Addressing “green gentrification”

As American cities develop land in ways to combat climate change, researchers have examined who benefits from the new development:

Fighting climate disasters is a good idea for the planet, but can have unintended consequences for neighborhoods. “In order to construct a green, resilient park or shoreline, we get rid of lower-income housing … and behind it or next to it, you’ll have higher-income housing being built,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who co-wrote an article about green gentrification in December’s PNAS. It can get even worse, she says. Hardening one neighborhood so that water can’t flow inland there means the water goes somewhere else. “The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door,” she says.

That’s double jeopardy. And it turns into triple jeopardy, thanks to economics. New amenities plus new luxury housing drive up local housing prices, which drive out working-class and poorer residents. “The question is not only what Boston is facing, which is middle-class gentrifiers with a slightly higher income and education. It’s über-rich people who end up taking over cities until they are unable to fulfill their direct functions,” Anguelovski says. The gentrification wave is its own kind of economic apocalypse. If it hits, none of the people who make a city work—teachers, police officers, health care workers, bus drivers—can afford to live there. “Or it becomes so important from an economic standpoint, so desirable and hardened with infrastructure that entire buildings are empty—purchased by real estate funds or individuals from the Middle East or Russia,” Anguelovski says.

The problem that cities face is the difference between physics and real estate. Climate change happens on the scale of decades or centuries; real estate development and politics happen on fiscal and electoral timescales. “I get it. Green space is great, and while it may not be much of an improvement in terms of climate adaptation, it’s good for people’s well-being and quality of life,” says Ken Gould, an environmental sociologist at Brooklyn College and coauthor of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. “Does it sequester much carbon? Not really. It’s fine. But you have to manage the real estate markets, because markets left to themselves, when you put in an amenity, are going to generate development.”…

Obviously, cities are facing more and more climate-related hazards. It’d be policy malpractice to not get ready for them. “It’s not too difficult for a city to make green infrastructure investments in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, but the housing side needs to kick in,” says Constantine Samaras, an energy and climate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “The people who live in these underinvested neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood with bike lanes and green space. It’s up to city policy to make sure they can stay.” The trick is to build new housing while not uprooting people who live in the old stock—so that everyone benefits from the protection against disaster, not just a wealthy, lucky few.

This sounds like a twenty-first century version of urban renewal programs in American cities. In the name of the good of the whole community – now to protect neighborhoods and cities against environmental risks – lower-income housing is removed and the land eventually ends up in the hands of wealthier residents and property owners.

The sociological literature on urban development would suggest this is not surprising. Through a variety of means, leaders and wealthier people find ways to procure desirable land and profit from them. Redevelopment, whether undertaken to improve properties or make places greener, tends to benefit those who move into the neighborhood, not the ones who have been there a long time.

As is noted in the portion above, what is good for real estate and property values may not be good for the community even though the changes themselves – such as putting up barriers to water or creating more green space – would be welcome. At least now, the American system tends to privilege the real estate side, not the community improvement and well-being side. What could be done to limit the real estate market for the good of the city? Which city leaders will lead the way in arguing that green improvements should not be tied to market forces?

Defining “blight” still matters for urban redevelopment

The term “blight” might conjure up the urban renewal of the post-World War II era where the application of the term to poorer and non-white areas could lead to redevelopment. Yet, the term is alive and well: funding for the proposed Lincoln Yards project in Chicago is tied to the concept.

But the clock also was ticking for another reason. If Emanuel and Sterling Bay had waited much longer, the development no longer would have qualified for its record-high taxpayer subsidy, a Tribune analysis has found.

To get the money, the area had to meet at least five state standards to be considered “blighted.” The city could then designate it as a tax increment financing district. At the time of the vote, the area met the bare minimum.

Less than six weeks later, new property assessments were completed. The rising values of the Lincoln Yards land meant the TIF district no longer met one of the five standards, according to the Tribune analysis of the values of hundreds of parcels…

The Tribune’s finding comes as community groups are asking a judge to reverse the City Council’s decision. They say the area is not blighted and would be redeveloped without the taxpayer assistance, given that it’s centered on the Chicago River just west of Lincoln Park.

According to an Illinois government website, “blight” is not the only word used to describe land that might be eligible for TIF districts:

Funds may be used for costs associated with the development or redevelopment of property within the TIF, allowing blighted, declining and underperforming areas to again become viable, and allowing these areas to compete with vacant land at the edge of urban areas.

Not surprisingly, this is about money: how much public money would the developers get as they went about the project? As the article notes, such use of public money is contentious. In this particular project in Chicago, the location and size of the property is particularly valuable. Does a developer need much public money when there is so much that could be made on the project? Or, thinking in terms of opportunity costs, could such public monies be used to spur development in locations that are initially less attractive to developers?

More broadly, this gets at foundational questions about development in general. Who ultimately benefits from development: local residents, the city/municipality, and/or the developer? The growth machines model suggests development benefits local business leaders working with officials and other leaders who benefit from growth (and the status and revenues that come with that). Local residents could see some improvements through new development but the developers and business leaders are the ones who truly profit financially.

(See an earlier post regarding the term blight and its application to Foxconn’s development in Wisconsin.)

Does the failure of urban renewal necessarily mean that the free market could solve the problems of poor neighborhoods?

Reason looks at what happened to one New York City neighborhood in the name of urban renewal:

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act, which gave federal, state, and local governments unprecedented power to shape residential life. One of the Housing Act’s main initiatives – “urban renewal” –  destroyed about 2,000 communities in the 1950s and ’60s and forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Overall, about half of urban renewal’s victims were black, a reality that led to James Baldwin’s famous quip that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”

New York City’s Manhattantown (1951) was one of the first projects authorized under urban renewal and it set the model not only for hundreds of urban renewal projects but for the next 60 years of eminent domain abuse at places such as Poletown, New London, and Atlantic Yards. The Manhattantown project destroyed six blocks on New York City’s Upper West Side, including an African-American community that dated to the turn of the century. The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols to build a middle-class housing development. Then came the often repeated bulldoze-and-abandon phenomenon: With little financial skin in the game, the developers let the demolished land sit vacant for years.

The community destroyed at Manhattantown was a model for the tight-knit, interconnected neighborhoods later celebrated by Jane Jacobs and other critics of top-down redevelopment. In the early 20th century, Manhattantown was briefly the center of New York’s black music scene. A startling roster of musicians, writers, and artists resided there: the composer Will Marion Cook, vaudeville star Bert Williams, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosemond, muralist Charles Alston, writer and historian Arturo Schomburg, Billie Holiday (whose mother also owned a restaurant on 99th Street), Butterfly McQueen of “Gone with the Wind” fame, and the actor Robert Earl Jones.

Designating West 99th and 98th Streets a “slum” was bitterly ironic. The community was founded when the great black real estate entrepreneur Philip Payton Jr. broke the color line on 99th Street in 1905. Payton, also credited with first bringing African Americans to Harlem, wanted to make it possible for a black man to rent an apartment, in his words, “wherever his means will permit him to live.”

While Reason is a conservative website, there are plenty of others on the other side of the political aisle that also agree that urban renewal had a negative impact on many neighborhoods. Ultimately, this policy was used to clear “slums” and to use that land for more profitable development, typically for wealthier residents and businesses. Additionally, what actually counted as “blight” or as a “slum” was contentious as it tended to frown upon cheaper, ethnic or non-white neighborhoods. Blacks weren’t the only ones displaced; Herbert Gan’s classic work Urban Villagers looked at the fate of an Italian-American neighborhood which was ripped apart by urban renewal.

Since this comes from Reason, I assume that this is a critique of liberal policy and of eminent domain: you can’t trust the government with these kinds of powers as they will use it to trample people they don’t like. But can we swing all the way in the opposite direction and suggest that the free market will eventually get rid of the issues that poorer neighborhoods face and that lead them to be ripe for urban renewal?

I would argue no. Left to its own devices, the free market can also result in harmful policies that hurt less than wealthy neighborhoods. Here are a few examples:

1. Redlining. This was based on the practice of marking urban neighborhoods in terms of the security of their real estate by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation which arose out of the New Deal. But this practice really took off when private lenders and institutions adopted the government agency’s markings and then only made loans to the better neighborhoods, effectively shutting out poor neighborhoods from mortgages.

2. Exclusionary zoning. After the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ruled out discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, exclusionary zoning became a hot topic in the 1970s. A number of court cases looked at how the zoning guidelines of communities and counties effectively kept poor people out of suburban locations. By only allowing higher priced housing or certain kinds of housing (like single-family homes on a minimum of 2 acres), these zoning guidelines were very effective in maintaining the exclusivity of certain areas.

3. Still existing discrimination in obtaining mortgages and other loans. There have been plenty of studies that show when equally matched whites and blacks apply for a mortgage or a car loan or another loan, blacks are rejected at higher rates. Similar research has shown this also applies to jobs. Read an overview of this research in a 2008 Annual Review of Sociology article.

4. The ongoing presence of residential segregation in the United States. Many of our major cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, are still very segregated. View maps of some of these cities here.

5. Gentrification. While the influx of residents may “improve” a neighborhood, it often has the effect of pushing the poorer residents into other poor neighborhoods because of increased housing prices and property taxes.

So urban renewal was not the answer. But it is unlikely that a completely unfettered free market is as well. So perhaps the real question to address is how to craft effective public policy that provides aid to neighborhoods and their residents so that these neighborhoods truly improve, add jobs, and experience revitalization. The key here is “effective,” policy that does not become cost prohibitive, works with local residents and organizations rather than just applies a top-down approach, and achieves attainable and worthy objectives while minimizing unintended consequences. This is likely a difficult task but swinging the pendulum all the way to the free market side isn’t the solution.

Back to the burbs

I usually leave the demographic articles to Brian, but one of my Brooklyn-dwelling friends (and a new father) pointed me to Joel Kotkin’s post at Forbes making the case that “America’s young and restless will abandon cities for suburbs”:

Some demographers claim that “white flight” from the city is declining, replaced by a “bright flight” to the urban core from the suburbs. “Suburbs lose young whites to cities,” crowed one Associated Press headline last year.

Yet evidence from the last Census show the opposite: a marked acceleration of movement not into cities but toward suburban and exurban locations. The simple, usually inexorable effects of maturation may be one reason for this surprising result. Simply put, when 20-somethings get older, they do things like marry, start businesses, settle down and maybe start having kids.

Kotkin also doesn’t think there’s much chance of substantially increasing suburban density (for reasons that long time readers of Legally Sociable have heard before):

[T]he notion of mass suburban densification is likely to meet strong resistance from local residents. This will be particularly marked in attractive, affluent “progressive” areas like the Bay Area’s Marin County, Chicago’s North Shore suburbs and New York’s Hudson Valley. People who move to these places are attracted by their leafy, single-family-home-dominated neighborhoods and village-like shopping streets. Nothing short of economic catastrophe or government diktat would make them accept any intense program of densification.