents.
  3. Cheap suburbs, if just going by cost of housing, can be located throughout a metropolitan region. If gentrification is simply more expensive redevelopment, it could happen in many places throughout a region.
  4. Why is this gentrifiation not as pernicious if new development makes it harder for locals to stay? It may be happening in a suburban area but not all suburbs are that well-off.
  5. Is there a small-town suburban life worth defending? Decades of suburban critiques suggested suburbanites and their communities have all sorts of deficiencies. Are suburbs now to be saved from McMansions?

The McMansion is a monster to invoke in today’s fictional tales as its size and lack of good taste relegate it to at least shady, if not menacing, status.

Linking nicer cars to a suburb on the rise

From the Australian suburbs: one insider suggests seeing nicer cars in driveways signals good prospects for the suburban community.

The gentrification of the driveway happens before the gentrification of a suburb, says the boss of a data analytics company.

Upmarket vehicles beginning to appear in the carports and garages of houses is often a forerunner of a suburb on the rise, as renovators move in...

When more models such as a BMW X5 or an Audi SUV begin appearing in the driveway of houses and apartments in particular suburban streets, it is a reliable predictor of a suburb undergoing gentrification and becoming much more popular with renovators. Extra investment in community infrastructure often followed, and there was a broad flow on to higher property prices…

He said households who were taking out a loan for $500,000 to buy a rundown home in an up-and-coming area were often also purchasing a $30,000 to $40,000 car to fit the aspirational lifestyle.

The article chalks this up to a big data insight as bringing together multiple pieces of information helped reveal this relationship. I can see how this new information might help investors but it is less clear how this would help residents or local governments.

More broadly, this gets at something my dad always said: look at the cars in driveways, on the street, or in parking spots and it gives you a sense of the people who live there. In societies that prize cars, such as in the United States and Australia and particularly their suburbs, a vehicle becomes an important social marker. The one-to-one relationship might not always work as some people buy more expensive cars than their housing might indicate and vice versa (recall the stories of millionaires driving old reliable cars). Yet, on the whole, people of different social classes drive different vehicles in varying states of repair. Hence, various brands aim at different segments of the market. Famously, General Motors did this early in the 20th century with five different car lines to appeal to different kinds of buyers.

UPDATE: I probably did not contribute to this upward trend with long-term ownership of a Toyota Echo. But, it looked good for its age.

 

Some evidence whites are moving into black urban neighborhoods

In the United States, whites do not typically move into black neighborhoods but there is some evidence this may be changing:

In America, racial diversity has much more often come to white neighborhoods. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 98 percent of census tracts that grew more diverse did so in that way, as Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American families settled in neighborhoods that were once predominantly white.

But since 2000, according to an analysis of demographic and housing data, the arrival of white residents is now changing nonwhite communities in cities of all sizes, affecting about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts. The pattern, though still modest in scope, is playing out with remarkable consistency across the country — in ways that jolt the mortgage market, the architecture, the value of land itself.

In city after city, a map of racial change shows predominantly minority neighborhoods near downtown growing whiter, while suburban neighborhoods that were once largely white are experiencing an increased share of black, Hispanic and Asian-American residents…

At the start of the 21st century, these neighborhoods were relatively poor, and 80 percent of them were majority African-American. But as revived downtowns attract wealthier residents closer to the center city, recent white home buyers are arriving in these neighborhoods with incomes that are on average twice as high as that of their existing neighbors, and two-thirds higher than existing homeowners. And they are getting a majority of the mortgages.

The examples provided are intriguing to consider but the summary data is hard to come by in this article. A few thoughts:

  1. How many whites are actually moving into what are black neighborhoods? Are these significant shifts or relatively few new residents?
  2. The suggestion is that many census tracts are affected – “about one in six predominantly African-American census tracts.” If the amount of change is not much, this may not mean a whole lot. For both #1 and #2, the article said the changes are “still modest in scope.”
  3. Do the affected census tracts have relatively low densities or populations that have decreased over the years? In other words, are these areas with depressed land values or are they wealthier minority neighborhoods whites are entering? If it is the first, could this be a side effect of the inflated housing values in many metropolitan areas?
  4. The focus of this article is also on mortgages and gentrification: the arriving white residents are more likely to receive loans and they have higher incomes. This hints at longer-standing issues facing minority or poor communities that historically have had less access to credit. Additionally, change is not just about race and ethnicity; social class and access to capital matters as well.

There is a lot to consider here and to follow up on with more data, analysis, and interpretation.

Former Cabrini-Green site home to the fastest growing American neighborhood of residents making over $200k

A new analysis of Census data suggests the former home to Cabrini-Green housing project high-rises is increasingly the home of wealthy residents:

Cook County, which includes the county seat of Chicago, is home to the No. 1 and No. 7 fastest-growing concentrations of $200,000-plus households. No. 1 is, ironically, the area around where the Cabrini-Green public housing projects once stood. Cabrini-Green was notorious for violent crime, poverty and de facto racial segregation until its demolition beginning in the 1990s at the behest of the Chicago Housing Authority.

Even back then, authorities fretted that redevelopment plans might displace low-income families. They were right to be worried. Two decades later, the area’s concentration of $200,000-plus households has skyrocketed from zero to 39 percent. For some of the longtime residents who remain, the neighborhood’s transformation has been isolating.

Latanya Palmer, 53, grew up in the Cabrini Rowhouses. While she moved into a nearby mixed-income development in 2005, the hypergentrification has occasionally made her feel like a stranger in her own home. That sentiment echoes across the country, as poor and working-class Americans are increasingly pushed aside by frenzied development and prohibitive living expenses…

The census tract in question includes the still-standing, albeit largely vacant row houses where Palmer grew up. But now there are luxury condominiums and apartments, too. They sport rooftop terraces and sparkling views of the city’s affluent Gold Coast and Lake Michigan beyond. A three-bedroom penthouse can cost around $2 million.

This should be no surprise: the proximity of the land to both downtown and Lincoln Park meant that it is was highly desirable for developers and residents. Compare the clamor for the Cabrini-Green land to land where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood.

I would suggest there is a bit of revisionist history above. The claim that “authorities fretted” about the possible displacement of public housing residents is overstated. If anything, the city and Chicago Housing Authority probably could not wait to remove the high-rises (and other ones in the city, including the Robert Taylor Homes). Progress on replacing the units has been slow and with limited effects. The Chicago Housing Authority continues to have long waiting lists for housing. And many of the neighborhoods where public housing high-rises once stood are still relatively poor, even as a construction boom is taking place in the Loop and desirable nearby neighborhoods. In other words, some foresaw the potential for the Cabrini-Green site to be a wealthy neighborhood – and this what the city desired.

For more on why some Cabrini-Green residents fought hard to not be pushed out of their high-rises, see my earlier paper: “The Struggle Over Redevelopment at Cabrini-Green, 1989-2004.”

Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Defining gentrification and gentrifier with moral dimensions

A new academic book on gentrification suggests the term – and the people involved in bringing about the process – may not be so easy to define:

According to Jason Patch, co-author of the book “Gentrifier” and associate professor at Roger Williams University, it is the reinvestment into a devalued neighborhood to create a new residential and commercial infrastructure for middle- and high-income residents…

“The assignment of the term ‘gentrifier’ becomes sticky only when we assign moral weight to the term. And many do so,” writes John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor in the sociology department at DePaul University, in “Gentrifier.” Schlichtman is a co-author of the book, alongside Patch and Marc Lamont Hill. “Our interpretation of others’ gentrification is inevitably and inextricably tied in some way to our understanding of our own housing choices.”

According to Schlichtman, gentrification need not depend on the misplaced motives of housing consumers. To be a gentrifier is to be a middle-class housing consumer investing in a disinvested area in a period during which a critical mass of others are doing the same. This investment exerts pressure on the neighborhood — in the form of rising rents, or perhaps a shift in the nature of local policing, a change in the rhythms of the neighborhood, and so on.

“Yes, there could be gentrifiers with bad motives out there, but you don’t have to have bad motives to be a gentrifier,” Schlichtman said in an interview. “We need to take the depth of ethical and moral disgust out of the name gentrifier so that we can get people together and say this is something that we are a part of, but it’s also something that is bigger than us. … So how do we move forward?”

 

Some of the context that is important to know for why using the term “gentrifier” matters is explained in my recent post on residential segregation and race. Gentrification is not just about new, wealthier residents moving into a neighborhood; it involves race, class, and the history of housing in the United States.

Additionally, it strikes me that gentrification/gentrifier are words that function similarly to McMansion: in regular conversation, there is little positive implied by any of these words.