America’s housing shortage, rooted in an acute building slowdown that began during the 2008 financial meltdown, has caused an alarming rise in the cost of owning or renting a place to live. Policymakers across the political spectrum have offered useful ideas to boost the construction of new homes. In some markets, the ambitious goal is to double the annual production of housing units.
Unexpectedly, however, fierce resistance to such ideas has come from an unlikely source: local housing advocates and allied politicians. Many of these opponents, especially in progressive cities, argue that the housing-cost explosion is due not primarily to a lack of new housing but to gentrification—the rapid transformation of neighborhoods as higher-income residents, especially whites, move in. Unleashing a new building wave, especially in underdeveloped urban communities, they say, will make housing even costlier for the poor, driving them from their neighborhoods. Embracing this view, residents in many locales have fought proposals to build new housing—in some cases, even at prices potentially below market, so intense are their fears of change.
Community advocates have long seen gentrification as evil. Though studies consistently show that little displacement occurs in most improving low-income areas, the notion of gentrification as anti-poor and anti-minority has persisted and, over the last decade, intensified. Activists and academics, often amplified by local media, have expanded the purported causes of gentrification to include such things as climate-change policies, efforts to spruce up parks, and bike-sharing initiatives, while denouncing as enablers of the process such dark agents as restaurant critics and hosts of television fix-it-up shows. Creeping gentrification is “the province of avocado toast–loving, espresso-swilling—and mostly white—millennials,” as one report expressed it. Gentrification has become a verbal bomb thrown in battles over the racial or ethnic makeup of neighborhoods, “a more pleasing name for white supremacy,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words.
Some of these complaints might seem absurd, but when acted upon, their consequences can be disastrous. In poor neighborhoods, where lack of investment and depopulation have led to a decline in housing stock, anti-gentrification forces resist zoning changes that would unleash developers to construct lower-cost multifamily residential buildings and propose new twists on historic-preservation districts, aimed at freezing the racial or ethnic “character” of neighborhoods. Nonprofits and governments buy up land to keep it from being improved. Almost all change is rejected.
What such practices assuredly will not do is improve the prospects of residents in struggling neighborhoods. Things can’t stay the same and get better. The gentrification debate implies a choice.
British sociologist Ruth Glass coined “gentrification” in 1964, after observing that working-class London neighborhoods were being “invaded” and transformed by middle-class residents. The monied newcomers, Glass said, bought modest places and then upgraded them, driving prices higher; many existing residents found themselves “displaced,” she argued. The term “displacement” became central to the concept of gentrification.
In America, however, this concern was hardly the biggest issue facing many cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Starting in the mid-1960s, as industrial jobs fled cities and crime rose, middle-class residents headed for the suburbs. Urban populations contracted significantly, resulting in the widespread abandonment of residential and commercial properties—a process accelerated by the race riots of the late 1960s in dozens of American cities. New York City’s population fell from 7.9 million in 1970 to 7 million a decade later; owners deserted tens of thousands of buildings. Devastated by riots in 1967, Newark saw its population plummet from 405,000 in 1960 to 329,000 in 1980, and the city kept shrinking for another decade. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950 and then started a decline in the 1960s that has never really stopped, with only 639,000 residents left in the city. Even Sunbelt metropolises like Salt Lake City witnessed a pause in their rapid growth, and then a population decline beginning in the late 1960s.
Federal and local policymakers responded with programs to bolster cities and neighborhoods, including tax credits for urban investment and direct building subsidies. But many of these efforts yielded little, overwhelmed by growing urban disorder. By the late 1980s, New York City still had in its possession properties with thousands of units of housing, left vacant and derelict for years.
Municipal fortunes began to improve only in the 1990s, when, with New York leading the way, cities started winning the war on crime and gaining back people and investment. Even so, it took years for many blighted areas just to replace what they had lost; displacement was hardly an issue. The once-thriving blue-collar neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn is a good example. It had endured an extended decline, starting in the mid-1960s, as crime exploded, arson became endemic, and riots tore it apart. Its population cratered from 138,000 in 1970 to just 93,000 in 1980. Abandoned, uninhabitable buildings pockmarked its streets. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, as crime plunged, that developers, finding unused land to build on, old industrial buildings to repurpose, and young urbanites willing to move to the no-longer-so-dangerous neighborhood, began snapping up Bushwick properties. Annual production of housing rose sevenfold within a decade. Bushwick is transformed from how it looked a half-century ago, with a different, more diverse, demographic makeup.
But such makeovers, even when they take place slowly and include little evidence of widespread dislodgment of residents—Bushwick’s population remains smaller than it was in the 1960s—spark anti-gentrification defiance. In Bushwick, community groups rallied against new construction; students of a mostly Hispanic school painted a mural depicting newcomers as vultures. Brooklyn’s overall revival, meantime, became an object lesson for community groups in other cities. Protesters in Detroit, for example, battled efforts to renovate abandoned buildings and wore shirts emblazoned: “Don’t Brooklyn My Detroit”—a startling slogan, considering the Motor City’s long, sad deterioration.
Given the misperceptions around gentrification, it was inevitable that a sharp spike in housing prices, precipitated by a construction bust following the 2008 financial crisis, would bring louder cries of displacement. From a peak of nearly 2 million housing units completed by developers in 2006, annual output slumped to just 584,000 homes in 2011. Average annual new housing construction fell by more than half in the eight years after the 2008 crash, leaving the country with a shortfall of nearly 4 million housing units by 2020.
Restarting that market, even after demand rose, has proved difficult. Skilled tradesmen were harder to find after the post-2008 building slump pushed some laborers out of the industry. Later, Covid shutdowns hobbled construction, and worldwide supply-chain disruptions caused shortages of building materials. All these developments sent prices soaring. A growing thicket of local zoning and environmental requirements have also made building new housing harder, and thus more expensive, in some areas. Increasingly, when builders have built, they’ve focused on producing pricier housing, as their own costs have skyrocketed. Housing prices more than doubled between 2012 and 2022, squeezing affordability up and down the income scale. Many buyers then began “buying down,” looking for cheaper housing in poorer neighborhoods that they might not previously have considered.
Even so, many still blame gentrification for our current housing woes. A survey of California voters found that just 13 percent believed that the state’s housing crisis resulted from under-building. Voters were more likely to point to the proliferation of monied tech-industry workers and an influx of foreign buyers. They can be excused for thinking this way, given how the press handles the housing crisis. Local newspapers alone have published some 3,500 articles and opinion pieces nationwide over the last two years tying rising prices to gentrification and claiming a widespread uprooting of residents. Only about one-fifth of those stories have bothered to mention the housing shortage. Many housing advocates, local politicians, and even some academics suggest that a sudden upsurge in people buying down into more affordable neighborhoods is causing the country’s housing problems, rather than reflecting them.
Salt Lake City, for instance, is a market that has seen robust population growth since the 1990s. But when the housing crash hit in 2008, builders pulled back even there, with the number of new housing units dropping from 7,000 in 2005 to under 2,000 by 2009, according to a HUD report. For four ensuing years, housing production hovered around just 3,000 or fewer units yearly. Even a decade after the housing crash, Salt Lake City builders have not produced as many new units of housing in one year as they did throughout the mid-2000s. Nonetheless, a recent story in the city’s major newspaper, headlined “Gentrification Turns Scary,” failed to mention the construction downturn as a cause of rising prices and reduced affordability.
As if to harden opposition even further, community advocates and academics now identify new types of gentrification that they claim victimize poorer urban residents. “Climate gentrification” refers to how climate-related environmental changes, such as rising seas, may transform neighborhoods, resulting in winners and losers. For instance, press reports reflect worries that wealthy residents, who formerly sought prime beachfront locations in places like Florida, are now starting to migrate inland, potentially driving up prices in other areas. The process is playing out around Miami Beach, advocates say, as developers head to nearby higher ground to invest, raising fears in traditionally minority communities like Little Haiti, which is seeing new development, that its character will change irreversibly.
Closely related is “carbon gentrification,” when efforts to cut carbon emissions lead to changes that residents fear will drive them out. When tech firms like Amazon or Google expanded in Seattle’s city center, and many of their youthful employees decided to live downtown, where they could walk or bike to work, instead of using cars, carbon gentrification resulted, on this view. What many urbanists would see as a triumph of city life—greater density leading to lower emissions—was viewed locally as a threat. Critics say that the wealthier new residents consumed more than current inhabitants, raising the neighborhood’s total emissions, anyway. In other words, the densification of neighborhoods, once considered model urban planning, works only if a community attracts the right kind of new residents: not well-compensated tech workers, apparently.
Though policymakers have long labored to find ways to revive distressed urban neighborhoods, their rare successes have met increasingly with hostility, again on gentrification grounds. Many low-income residents complained for years about the decline of city parks in their neighborhoods. Over time, cities sought to address those concerns, restoring old parks and adding new ones in low-income areas. That strategy has been enormously successful, providing people with better recreation and helping to attract new residents. But now comes the charge: “green gentrification.” Community activists have tried to block some new parks, or put severe restrictions on the revitalization of existing parks, seeking to stave off another purported threat to current residents.
One strategy of anti-gentrifiers is to admonish entrepreneurs for “enabling” gentrification. In Indianapolis, a mother-daughter team that restores old, often-abandoned homes under the name Two Chicks and a Hammer have fixed up and resold some 100 residential properties over the past 15 years. Hosts of a popular HGTV remodeling show, Good Bones, the pair have caught flak from activists for reviving properties in the Fountain Square section of Indianapolis—a formerly working-class community that now shows signs of upscaling. The renovators defend themselves by pointing out that they revive properties that no one wants in a city short of housing. “If there is vacant housing stock in a neighborhood that is being inhabited by raccoons and possums and drug dealers and prostitutes, what better thing is there to do with that vacant housing stock than rehabilitate it and put families in it?” one of the Two Chicks, Karen E. Laine, told the press.
Progressives in many industries, some only tangentially connected with housing, are now told to examine their consciences to see how they might have abetted gentrification. A San Francisco restaurant critic recently attended a workshop held by a “progressive culinary think tank,” which asked participants to discuss gentrification. Afterward, she published a Cultural Revolution–style self-examination, titled “Am I Fueling Gentrification in the Bay Area?” She described how the arrival of the kind of trendy restaurants that she reviews is often an early signal of a neighborhood’s upswing and how activists increasingly worry about things like “food gentrification.” Such thinking has become common among urban activists; one Chicago community group, calling itself ChiResists, describes restaurants that “aim to have a clientele not based in the community” as guilty of imposing “systems of oppression.”
The consequences of the anti-gentrification philosophy are evident in misguided policies that seek to stem gentrification, but at the cost of a productive, efficient housing market. Land trusts controlled by community groups and governments are multiplying, wielding millions of dollars to buy up property to limit market-rate housing and stall neighborhood change. At their worst, such efforts warehouse land to stop development. Even at best, these trusts develop the land that they buy only in limited circumstances—so that building becomes cumbersome at a time when greater flexibility is crucial.
By some estimates, more than 300 land trusts now operate in America. Their numbers are likely to grow rapidly, thanks to laws giving them favorable tax status and funding. California designated some of the $500 million it budgeted for affordable housing in 2020 to finance land trusts that buy and rehab buildings at foreclosure auctions, where they often get first dibs on properties. Los Angeles County targeted $14 million of its housing money to help land trusts gobble up property in neighborhoods like Koreatown. Chicago, meantime, has created a Housing Trust division to buy and manage properties in potential gentrification areas, at least in the government’s estimation. New York City formed an initiative linking 14 land trusts in East Harlem and other areas of the city. New York legislators have proposed a bill that would give the trusts first rights to land when an owner lists a property for sale. “Larger development firms can put together a proposal much faster, swoop in and increase gentrification in our neighborhoods,” city councilmember Carlina Rivera said. “This bill will give nonprofit affordable housing developers and [community land trusts] the critical time and the flexibility they need to make a fair-market offer.”
Most of the trust-owned properties get developed into subsidized rentals or owner-occupied homes—but with a twist. An owner seeking to sell a land-trust property will be restricted in the profits he can make. A Minneapolis land trust keeps 75 percent of any gain when an owner sells. A Houston land trust lets an owner sell for a profit, but only up to an amount that equals a 1.5 percent increase annually in value. Someone purchasing such a property ten years ago for $100,000, in other words, would be able to sell it today for only about $116,000. With the average rise in housing prices around the country during that period, the house’s true market value might be more than $200,000. Eventually, the value of trust properties will fall well below the cost of similar housing valued at market rates. That makes these houses desirable to tenants who want to stay in them and gives the trust operators enormous power, as they get to decide who lives in them. But one thing residents buying into trust properties won’t be able do is build significant equity, and therefore wealth, in their homes.
Land trusts can struggle to produce housing rapidly—not surprisingly, given the constraints many operate under. Houston set up a land trust five years ago and helped finance it with $60 million to create 1,000 new affordable houses. Five years later, the trust, mired in bureaucratic delays, owns just 136 houses. The city now wants to invest some of that money in other initiatives that might be more productive. Similarly, an audit of Washington, D.C.’s affordable-housing trust found that it misspent some $82 million on housing projects that didn’t meet its mandate. A city councilmember blasted the trust as a mayoral “slush fund.”
Gentrification fear is so intense that politicians can work at cross-purposes on housing. Even as they pour money into government-subsidized housing, they’re also using anti-gentrification tools to restrict or slow housing construction. Consider the proliferation of so-called conservation districts. These emerged from the historic-preservation movement, which saw New York and other cities, starting in the 1960s, declare certain neighborhoods worth preserving architecturally and curbing building or rebuilding there. Though originally meant to protect distinctive historical architectural features of neighborhoods, these districts often expanded into a mechanism to thwart all change.
Now, cities have created a new kind of preservation district, where local residents get to determine how to manage their neighborhoods’ construction, often resulting in yet more tight limits on new development. Houston has traditionally been a city that lets builders work quickly, with few restrictions. But recently, the city named six neighborhoods as conservation districts. Property owners in places like Independence Heights, Freedmen’s Town, and Magnolia Park/Manchester can now limit building height, decide how much parking must be available, and designate lot sizes. Similar districts have sprung up in Dallas, Nashville, Chapel Hill, and Boise, among other places, granting localities without any special historical significance the power to legislate away any development they dislike.
Cities are also designating cultural districts that activists want to shield from gentrification. San Francisco, suffering one of the nation’s worst housing shortages, has ten such districts based on demographics and sexual orientation, including Japantown, the African American and Pacific Island districts, the Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin, and the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in the South of Market neighborhood. To qualify, an area must have many residents belonging to “a specific cultural, community or ethnic group.” Once upon a time, trying to protect a community’s current racial or ethnic makeup might have been deemed illegal housing discrimination; today, it amounts to government-approved anti-gentrification policy.
Gentrification anxiety is helping to defeat plans to reform city codes that restrict building. In Gainesville, Florida, for example, a proposal to rezone areas that currently allow only single-family homes so that affordable multiunit housing could be built foundered after residents of black neighborhoods testified about their concern that new projects would change their community. A similar proposal in Charlotte also spurred opposition from minority community members.
All this effort seeks to disrupt a process that rarely causes the harm to current residents that critics claim and, in fact, often helps them. A recent study by New York University researchers tracked children from Medicaid-eligible homes living in gentrifying areas. They found no greater levels of movement out of those neighborhoods by these families, compared with the movement of similar families in non-gentrifying places. The study found, too, that those who remained as areas gentrified saw higher growth in income and lower poverty levels than similar families in neighborhoods that weren’t changing. Previous research had found comparable benefits for lower-income residents in gentrifying zones, including reduced crime, better schools, and less inequality.
Earlier research suggested that gentrification might even slow the migration of lower-income residents out of a community. An oft-cited 2007 Journal of the American Planning Association essay looked at the movement into improving New York City neighborhoods in the 1990s by middle- and upper-middle-income households. Rather than leaving these areas, the study found, many lower-income residents chose to stay. Middle-class flight in previous decades had hammered municipal budgets and harmed urban economies, so gentrification was a big net gain for cities, the authors noted.
That a neighborhood can revive without displacement isn’t hard to understand. After all, many lower-income communities are underdeveloped. Their populations have contracted; their buildings have deteriorated; land sits unused. In the last decade alone, Detroit has spent $265 million in federal dollars knocking down more than 15,000 abandoned homes. Such decline leaves plenty of room for new development, without any pressure to push current residents away. When newcomers move into once-blighted and now-improving neighborhoods, they’re often replacing residents who left years earlier, and they’re occupying properties redeveloped or restored only recently.
Yes, over time, the population of any community changes—but this is normal turnover that occurs everywhere. Politicians, community activists, and the press, however, often mistake or mislabel that turnover as forced dislodgment. Often, when activists and politicians protest such change, what they’re really objecting to is a new dynamic that might see a neighborhood’s politics and power structure change, along with its population. Much of the current movement against gentrification, in other words, isn’t really about displacement. It’s a struggle for control. The losers are the residents of these places, who come to believe that their community getting better will somehow turn out worse for them. Usually, the opposite is true.
Top Photo: Many communities wracked by disorder and abandonment decades ago, including Bushwick in Brooklyn, have seen a resurgence thanks to investment that has bolstered property values and attracted a new generation of urbanites. (ANDREW LICHTENSTEIN/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES)