No sooner had Columbia
University made its public announcement about plans to build a new section
of its campus in West Harlem, then activists, both from the Harlem community
and within Columbia itself, started their not unpredictable tirades against
expansionism, displacement, and, worst of all, the dreaded ‘gentrification’
that might define Harlem’s future. Characteristic of their complaints is
a misunderstanding of what actually happens in a gentrifying community, how,
despite bringing significant change to the social and economic fabric of
the community, the process of gentrification will result in positive, tangible
benefits for Harlem’s 300,000 residents. One would think, for a community
perennially wracked with poverty, disenfranchisement, and despair, this is
an end result that all would embrace.
their zeal to protect residents from an ‘invisible hand’ they do not trust
to produce positive benefits, protestors, as they have in numerous older
urban cores undergoing change, warn of a skewed housing market and evaporating
affordability. In fact, gentrification does not put new pressure on housing
markets or create scarcity, and an upgrade in the quality of life in neighborhoods
serves as a catalyst for overall growth and development.
Market conditions that encourage the building of new housing have a two-pronged
benefit for the community: as new housing is created and neighborhood residents
who had been renters become owners of new units, their old housing -- much
of it rentals -- is freed up for a whole new group of renters who either
move from less desirable units (freeing up more units) or come into the neighborhoods
for the first time. Thus, gentrification, by making a community attractive
to investors, actually enables many renters to move up the housing ladder
into presumably better apartments, without displacing tenants and by making
their old units available for yet another set of renters below them.
L. Vigdor, professor of public policy studies at Duke University, noted that
even the construction of new housing for high-income residents, say, a luxury
building with 100 condominiums, benefits the overall community. "Because
if we don't build those condos," he observed, "where are the people who were
going to live there going to live? They're going to go to a mixed-income
neighborhood and occupy units there that could have been occupied by someone
lower down the economic ladder."
also solves a major concern for activists and neighborhood advocates who
see any change in the racial or sociological character of Harlem as detrimental,
who aspire to preserve the idealized, and probably unrealistic, community
they remember from another era.
Vigdor dismisses this obstructionist fantasy, calling it the "romanticized
view [that] a neighborhood is where people are born, live their entire lives."
And the reality is that the Harlem for which people wistfully yearn is a
community gone for some seventy or eighty years. It is not, thankfully, the
Harlem of the 1990s when sociopathic teenagers strangled the community with
crack use, crime, and thuggery, It is not the decade after the riots of the
1960s when over 100,000 Harlem residents fled for the suburbs. It is not
the Harlem of massive housing projects, middle-class abandonment, and plummeting
quality of services, resources, commerce, and lifestyle.
gentrification of older cities, changing the model from housing for the poor
to housing for middle- and upper-income groups, a good thing? Research shows
it is, particularly since high concentrations of housing for the poor, a
“monoculture of poverty,” serves as a permanent barrier to neighborhood growth.
“Housing projects radiate dysfunction and social problems outward,” says
housing expert Howard Husock, Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Social
Entrepreneurship Initiative, “damaging local businesses and neighborhood
property values. They hurt cities by inhibiting or even preventing these
rundown areas from coming back to life by attracting higher-income homesteaders
and new business investment. Making matters worse, for decades cities have
zoned whole areas to be public housing forever, shutting out in perpetuity
the constant recycling of property that helps dynamic cities generate new
wealth and opportunity for rich and poor alike.”
to the misunderstanding about gentrification is the mistaken notion that
it necessarily causes displacement of existing residents, usually tenants
of modest means forced out by the influx of wealthier tenants. But studies
suggest that, in any five-year period, populations change on their own, that
almost half of the tenants in a given neighborhood will move on their own
-- regardless of what economic factors are affecting the community at the time.
typical image that people have in their minds . . . that people are
being thrown out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods” is false, says
Professor Vigdor. In fact, the flurry of activity in real estate markets
does not reflect displacement, but housing creation, since, as Vigdor notes,
“there is usually some degree of vacancy and rehabbing of buildings that
weren’t previously inhabitable.”
households actually seem less likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods
than from other communities," said Frank Braconi, co-author of a similar
research project, the New York gentrification study by the Citizens Housing
and Planning Council of New York.
be convenient for community leaders, student groups, and activists to make
a villain out of ‘gentrification,’ as their way of fearing a future in which
their advocacy for the chronic poor is rendered irrelevant by the rising
tide of economic growth. In fact, the disingenuous cries for the ‘preservation’
of the present inner-city communities by activists and some neighborhood
leaders have to be looked upon as a way of preserving their own influence
over the business of poverty, oppression, and victimhood.
benefit is there in impeding a massive and wide-reaching improvement of the
entire economic and social structure of a community? Isn’t this precisely
what neighborhood leaders have called for since the Great Society. Isn’t
this the end result they would all wish for their disenfranchised constituents?
Rather than condemning Harlem to a state of perpetual stagnation -- defined
by broad tracts of public housing and widespread poverty -- wouldn’t a new
model of economic growth hold more promise?
is the very question that such tenants’ groups, activists, and leaders, should
consider before they condemn -- without restraint -- any wide-ranging, comprehensive
upgrading in the social and economic conditions of American cities. They
can continue to mistakenly characterize gentrification as a perverse process
of social and economic Darwinism, or they can make an honest assessment about
the critical and substantive benefits realized by all residents of a community
undergoing positive change: jobs, better municipal services, decent places
to live, thriving commerce, and the hope that a whole community can start
stepping out of poverty once and for all.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., writes frequently on law, social policy, housing, politics, and business.
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