Whenever a distressed neighborhood gets new market rate housing, someone’s bound to cry “Gentrification”.  Here’s why that’s wrong.

This is a guest post from Jason Segedy, Director of Akron’s Planning Department.  This is an excerpt of a two-part essay written by Segedy and published in The American Conservative. Jason writes about a range of urban issues at his excellent blog “Notes from the Underground.”

Residents and community activists who are opposed to new housing often demonize the real estate development profession as being “greedy”, overlooking the fact that their own home was developed by a developer, built by a builder, and sold by a realtor – most likely for a profit. This isn’t to argue that every development professional is a white knight, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of people who work in the real estate and construction sectors are not the enemy of neighborhoods.  Without them, there would be no neighborhoods.

When new housing is proposed, many people who don’t even live in the neighborhood will come out of the woodwork to oppose it.  Sometimes they provoke class conflict by seizing upon the dubious marketing term “luxury housing”.  This is especially true of far-left activists and academics, many of whom reflexively label any new development in a lower or middle-income neighborhood as “gentrification”.

The only reason that I continue to use that word is because other people use it. But it has become a useless word, and means so many different things to so many different people that it is no longer of any descriptive value.

People who describe any new market-rate housing as gentrification need to get their story straight, because they often have contradictory, and self-refuting notions about urban redevelopment.  They may claim to want to see economic and racial integration, but oppose the new housing in lower-income or minority neighborhoods which could actually bring it about.

I have heard self-described gentrification opponents claim that a new housing development will be home to people who “do not look like” those who live in the neighborhood, while simultaneously calling for diversity and inclusion; and remaining blissfully unaware of the irony that they are the ones who are making stereotypical, unwarranted assumptions about the characteristics of those who will buy the new houses in the first place.

Outside activists who come into a neighborhood and invoke the bogeyman of “gentrification” are denying opportunity to nearby residents who could benefit from the new housing, discouraging private investment in places that need it, and serving to further urban decline in the community.

A recent article in The Economist describes this dynamic well:

Those who bemoan segregation and gentrification simultaneously risk contradiction…[Gentrification] boosts racial and economic integration. It can dilute the concentration of poverty—which a mountain of economic and sociological literature has linked to all manner of poor outcomes…Gentrification steers cash into deprived neighbourhoods and brings people into depopulated areas through market forces, all without the necessity of governmental intervention.

There is little empirical evidence that gentrification has led to the displacement of people living in the urban neighborhoods of the Rust Belt.  On the other hand, there is incontrovertible proof that thousands of middle-class residents are displaced by urban decline every year in these cities.  A shrinking city, with a declining tax base, that is getting poorer will help no one – the poor least of all.

Alan Mallach, in his new book The Divided Cityexplains, at length, why the changes occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities.  We need more gentrification in the Rust Belt (if you insist on calling it that), not less.