Gentrification isn’t inevitable

Conventional wisdom casts gentrification as an unstoppable force, as the free market asserting its will. Like facing down a runaway train, the only option is getting out of the way. 

This wisdom is deeply flawed and relies on a one-dimensional worldview. But before we can unpack its shortcomings, we should understand the process of gentrification. 

 Gentrification occurs when opportunistic investors buy housing stock in low-income neighborhoods, with the hope that wealthier residents (who pay higher rents) will move in. They’re very literally invested in displacement, because if the low-income population isn’t pushed out, they’ll lose money. These speculators have no stake in the community and therefore have no reason to support a local grocery store over a luxury high-rise apartment, even if the consequence is rising rents and the destruction of an irreplaceable local business. Clone that investor a thousand times, set the clones loose on a neighborhood and you get gentrification.  

 When spelled out, this process does feel inevitable! In a (relatively) free market, how can we stop money from flowing where it wants?  

 But this line of thinking is narrow-minded. It ignores how resilient low-income communities can be, if only they are given the tools to wield economic and political power. These communities can push back against the flow of capital and resist gentrification.  

Chinatown implemented a very successful plan to prevent gentrification that could lay the groundwork for the rest of the nation.  Photo by Somazeon from Flickr Creative Commons

Chinatown implemented a very successful plan to prevent gentrification that could lay the groundwork for the rest of the nation. Photo by Somazeon from Flickr Creative Commons

We need look no further than New York City’s Chinatown to see this theory in action. Most buildings in Chinatown are collectively owned by longtime residents whose primary concerns are keeping rents low and local businesses alive. These residents act in service of community welfare, not profits. Despite rents in the surrounding areas increasing dramatically over the last two decades, Chinatown has remained a haven for low-income Chinese immigrants.   

How can other cities copy this blueprint? There are many pathways to resilience, but I’ll focus on four today: Promoting community ownership of land, fixing local zoning codes, democratizing urban planning and evening the playing field between landlords and tenants.  

 Community ownership of land is perhaps the most potent tool in the anti-gentrification toolbox. In community land trust (CLT) models, non-profit community organizations own land and lease it out to low-income homeowners. Because the CLT owns the underlying land and is primarily concerned with housing community members on the cheap, they can ensure prices will stay down in perpetuity. American CLTs, like the Vermont-based Champlain Housing Trust, have succeeded in their mission to supply permanently affordable housing to their community. CLTs and other models of community-owned housing are crucial to long-term neighborhood wealth building.  

 Fixing zoning codes to promote small-scale development allows community residents to become active in the local real estate market and build community wealth. Most zoning codes tip the scales in favor of large developers, by implementing onerous regulations which require time, money and expertise to overcome. Moderate-income, small-scale developers benefit from easing certain regulations, like minimum lot sizes, bans on accessory dwelling units and parking minimums. And these local landlords are more invested in community welfare and less likely to price-gouge than out-of-town investors.  

accessory dwelling units are just one of the many regulations eased upon for small-scale developers.  Photo by Daniel Ramirez from Flickr Creative Commons

accessory dwelling units are just one of the many regulations eased upon for small-scale developers. Photo by Daniel Ramirez from Flickr Creative Commons

 The consequences of urban planning are more visible than almost any other government action. Everything from the width of streets and the size of lawns to the maximum density of apartments is determined by local governments. But too often, local governments embrace top-down policy making, excluding the residents who will be most affected by their decisions. For instance, it is common practice to sell property on the cheap directly to large developers or banks, rather than giving community members first priority to invest in their own neighborhoods. Democratizing planning decisions will help ensure that cities are protecting neighborhoods, not promoting gentrification. 

 The final piece of the puzzle is leveling the playing field between tenants and landlords. Strong legal protections from eviction and rent-gouging can stop rapid gentrification in its tracks. Rent control — which caps the profit landlords can extract from tenants — is an extraordinarily successful and powerful protection.  

 Conventional wisdom doesn’t often assign agency to low-income neighborhoods. They’re viewed as communities which have things done to them — not communities who can manage their own wealth or make their own decisions. But I’d argue that transferring economic and political power to folks in low-income neighborhoods is the most effective defense against gentrification — and the most effective strategy to build strong, healthy neighborhoods. 


Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu