Gentrification: It's the stuff of a real estate developer's daydreams and a working-class renter's nightmares. It's also the backdrop millions of middle-class Americans find themselves living in after moving to a low-cost urban area and, wittingly or not, changing the fabric of the community.
But is there a conscientious way to live in an up-and-coming neighborhood without blindly contributing to rent hikes or the demolition of people's beloved homes and their subsequent displacement? If you're part of the problem, can you also be part of the solution?
Well, maybe not. But that's not to say it isn't worth trying.
Simply recognizing your role in a changing neighborhood is a good first step, says Jason Patch, sociology professor at Roger Williams University and co-author of Gentrifier. "It's important that people recognize themselves as being gentrifiers," he says. "So many people thinking about these issues haven't been placing themselves in the narrative."
That's what Patch and Gentrifier co-authors John Joe Schlichtman of DePaul University and Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University aimed to do in their book, sharing their experiences as gentrifiers in several American cities who simultaneously study the topic for a living.
"So many people thinking about these issues haven't been placing themselves in the narrative."
"We define 'gentrifier' in a very specific way: a middle-class person who moved into a disinvested neighborhood in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same," Schlichtman says. "This newcomer exerts economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community."
Gentrification is a loaded but vague term, one that's grown amorphous enough that many of society's ills can be glommed onto it. Unpack it, and you'll find a tangle of systemic racism, class segregation, unchecked development, affordable housing shortages, and other deeply entrenched structural problems that preceded that new Starbucks on the corner.
"Housing does not go on sale like other goods," the authors write in Gentrifier, so if real estate in the middle of New York or Chicago is cheap, there is generally a story behind it — one fraught with historical injustices like redlining or 20th-century disinvestment. In short, much of the groundwork has been laid long before you arrive. "When the gentrifier moves in, whether with all of her earthly possessions packed into a car's trunk and back seat or in a large moving van that overshadows the sidewalk of her new residence, she enters into an accumulation of previous decisions, actions, and policies that frame the current reality in the neighborhood."
"You can't behave your way out of gentrification, because it's a structural context that's bigger than you," Schlichtman says. "However, you could choose not to move into a gentrifying context. You could ask yourself your motives for moving to a given place, what reservations you have, and what impact these motives and reservations will have on the fabric of the neighborhood."
"You can't behave your way out of gentrification, because it's a structural context that's bigger than you."
Because the term is so nebulously negative, Patch says discussing and combating the ill effects of gentrification is best achieved by honing in on the particular issue you want to address. "It's important to think in terms of the specific problems you're concerned with, like housing affordability, if that's what you're really focused on, or displacement," he says. "Rather than just sprinkling it around like magic dust — like, 'Oh, gentrification, well that explains everything.'"
To that end, volunteering at or donating to local nonprofits that serve the community is one way to help address specific threats to longtime residents. Schlichtman suggests spending half an hour on Google to find the community groups most involved in gentrification conversations in your local news stories, as they're likely the organizations actively trying to resolve systemic housing issues.
You can also support and vote for local leaders or policies that fund fair and affordable housing. There's a "cocktail of policies that cities use to create a fair housing fabric," Schlichtman says, including public and Section 8 housing, inclusionary zoning, rent regulation, limits to condo conversions, and community land trusts, among many others. "Cities know what the ingredients are and how they might use them. It is simply the question of will."
The thing is, much of this comes down to simply being a good neighbor — in other words, Patch says, you ought to be doing these types of things no matter where you live. "You want to be a good citizen whether you're in a neighborhood that's changing or not. But for a single person or household to deal with questions about rent increases, there are limits to what you can do."
Still, he adds, "Sometimes people are in a position where they can do more for a neighborhood." If you're a loan officer at a local bank, Patch says, "or if you're a local city councilor or even part of the PTA for a school, you can make a different intervention."
"If you do decide to move in, you can be a good neighbor."
"If you do decide to move in, you can be a good neighbor," Schlichtman says. "You can be kind. You can say hello when you walk by someone. You can grasp that there was a community that preceded you. You can realize that there are already political and social conversations going on in the community you've joined and engage and respect those rather than starting new ones. You can support longtime business owners who might be struggling in a gentrifying context. You can settle conflicts by talking to people rather than calling in outside authorities."
Still, as very worthwhile as they are, there's a limit to what any of these actions can achieve. "This may mitigate some of the social and cultural effects of gentrification, but not the political and economic ones," Schlichtman continues. "As a middle-class person who moved into a disinvested neighborhood in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, you're still a gentrifier."
The real solutions, to the extent there are any, are bigger than you. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to be a part of them. "Of course a person or group of people can change it, but it involves changing the fabric of how housing is produced in your city by influencing political decisions at city hall," Schlichtman concludes. "And, with endurance, that is possible."