Legally, gentrification is accomplished through complex constructs that determine how land is developed and, typically, this comes in the form of municipal zoning ordinances which dictate, for example, how dense or sparse a population can be in a certain area.
Gentrification often destroys the cultural fabric of communities that have endured racial, xenophobic, and economic oppression for decades, said Cameron Clark, a second-year law student at Harvard University who has written extensively on issues in sociology and the law.
“This is particularly true for individuals in low-income communities, who might rely on friends, neighbors, family and local leaders for resources,” Clark said. “Borrowing a cup of sugar might seem like a dated idea, but being able to leave a child with a local babysitter or contact a local handyman for repairs is important to the collective support of a community.”
Some argue that gentrification is the 21st century code word for urban renewal. Still, many others argue that urban renewal has been tantamount to the African-American removal and, for this reason, it’s rare that gentrification benefits blacks.
When Omekongo Dibinga completed school in 1999 at Georgetown, he moved away from Washington, D.C., to Boston. When he returned four years later, the southeast D.C. resident and professor of cross cultural communications at American University in Northwest couldn’t help but to notice a stark change.
“Places like 14th Street were already in the process of turning into expensive condos and Southeast was slowly starting to change as well,” Dibinga said. “A new stadium was built and lots of new construction, the promise of a Wal-Mart. … In short, I am seeing the stories that I used to hear about Foggy Bottom and Georgetown that were majority black becoming true for areas like Southeast.”
Dibinga said he and his wife own three yoga studios in Northeast, Riverdale Park, Maryland, and Takoma Park.
“In the areas where we own businesses, it’s nearly impossible for the average Southeast resident to move to,” he said. “The Northeast area now called Ivy City where we have one of our businesses has vacant lots that were over $500,000. The average resident is getting priced out of D.C. and it’s sad to see. The demographics of the schools are also problematic.”
Certainly, gentrification paints a complex portrait.
“Let’s suppose that an African-American woman has inherited a home along the North Capitol Street corridor from her aunt who paid the mortgage in full,” noted Christopher Alan Bracey, the vice provost for faculty affairs and a professor of law at George Washington University in Northwest. “Let’s say the mortgage value at the time the aunt was paying around $150,000, which is not out of line with the market in the 1990s. When the aunt lived there, it was a predominantly black neighborhood. Now, it is a gentrifying neighborhood.”
The professor went on to explain in his example that a white developer then offers the African-American woman $1.5 million for her rowhouse today and plans to replace it and several rowhouses with high-end luxury condos.
“She agrees to sell. Is this bad for the black community? Almost certainly,” he said. “Is this bad for her black homeowning neighbors? Not entirely, as they now know the market price for their homes and may choose to sell.
“Is it bad for our African-American homeowner? If she sells, she makes 10 times her value — which was a gift in the first place — and she can afford to repurchase someplace else at the same or higher value,” he said.
While this individual would be better off if she sold, if it happened on a mass scale we another black neighborhood would be lost, Bracey said.
“This story has been played out in every major metropolitan city in America in recent decades,” he said. “What is often good for individual African-Americans is not so good for African-Americans as a collective. And the failure to bond as a collective is the baseline problem that has plagued African-Americans for centuries.”
Still, gentrification entails both social and economic changes that play out differently in various neighborhoods and fall differently on various groups, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.
For renters with low or fixed incomes, the impacts are often negative, including higher housing costs, the loss of community services that are oriented toward their tastes and pocketbooks, and frequent displacement, Henig said.
“For owners and those who have the means to stay, the changes can be favorable, including lower crime, improved city services due to greater neighborhood political clout, a wider array of commercial enterprises, and, for owners, the possibility of increased property wealth,” he said.
Change is inevitable in dynamic urban areas; neighborhoods cannot be frozen in time, Henig said.
The worst effects of gentrification come because the herd mentality of developers and real estate interests often combine to put intense focus on one or two neighborhoods at a time, making the effects sharper and speedier than if urban revitalization was evenly spread and paced, he said.
“African-Americans who enjoy city life should not have to wish for a return to urban disinvestment, but they need supportive public policies from all levels of government if positive change for the cities is not to come at their expense,” Henig said.
Further, much culture and diversity is lost when people are forced out by gentrification, said Calvin Warren, an assistant professor of American studies at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University in Northwest.
“Black small-business owners might lose property or are forced to sell because of increased rents or competition from big chains moving into the area,” Warren said. “This is also a loss of black wealth. If this process continues, I think it will be harmful to most African-Americans who are unable to buy property in these areas.”