by Abigail Mariam Harvard Political Review
A brand new Whole Foods at the end of the street. High-rise condos built alongside subsidized housing projects. Groundbreaking for a mega athletic stadium in the neighborhood.
Each of these new additions to low-income and previously neglected neighborhoods trigger accusations of gentrification. Though multiple definitions are used to describe this phenomenon, gentrification occurs essentially when higher income actors enter low income areas and reduce potential for low-income interests to remain.
Given the migration of the global population toward cities, gentrification has caused concern among urban residents internationally. While gentrification apologists often hail how it promotes urban revitalization, they neglect to highlight how displacement and the threat of displacement pose risks to native low-income residents. These residents are often left to represent their own interests through local mobilization and advocacy.
Gentle Gentrification? Maybe Not
Some perspectives of gentrification in American cities suggest that the processes’ negative effects on low-income neighborhoods have been overstated. According to a November 2013report from the Federal Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not be linked to the exodus of low-income residents in a neighborhood, and may in fact benefit longtime low income residents. The report’s dismissal of gentrification’s connection to displacement echoes several academic studies of gentrification, including Joseph Vigdor’s landmark 2002 study of Boston neighborhoods in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in which the increase of neighborhood income was associated with an increase in poorer residents’ income. Its data suggested gentrification may actually improve low-income residents’ quality of life by increasing access to employment or improved neighborhood conditions and amenities, making it a rallying point for many proponents.
As optimistic as the data may be, these reports mask how these neighborhood changes are harmful to low-income residents. Tom Slater’s 2009 article articulates how gentrification leads to one element of urban planner Peter Marcuse’s original definition of displacement: conditions that prevent future low-income residents from living in a neighborhood.
Displacement in Boston, America’s #1 Urban Gentrifier
With 61% of low-price neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, Boston has become America’s top gentrifying city, according to the 2013 report referenced above. One major factor driving this has been a decline in affordability of different properties for low-income residents in the last 10 years, says Tim Davis, Senior Research Fellow at the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy. This decline in affordability is caused by both “classic gentrification,” in which higher-income residents move into neighborhoods, and the early-2000’s “sub-prime lending bubble” which led to an inflation in real estate prices that forced existing neighborhood residents to pay a larger share of their income toward housing.
“It was capital that moved in, but not necessarily higher-income families” said Davis in an interview with the HPR. In addition to a decline in affordability, less housing stock has been affordable for low-income populations as a result of higher-income interests entering the neighborhood, which is happening in “about two thirds of Boston’s neighborhoods,” says Kevin McColl, a policy adviser with the Department of Neighborhood Development for the City of Boston during an interview with the HPR. McColl notes that as the housing stock has become less available, both low-income and middle-income residents have been put at risk of displacement in neighborhoods. Middle-income residents are newly vulnerable in longtime gentrified neighborhoods in which low-income residents have already been displaced, such as the South End.
Some of the neighborhoods with the highest risk of gentrification include Chinatown and areas in the South End and South Boston, as shown in this figure.
In response to threats of displacement, many neighborhood advocacy groups have begun to organize low-income residents, such as the Chinese Progressive Association and the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation. These organizations have developed campaigns to advocate for residents’ ability to keep their housing, such as the CPA’s Chinese Stabilization Campaign, and are a critical conduit for residents attempting to counteract gentrifying forces in their neighborhoods.
“Even if they can’t stop gentrification completely, [community organizations] have the ability and some resources to help some families and some communities continue,” says Davis. Sheila Dillon, Chief and Director of the Department of Neighborhood Development for the City of Boston, agrees with Davis in emphasizing that communities would lose an essential tool for visibility and advocacy without local groups who mobilize and engage residents to fight for their housing. “City-wide coalitions are helping neighborhood efforts to use their voice,” she told the HPR in an interview, “and I think that without their voice, we are going to end up with neighborhoods that are going to lose their diversity, that are going to lose certainly some of their local identity.” Organizations that are willing to advocate on behalf of these communities have been essential to the preservation of low-income interests in these areas in the face of gentrification.
Copa Pra Quem? Gentrification via the World Cup in São Paulo
Threats of displacement via gentrification know no national borders, and low-income communities in São Paulo have similarly sought to organize to protect their ability to reside in the city. With a population of nearly 11 million residents in a metropolitan area that’s only growing, São Paulo is home to many low-income residents who make due with whatever housing they can find, giving rise to the low-income squatter communities.
However, the contestation of their squatting occurs most often when that land gains value, as has been the case in the Itaquera neighborhood on the eastern periphery of São Paulo. An hour’s drive out of downtown São Paulo, Itaquera is characterized by the low wages and high crime rates that are pervasive in poor communities. As the site of the construction of the World Cup stadium, Itaquera saw an increased level of investment in the few years preceding the 2014 World Cup, which threatened the residents of the Coumunidade de Paz, or the Peace Community—a low-income community established under a bridge about one mile away—with displacement.
The Comunidade da Paz first encountered serious risk for displacement in 2011 when notified of the city’s plan to reclaim their public land, according to Drancy Silva, a resident community organizer for the Comunidade de Paz. “We were going to be kicked out and left out with nothing” said Silva.* “It was then that we started getting organized in the community and went after the public defender’s office to fight for our right to stay.” According to Silva, the city’s secretary of housing then came to register each of the 377 families living there at the time.
Following local and international media picking up this story, the Comunidade has not only been able to remain in their area but has also negotiated with the city to provide them with utilities, such as water. Some families living in areas prone to flooding along a surrounding creek have also been given the option to relocate to public housing elsewhere in the city.
Despite this community’s successful attempts to fight against gentrifying forces of displacement and remain in their homes, the threat of future displacement still looms over residents. As Silva said, “The price of the land increased a lot, and we are in a very strategic location near the stadium. So, I do not know if we are going to be here five years from now.” An area with previously little investment, Itaquera may become a new location for development and expansion in São Paulo, giving low-income communities like the Comunidade da Paz the responsibility to fight for their ability to stay where they live.
A discussion of gentrification’s possible benefits ought to acknowledge the substantial impact displacement of all kinds has on low-income residents. As low-income residents’ mobilization efforts can attest, even the threat of displacement can be damaging to residents’ lives. Although gentrification may promote elements of urban renewal, it is crucial that policymakers and urban planners address how gentrification forces low-income urban residents to fight to keep their stake in our cities.
*Special thanks to Glenda de la Fuente for translating Drancy Silva’s interview from Portuguese.