For a background on the themes discussed in this article, check out Part I of this two part series on gentrification, Gentrification – Understanding & Context.
The Ongoing Debate Over Gentrification
The implications of gentrification—rising housing costs and changes in neighborhood culture—have a range of impacts for those it affects, and it is often very difficult to determine if gentrification is good or bad. Often the positive effects of revitalizing poor neighborhoods exist alongside the negative, and this is where the surrounding gentrification originates.
There are many positives from gentrification: the rising popularity of a neighborhood increases amenities, with additions of modern green spaces, remodeled subway stations, and essential community centers, like libraries and recreational facilities. Heightened popularity and surging demand for housing also raises property values, augmenting overall neighborhood wealth. Meanwhile, hype attracts more stably-employed and better-educated residents, increasing the quality of local schools, reducing crime, and increasing the tax base, further allowing beautification projects and educational investment. These are wonderful assets for neighborhoods that have often struggled with securing a strong tax base, that have failed to provide basic infrastructure to residents, and that have struggling public school systems.
However, all these benefits are also offset by a slew of downsides. Primarily of concern is the increase in property value seen with gentrification. These rising property values often set off a chain reaction of negative consequences for the neighborhood’s original residents. With drastic changes in home values, neighborhoods become less and less affordable for their long-term residents with spiking rents; meanwhile, increasing property values may tax-out homeowners with limited incomes. Pushed out of their own neighborhood, former residents—those that made the neighborhood so desirable and culturally distinct in the first place—move out, relocating to areas without community ties and support. In these more affordable neighborhoods, there may be heightened crime rates and other societal ills, leaving former residents with a reduced quality of life. Furthermore, with their displacement, the modern amenities and reduction in crime seen in their former neighborhood are left to be enjoyed by those who gentrified the area. Although some may argue that gentrification helps the “ghetto”, those who resided there fail to even profit from the positive aspects of gentrification. Simultaneously, the process also leads to an indisputable degradation in culture, tearing intricate and culturally distinct communities apart. As new groups flood in, the old guard is exiled with increasing property values, taking their cultural uniqueness with them. The irony here is that those who created the “hip neighborhood” to begin with—the community that so many gentrifiers “appreciated” for its particular uniqueness—leave, taking their culturally distinctive characteristics with them. All that is left behind is the culture of the gentrifiers themselves.
Clearly these complex consequences of gentrification, both positive and negative, add a layer of intricacy to the discussion. However, the debate is especially complicated and heated because of the impossibility of separating issues of race and class from the process. It is the wealthy, and typically white, that flock into the neighborhoods of the moment, dislocating low-income, long-standing residents, usually immigrants and people of color. Given the economic and racial implications of gentrification, as one writer stated, perhaps arguments and discussions about gentrification are really “about who deserves to live in a city” and who does not (Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker).
The complexities of race, class, and ethnicity add a particular intensity to the topic and are imperative to consider during debate.
Gentrification in Madison
These issues have been raised and contemplated here in Madison, WI. During my time in Madison, several new luxury apartment buildings have been constructed, including Hub Madison, The James East, Ovation 309, and other sparkling properties around the capitol. In 2013 alone, there were “$347 million worth of new development in the city of Madison” and “nearly two-thirds, some $223 million, [were] apartment projects”(Mike Ivey, The Cap Times). These figures are astounding considering that in St. Paul, Minnesota’s 2nd ward, which is similar in composition to Madison’s downtown area, there was only $91.4 million worth of total development in the same year (Pioneer Press). Thus, the sudden large supply of luxury rentals in a concentrated area of downtown seems a bit concerning. And, the price of these new rentals is astounding, especially considering that Madison is a city that is distinctively populated by college kids and lower- and middle-class locals.
What is driving this residential development? With the influx of increasingly well-employed young professionals into the Madison area, especially with the recent shift of the region to a tech and start-up hub with the likes of EatStreet and Epic calling the Madison area home, there has been increasing demand for downtown housing. With well-educated and well-funded young professionals seeking access to nightlife, work, and leisure in “hip” neighborhoods, areas like Willy Street, Tenney-Lapham, North-East Campus, and East Washington Street have become increasingly popular (Mike Ivey, The Cap Times). And like with most cases of gentrification, the increased demand for residences in these neighborhoods has been driving monetary and cultural change in these regions.
Property values and rents have been rising in the downtown area and many advocates are concerned that these changes will begin to push longtime residents out. For instance, a recent draft report from Madison’s Housing Strategy Committee has found that “as rents rise and vacancy rates fall, even moderate-income households are [now] being priced out of Madison’s rental market.” It states that “nearly half of Madison renters are now considered ‘housing cost burdened,’ meaning they are paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income to their landlord” (Mike Ivey, The Cap Times). With rising rent burdens, many lower-income renters may have to look outside their neighborhoods for more affordable options as young professionals flood in. For instance, single mother Life Hardyman is concerned she will be unable to find an affordable home in her former neighborhood after a brief absence from the city—her previous apartment’s rent had inflated over $300 since she first moved to Williamson Street several years ago (Nathan J. Comp, The Isthmus). These steep increases in rent may push many out of their original neighborhoods.
At the same time, the cultural uniqueness of the hip and now gentrifying areas are at stake with cost spikes. In the Willy Street neighborhood, long-term residents speak of the demographic shift that is coupled with the area’s gentrification. Now Willy Street is “so desirable it’s become dominated by white, educated, alternative-types with means” and “[it’s] morphing into a socioeconomic mono-culture” (Nathan J. Comp, The Isthmus). Others have concerns over Madison’s State Street area, where gritty college locales have been increasingly replaced with minimalist store fronts, trendy coffee shops, and expensive grab-and-go restaurants.
The pricing and cultural shift in Madison is concerning, however, many of these changes have also brought positives into the neighborhoods. Violent crimes are down to their lowest level in 15 years, with only 209 crimes per 100,000 persons (US News). Amenities have increased, like a new central public library and spacious grocery stores. State Street and East Campus Mall are cleaner and more modern. The benefits are astounding.
Yet, we must ask the question, who is benefiting from these developments? Long-term or new residents?
Gentrification & Eviction
It is integral to consider how gentrification and its consequences may impact eviction rates. Although evictions have remained relatively constant in Madison despite rent increases, an article published by the New York Times found that nationwide, evictions soar with rent increases. For instance in San Francisco, despite being under rent control, rents in the gentrifying Mission District have ballooned. Studios are going for nearly $3,000 a month; one bedrooms for nearly $4,000 (Carol Pogash, The New York Times). At the same time Mission District eviction rates have spiked and many locals were forced to relocate. On the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project‘s graphic of San Francisco evictions, the Mission District is in red—the worst.
In Milwaukee, where this year’s Go Big Read text, Evicted, is focused, gentrification, and thus rent hikes, are occurring as well. These cost changes may be contributing to evictions. From 2010 to 2013, evictions increased 10% in the city (Shaila Dewan, The New York Times) while 12.1% of the city’s lower tracts gentrified (Joe Peterangelo, Public Policy Forum Blog). Given that gentrification and eviction disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods, it seems convincing that the rise in evictions and the simultaneous gentrification of low income regions are related. Although Milwaukee’s rate of gentrification is minimal in comparison to figures seen in other major cities, it does give cause for concern if the trend continues gaining momentum.
Obviously gentrification is a complex issue in American cities today. It is important to consider the many intricacies of the matter and discuss the topic with an open mind as it continues to occur throughout our diverse neighborhoods.
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office