Who’s To Blame for Gentrification?

As more neighborhoods and cities experience the impact of redevelopment, often termed gentrification, people seek individual culprits to pin the blame on. Whether it is the owners of the hip new coffeeshop, the developer building that new building, or the young professionals renting or buying homes in previously undesirable neighborhoods, the human need for attribution leads us to discount broader, institutional forces, according to Alan Ehrenhalt’s recent piece in Governing.

While “yuppies” or “hipsters,” whatever the term du jour is, are an easy target—“Most seriously, they raise rents and property taxes and inevitably force some poorer inhabitants to look elsewhere for lodging”—Ehrenhalt argues that “To hold them responsible for the discomforts of gentrification is essentially to blame the customer.”

Gentrification’s suppliers, Ehrenhalt writes, are indeed real estate companies and developers. “Yet for developers and landlords to be the true villains of gentrification, it would be necessary to determine that they are worse stewards than the small property owners who dominated poor neighborhoods in pre-gentrification days. There is no real evidence that this is the case.”

The real problem, according to Ehrenhalt, is the shortage of affordable housing supply and construction. “It’s the fault of an entrenched and complex system that has existed for decades and doesn’t have a perpetrator to put the finger on.” 

To Ehrenhalt, “The only way to make a serious dent in the shortage of moderately priced housing is to encourage more of it without demonizing the people living comfortably under the current rules.” 

While eliminating single-family zoning and permitting light density increases is one avenue for creating more housing, these policies probably won’t make a significant dent in the million of housing units needed to alleviate the current shortage. Ehrenhalt concludes, “To me, the only practical zoning solution is to stick to commercial corridors, and to build big there — tall apartment buildings, not duplexes or fourplexes” near transit lines that can accommodate families.

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