Avoiding the Gentrification Trap

by Kieran Najita


The world is a horrible place filled with terrible things; some we embrace, some we avoid, and some we push back against. Then there are the things, institutional forces and global circumstances, like ubiquitous chemical contamination or income inequality, that cannot be welcomed, evaded, or fought against as individuals, but merely resigned to as realities. You’re Hosed is a new, occasional series of interviews with experts about those things.

The lack of affordable housing in New York has become a full-blown crisis as the domino effect of the rich pouring into — or at least buying apartments in — the neighborhoods of the less rich, who are then forced into the neighborhoods of the even-less-rich, continues unabated. Carried along by the shifting currents of real estate speculation in an ocean of capital, what can a less-rich or even-less-rich person do to avoid becoming an active agent of displacement — or at least be a less terrible one?

Dr. Lance Freeman is a professor in the Urban Planning program at Columbia University whose research focuses on affordable housing, gentrification, ethnic and racial stratification in housing markets, and the relationship between the built environment and wellbeing. I spoke with Dr. Freeman the other week about how the process of gentrification plays out on a person-to-person level.

At this moment is time, who is a gentrifier?

I would look at the neighborhood and how they’re positioned in the neighborhood. Are they undergoing change? Are they a recent person coming into the neighborhood? And if so, what’s their socioeconomic status? Higher than the other people in the neighborhood?

So a person with a higher socioeconomic status moving to the neighborhood is gentrifying it?

If the neighborhood is undergoing gentrification. That’s the most objective definition I could come up with.

What does it mean for a neighborhood to be undergoing gentrification?

It’s somewhat of a totality, but it’s experiencing an influx of people of a higher socioeconomic status, and often also, invested in terms of new housing or rehabilitating old housing.

What decisions could homebuyers make to avoid gentrifying while moving around in the city?

Well, one person’s not responsible for gentrifying a neighborhood. But in terms of contributing to that, if they’re willing to pay a higher housing cost — if someone’s coming into New York city and they’re middle or upper-middle income, and they can’t afford middle-income neighborhoods then, short of moving somewhere in the suburbs, I don’t think they really have that option.

There aren’t that many options, you know?

So would you say there’s a difference between gentrification that happens based on trends in movement versus gentrification that is started purposefully in order to develop real estate?

A difference in what way? They’re certainly different in the puzzle in terms of how they initially start, the types of people that they attract. Sometimes, it’s people of relatively low incomes. Artists, for example, are oftentimes at the vanguard of gentrification — they might not initially have very high incomes, which is why they are looking for housing in low-income neighborhoods in the first place. Whereas, let’s say a developer decides to build luxury condominiums in a low-income neighborhood — that’s a little bit different type of gentrification. It could potentially evolve into something similar, but at the outset there’s a difference there.

If you’re a middle or upper-middle class person moving to a gentrifying area, does your behavior and the way you conduct your life in that neighborhood make a difference in the gentrification process?

Everybody’s behavior impacts the neighborhood, so again, one person by himself is unlikely to dramatically change the neighborhood, but I think everybody contributes in some sense. You know, if they integrated themselves into the community, are they not doing that?

So if you try to integrate yourself as much as possible, would it decrease your impact?

It’s not clear that it would, but it may feel differently to people living through it. If you focus on that particular outcome — housing prices — it may not matter for that, but it may feel different in terms of sense of community and things like that.

What about people moving to a neighborhood and trying not to change it socially, but still bringing in that higher income level?

Would the neighborhood still gentrify, regardless of whether people are socially connected with their neighborhood? Is that what you’re asking me? Yes. I don’t know. I mean, I can’t off the top of my head say why that would affect the rate at which gentrification is happening.

So is it fair to say that whether they want to or not, gentrifiers change their neighborhood just by being there?

Yes, that’s true.

In the New York that we live in today, is there a way to move between neighborhoods and boroughs without it having a socioeconomic implication?

There are neighborhoods that are affluent, a number of affluent neighborhoods, a number of middle-class neighborhoods, a number of neighborhoods that aren’t part of gentrification currently, a number of poor neighborhoods. I don’t think I follow that argument.

So then there’s always been a stratification of income varying by neighborhood?

Yeah, there has always been a stratification of neighborhoods. There’s some question as to whether or not that stratification is increasing or not, but there’s some evidence that it may be increasing.

If a person wants to make their neighborhood choice based on avoiding gentrification, does that mean they choose a neighborhood that is appropriate to their socioeconomic class?

Or they can go to a higher income neighborhood.

This is the conflict I want to resolve: On the one hand, there are a lot of feelings about gentrification and its consequences, but with that comes the question of social mobility. How do you feel about this?

I teach at Columbia. For a little while I lived in Columbia housing, which is kind of right next to Harlem, so I didn’t feel personally negatively about it. I didn’t feel like there was a negative connotation to what I was doing. In terms of what other people should feel, I can’t really tell people how they should feel. I think the issue is that there’s not enough housing in different income bands, so people can’t afford housing, and so they are looking for housing where it’s affordable. While there are some downsides to gentrification, I don’t think it’s all negative and I don’t there should be a situation where we have neighborhoods where other people can’t move into them.

So what is missing in this conversation and in my perspective on gentrification?

Well I think gentrification is happening because people are viewing neighborhoods differently, due to changes in housing prices elsewhere or changes in that neighborhood — the accessibility of the neighborhood. So I think you have to keep in mind neighborhoods are always changing, and that’s gonna change who wants to move into certain neighborhoods and who wants to move out. I think people should try to integrate themselves into the neighborhood. I don’t think the answer is that people should say, “Oh I’m not gonna move into this neighborhood because I’m gonna contribute to gentrification.” I think people that have that concern they can think about voting for politicians who will support more housing around the city in different places, but I don’t think the response is to say, “I’m not gonna move there because it’s part of gentrification.”

Should people be concerned with it on a personal level then?

I personally wouldn’t feel that way, but that’s up to each individual. If that’s how they feel, that’s how they feel, but I don’t think that addresses the problem.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Photo by Zach