Is Gentrification Inevitable?

New Orleans    Being on the wrong side of the tracks as I tried to beat the train to get to my office in time for a live radio show, I ended up driving from street to street to beat the traffic lined up to enter a road that traversed the tracks.  Weaving in and out of the blocks through this area I know well as a lower income, working neighborhood of the city, I was surprised, as my chance to finally enter the stream of cars came up, to find myself sitting in front of two brand new houses being constructed as in-fill in vacant lots in this area.

It was like seeing a giant flashing set of neon signs on a billboard shouting GENTRIFICATION ALERT!  Is it already too late?  Is there no way to stop it?  Could this neighborhood still be “saved,” so that families would not be displaced as pressure increased?  Talking to neighborhood organizers, they were skeptical.  I was disheartened, but I understood.  New Orleans has not only been losing the fight to gentrification since Katrina but abetting it.

Talking to city staffers recently in Cincinnati, one looked me flat in the eyes, and asked what ACORN would recommend to stop gentrification there.  I nodded, said, “Sure,” and the conversation went onto other topics, but I found myself subsequently reading a number of papers by Professor Tom Slater, a globally recognized expert and critic of gentrification based in Edinburgh, and someone ACORN chapters have found supportive in our fight for “living rent” in Scotland.  His argument in a nutshell is that there is nothing natural or organic about gentrification.  Instead it is all about rent-gaps and capitalistic investment and manipulative development programs that make neighborhoods and their residents simply collateral damage and outside of their concern.

The Wall Street Journal in a recent piece tried to make the case that some cities, and they mentioned New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Portland among others, are making efforts to help low-income residents remain in their neighborhoods.  They cited programs that included “down-payment assistance on homes to people with historic ties to neighborhoods, passing ordinances aimed at restricting gentrification and assisting nonprofits that are buying buildings where tenants are at risk of eviction.”  Interesting, but other than taking a look more closely at these ordinances, having nonprofits buy buildings is great but there’s no way it is scalable and helping people buy doesn’t protect families from rising property taxes, insurance and other costs that force them to sell as prices soar around them.  These programs are worth a look but seem more about insuring some minimal community diversity than genuinely stopping displacement and providing some permanent protection for the community’s character and its families.

A local developer was interviewed recently and of course he made the case that gentrification was natural and good and then interestingly said something along the lines that he hoped he was right, but history would determine that in the future.  Sadly, history may not be the best judge because it will not be written by the displaced but by the gentrification advocates in all likelihood.  And, like many of these last-ditch programs, it will be written too late and after the fact, when desperate action is what is needed now to help people stay in their homes and weather the storm that is building all around them.

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