News & Politics

Non-Stop Gentrification: 5 More Cities Where Poor Communities Are Being Turned into Rich Ones

It’s not just happening in Brooklyn and the Bay Area.

Downtown Nashville at night
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

When we hear the word gentrification, we think of Google buses gliding through the streets of San Francisco and pre-fab luxury condo towers sprouting up along the Brooklyn waterfront. But gentrification, first defined by British sociologist Ruth Glass as a process in which a neighborhood’s “original working-class occupiers are displaced” by an influx of higher-income new arrivals, isn’t just happening in New York and the Bay Area. A potent combination of rapid private development, soaring rents and property values, and pro-growth public policy is radically reshaping the fabric of cities across the U.S.

This process doesn’t just lead to a proliferation of twee coffee shops, it contributes to the criminalization of the homeless, increased income inequality and deepened residential segregation. Investment is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but too often, it is driven by developers whose interest is profit, not preserving local culture or ensuring that low-income residents still have access to affordable housing. Meanwhile, longtime residents are left out of conversations about what is happening to the places they call home.

Gentrification does not happen the same way in every place. It is dependent on transit lines, local history and the political inclination of municipal authorities. Some cities that experienced previous waves of gentrification are now undergoing rapid new growth (like Philadelphia), while others are revitalizing downtown areas long overlooked by car-culture suburbanites (like Houston). But the signs are everywhere. Here’s a sample of what’s going on in five major cities across the country.

1. Boston

Boston wins the title of “unexpected gentrification capital of America,” according to data compiled by the Cleveland Fed. Looking at the percentage of urban homes that went from the bottom half of home price distribution to the top half, between the years 2000 and 2007, Boston came in first, with a 61 percent shift. Over a quarter of Boston residents now live in formerly low-income neighborhoods that have gentrified.

The rapid transformation of the city’s south end is being pushed by twin forces, according to Tim Davis, senior research fellow at the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy. In an interview with the Harvard Political Review, Davis explains why low and middle-income Boston residents are facing a decline in affordable housing options. According to the article, this is “caused by both ‘classic gentrification,” in which higher-income residents move into neighborhoods, and a ‘sub-prime lending bubble’ which led to a change in real estate prices that forced existing neighborhood residents to pay more of their income toward housing.”

Johnny Magdaleno reported on this insidious combination for Vice last summer. In the south Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, houses decreased in value by 40 percent between 2005 and 2007. During that same period, the neighborhood experienced twice as many foreclosures as the state average. Housing finance giants like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are leveraging these circumstances to their advantage, foreclosing the homes of low-income residents who fall behind in their mortgage payments. The newly empty homes are sold to large real estate developers eager to invest in newly hip areas like Dorchester. This has pushed many former homeowners into the rental market, but average rental prices in the city jumped from $1,984 in November 2011 to $2,487 as of December 2014, according to real estate database Zillow. Low-income and even middle-class Boston residents are left with fewer and fewer housing options from which to choose.

2. Nashville

The rapidity of Nashville’s metamorphosis has shocked observers and longtime residents. In a woeful New York Times column, Nashville Scene editor Steve Haruch laments that in recent years “we built a 78-mile, sprawl-inducing ring highway instead of investing in mass transit; we built not one but two massive stadiums downtown; we spent a half-billion dollars on a convention center the size of an aircraft….A house that went for $40,000 a decade ago might now go for 15 times that amount.” Apartment rents are up 18 percent since 2009 and home values went up 9.1 percent last year alone, according to Zillow.

As construction booms downtown, concentrated development and rising rents are pushing longtime residents out of East Nashville neighborhoods like Cleveland Park, which has a significant concentration of older residents relying on fixed incomes. Working-class families have also been priced out, abandoning centrally located neighborhoods like Germantown and Hope Gardens for farther-flung, more affordable housing on the outskirts of the city. This speaks to a broader national trend: the suburbanization of poverty. As higher-educated, higher-income individuals flock to urban centers, lower-income residents are forced into suburban neighborhoods that offer limited job opportunities and social assistance programs.

This increasingly stark residential income segregation can also be understood through the lens of education. Last year, the New York Times analyzed gentrification rates by looking at which cities witnessed the largest influx of recent college graduates between 2000 and 2012. Nashville, with an increase of 48 percent, was near the top of the list. Drawn by jobs and a wealth of amenities, highly educated young workers are increasingly concentrated in a handful of big cities, exacerbating geographic segregation. As Emily Badger points out at the Washington Post, “College graduates in America aren’t simply gaining access to higher wages. They’re gaining access to high-cost cities like New York or San Francisco that offer so much more than good jobs: more restaurants, better schools, less crime, even cleaner air.”

3. Los Angeles

For decades, Skid Row was known as ground zero for L.A.’s homeless population. An industrial neighborhood lined with warehouses, dive bars and pay-by-the week motels, Skid Row was where the city’s poorest residents lived. Today, the area is gentrifying at lightning speed, as developers buy up large tracts of land, converting them to luxury apartments, designer stores, and upscale restaurants and bars. Though the neighborhood has witnessed previous waves of gentrification (AlterNet reported on the changing face of Skid Row back in 2007), what’s happening today far outpaces anything that came before. According to Politico, more than 23,000 new residents have moved to Skid Row in the last seven years alone.

What makes this area’s gentrification particularly striking—and disturbing—is that it is reliant on the criminalization of Skid Row’s low-income residents. Los Angeles has the highest percentage of homeless who have no shelter whatsoever, and the city leads the nation in the number of chronically homeless, as Politico reports. But this population, many of whom suffer from physical disabilities, addiction or mental illness, has been vilified by local authorities and police officials, who view them as a blight on the city’s downtown. In 2006, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-LAPD chief William Bratton collaborated on the “Safer Cities Initiative,” a broken-windows policing effort that involved arresting offenders for petty crimes such as jaywalking, going to the bathroom in public places or sleeping on the streets. Essentially, it criminalized people for being homeless.

Though activists challenged the initiative in court, the forced marginalization of Skid Row’s most vulnerable residents continues. Just last year, the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a real estate mogul’s plan to construct a pedestrian bridge connecting two halves of his new luxury condo, preventing upscale residents from having to walk on the sidewalk below. His reason? To reduce “potential incidents that could occur during the evening hours when the homeless population is more active in the surrounding area.” The poor are being shunted aside to make room for the rich.

Those who downplay the effects of gentrification say that longtime residents often benefit from the revitalization of their neighborhoods, and that the number of people who are forced to move out is overblown. But this is not the case in Skid Row, or in other L.A. neighborhoods like the Latino enclaves of Highland Park and Boyle Heights. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Moses Kagan, president of Adaptive Realty, defended his company’s massive condo development project in Highland Park. “Nothing is permanent,” Kagan told the reporter. “Including where we live.”

4. Baltimore

In Baltimore, local authorities are also facilitating the process of gentrification, though they are doing it through development grants rather than policing efforts. City officials, led by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have approved major tax breaks for developers to spur new housing construction, and are giving developers $400 million in public subsidies to build a massive new office park on the Baltimore waterfront. The project, which was strongly opposed by local community groups, unions and activists, will make room for the offices of the energy company Exelon, as well as a Morgan Stanley facility, residential towers and stores.

In an article for Salon, Sally Kohn outlines the dire consequences of these grand acts of municipal benevolence. “Private companies are tricking public officials into sweetheart deals that never pay off for the public…. The private development of mass gentrification, made way for by public policy including public financing, not only systematically ossifies but intensifies the economic inequality within our nation’s cities.”

Yet local authorities are also turning to public-private partnerships to mitigate the city’s affordable housing crisis, as Dusty Christensen reported for AlterNet last year. Their two-pronged strategy involves selling public housing units to private investors, and the enforcement of an initiative called Vacants to Value. In neighborhoods with fewer vacant houses, which are deemed “strong,” landlords are pressured to fix their properties or risk losing them at public auction. Areas classified as “weak” are transformed into “community development clusters,” allowing developers to buy up entire blocks of both city-owned property and houses that have been pushed into auction. What they choose to build is out of the city’s control.  

5. Denver

Like Nashville and Boston, Denver is becoming home to a growing number of highly educated, affluent young adults, and is building the amenities, nightlife opportunities and centrally located housing to draw more of them. More than 25,000 new housing units have been built along the city’s light rail lines in the last 15 years. But as Jonathan Thompson makes clear in a piece for the High Country News, this new development, much of which is being built on the path of the rail lines, has done little to benefit Denver’s longtime low-income residents. “Denver doesn’t just need more housing, it needs more affordable housing,” he writes. “And the free market has no incentive to provide it.” Rents went up 10.8 percent in Denver last year, the second highest increase in total rent in the country after San Francisco, according to Zillow.

A report by the local chapter of the National Association for Working Women looked at the role public transportation is playing in the city’s gentrification. It found that bus and commuter-rail fares are too high for most low-income residents. As Zoe Williams, an organizer with the group, told the Denver Post in an interview, “Low-income communities and communities of color pay for the transit system. Their neighborhoods face major changes with build-out. The bus routes they rely on get cut out. They can’t afford to ride light rail, and it doesn’t go to places they need to travel.” This means that even as low-income residents get priced out of downtown, more remote neighborhoods along public transportation lines are becoming similarly out of reach.   

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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