To Gentrify Or Not

“This area is gentrifying fast. New people are moving in who think they want to live in the forest until they live in the forest. Then they want to cut down all the trees because they can’t see the sun.” -Todd Steiner

The neighborhood where I live has been up in arms the last few days about a local coffee shop not getting a liquor license. The owner wants to transition the coffee shop into a full service restaurant, and anyone who has worked in the food industry knows to make that profitable, you need booze.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) denied the coffee shop’s liquor license application, though, technically, they don’t have to approve it for the store to get a liquor license. DC regulations are a bit Kafkaesque. If you’re interested in all the juicy details, the blog In Bloomingdale has a good summary and links.

There is a broader point here. Much of the backlash against this particular coffee shop has stemmed from a larger dislike of gentrification. In DC, the gentrification debate has been around for a long time, not just in my neighborhood, but in many other neighborhoods and cities.

One of the mainstays of the anti-gentrification arguments is that gentrification results in increased rents and property taxes for long-term residents, which can price poorer residents out of the neighborhood. Intuitively, it makes sense.  Expensive condos go up and pricey stores open.  More dining/shopping opportunities attract more people to the neighborhood, thus raising property values.  When homes are reassessed, the increase in property values result in more property taxes.  People with disposable income move in and demand more stuff – bars, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. They also have money to spend on home improvement, further increasing property values.  Residents on fixed incomes can’t afford the increase and have to leave.  Landlords are forced to charge more because their property taxes have increased, but also because the neighborhood has more to offer.  This prices low-income persons out of the rental market.

However, according to some research being done in Harlem, this may not be true.  A professor of urban planning at Columbia University, Lance Freeman,  a leading academic on issues of gentrification, referred to the data from the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey and found that turnover among low-income residents in gentrifying neighborhood is lower than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.

It does seem to fly in the face of common sense. As Freeman points out, if your neighborhood is getting better, why would you want to leave? You don’t. Further, he argues that many new residents move into property that was vacant before gentrification began.

It’s an interesting idea and you can find a number of Freeman’s articles in journals on the subject, if you’re interested.

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