'There Isn't A Just Housing Choice': How We've Enabled The Pains Of Gentrification

Jan 28, 2018
Originally published on January 29, 2018 11:56 am

Gentrification is no longer something that just happens in low-income neighborhoods. As the phenomenon displaces communities of color, from Inglewood to Washington, D.C., "gentrification" has been co-opted to include food and culture as well. So, what does the loaded term really mean?

According to urban sociologist John Schlichtman, gentrification cannot happen without disinvestment. In the book Gentrifier, Schlichtman and his co-authors, Marc Hill and Jason Patch, define gentrification as "the reinvestment of real estate investment money or capital into dis-invested, devalued, centrally-located neighborhoods, which fosters a new infrastructure for middle and high-income residents."

The reason gentrification has a bad rap is due to the inequity between race and housing. "Race is, at its heart, a class issue," Schlichtman says. The devaluing of lower-class neighborhoods, usually residents of color, is the result of a history of unjust policies, including government defunding and redlining.

"There is an unusual gap between the devaluing and the revaluing in the United States," Schlichtman says. "How that gap is filled needs to be controlled. We can't just let a tsunami of investment fill that gap. It's obviously going to wash things away."

Schlichtman spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the complexities of gentrification, who's responsible for it and how we can minimize the pain it causes through a conscious shifting of priorities.


Interview Highlights

Who is a gentrifier?

A gentrifier is a middle-class person who moves into a disinvested context at a time when other people are doing the same. And, that middle-class person is bringing middle-class buying power. And that effect occurs regardless of the racial, religious, class upbringing of that individual. But they're entering into a context in which that devaluing occurred through decades and decades of unjust policies: defunding by the government, redlining, racial covenants, blockbusting.

On "gentrifier guilt"

That guilt is felt because there is a perception that someone is benefiting from an unjust gap. The first question I ask in regards to gentrifier guilt is: What is the just context for a middle-class housing consumer? Is it the suburb? Is it the devalued neighborhood? Is it the bottom of a middle-class enclave in the city that has never had the devaluing? Is that the just context?

There are many people of all backgrounds in the United States who are struggling with their housing choice and trying to figure out what the ethical footprint of their housing choice will be. I would argue that we have painted ourselves into a corner because of our history in the United States where there isn't a just housing choice.

On advice for people who have moved into a gentrified neighborhood

You can't behave your way out of gentrification, but you can be a kind person. Much of the pain that occurs as a result of gentrification is the result of people who move into neighborhoods and they're imagining a future neighborhood. So no, supporting businesses that are currently existing, that's not going to stop gentrification but it is going to make people like you more.

I think people need to own where they live; don't say you can't live somewhere else if you're middle-class. You could live in that suburb that isn't gentrifying. You could live at the bottom end of that middle-class community in the city that isn't gentrifying. But, there are other things that you're looking for. You're looking for class diversity, a racial diversity, an ethnic diversity. You're looking for restaurants; you're looking for a specific type of architecture. So, be honest about your housing choice.

And finally, this needs to be fought with large-scale things. We need to put pressure on our city governments as a community to not put profit and investment as the number one priority. It can be balanced with other priorities of community.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And time now for the Call-In.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week, we're talking about gentrification. Middle-class people move in. Property values and rents rise. Things change and improve but not for everyone. Roslyn Williams has lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant for years. She watched her neighborhood change.

ROSLYN WILLIAMS: For example, there's a Waldorf school down the block from a public school. And this Waldorf school, of course, is for those gentrifiers that are not interested in integrating or being part of the public school system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Angel Poventud bought his home in Atlanta, Ga., in 2011 for $14,000. Now he says they're going for as much as 400,000.

ANGEL POVENTUD: We do really have this potential to displace everybody that's here now. And, really, even in the next five or 10 years, myself could get displaced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's that displacement that often changes communities of color. We're going to take a closer look now at one of those neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. It's called Inglewood, and it's been mostly black for decades. Here's Anna Scott from the podcast There Goes the Neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: You can't see it looking around this street of single family houses, but home values here went up more than 15 percent in the past year.

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN: Five is kind of a handful.

SCOTT: Writer Erin Aubry Kaplan (ph) shares a home here with five dogs. She says her neighbors worry that even more black residents will leave.

KAPLAN: I got an email from my neighborhood Listserv - some, you know, someone just sent out a message - don't sell your house. Don't sell your house. Stay put.

SCOTT: Thirty years ago, Inglewood was about 50 percent black and 40 percent Latino. Since then, those numbers have flipped. It's hard to pinpoint one reason. In the past, black residents left to escape high crime and failing schools. Now it's rising housing costs.

KAPLAN: If we're out of here, there's really nowhere in LA County to go. It's just too expensive.

SCOTT: We've been talking to black residents in Inglewood about the changes. By LA standards, Inglewood is still relatively affordable. Even though home prices have gone up, you can still find a house for less than $500,000. But the city has made new development a priority. The biggest project is a $3 billion NFL stadium. It will be home to the LA Rams and the Chargers.

WOODROW CURRY: From here, you can actually see construction on the new stadium site.

SCOTT: Woodrow Curry (ph) rents an apartment nearby and started a group called Uplift Inglewood. Their goal is for current residents to share in the new amenities.

CURRY: I mean, our city in general has experienced so much disinvestment. Now that we're seeing investment coming in, we want to be able to take advantage of those investments, right? We see it as we want a home court advantage.

SCOTT: The stadium plan includes new shops, restaurants, and thousands of new apartments and townhomes. Curry wants some of those designated for people with lower incomes. But new money coming in is already creating winners and losers.

Anna.

HENRY MANOUCHERI: Hi.

SCOTT: Nice to meet you.

MANOUCHERI: Nice to meet you, too.

SCOTT: I met up with one of the winners, real estate investor Henry Manoucheri at his office. His company is called Universe Holdings. They're like bloodhounds for undervalued property. And they've sniffed it out in Inglewood, where they now own seven buildings.

MANOUCHERI: Inglewood looks like a great buy.

SCOTT: Because it's just a short drive from the area known as Silicon Beach, where hundreds of tech companies have opened offices. Manoucheri predicts those jobs will mean more tenants and higher rents for years to come.

MANOUCHERI: We look at this as a growth stock. We think there's a lot of room to grow because we're starting at the ground level.

SCOTT: As black neighborhoods gentrify, often, there's a racial change, and they become whiter often. I guess I wonder just what you think about that and how you think about your role in gentrification.

MANOUCHERI: I think it's nice that the area gentrifies because people learn to coexist amongst other racial types.

SCOTT: And for those priced out...

MANOUCHERI: If people can't elevate themselves economically by working harder and getting better jobs, there's going to be no choice for them but to move to the less affluent neighborhoods.

STEPHANIE WARREN: I can no longer afford this high rent.

SCOTT: Stephanie Warren (ph) used to live in one of Manoucheri's buildings. Her rent went from about $1,200 a month to more than 2,000. So we met at a doughnut shop close to her new place, which took her months to find. She says it's hard not to see the changes through a racial lens.

WARREN: Because the feeling that we really have there is they're trying to get the black people out because the new residents that was coming was younger white couples. I know a lot of African-Americans don't make that much money like that.

SCOTT: According to census data, black families in the U.S. possess just 5 percent of the wealth of white families. Then again...

LEROY CLEAVON: I'm into construction, so I have been making a lot of money in the last year and a half off of this. I ain't going to lie.

SCOTT: Leroy Cleavon (ph) is also African-American. On Sundays, he comes to this Inglewood parking lot to race radio-controlled cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO-CONTROLLED CARS RUNNING)

SCOTT: My colleague Saul Gonzalez talked to him there.

SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: So for you it's good. Bring the boom on if there's a boom.

CLEAVON: Bring it on. Bring it on. Now, it's going to price the poor people out. You know, you got to give and take somewhere.

SCOTT: Inglewood's mayor, James Butts, who's African-American, says there isn't any deliberate plan to push out black residents. Whoever can afford to buy in Inglewood should. But back at Erin Aubry Kaplan's house, she says race always plays a part in who wins and who loses. Her home value is going up, but it's also changing the community. She can't think of an LA neighborhood that's gotten the benefits of gentrification, the new shops or restaurants, and stayed largely black.

KAPLAN: Populations expect certain amenities when they live there. It's kind of - you know, it's the American sense of entitlement I guess. And we've never been able to share on that, and that's real equality. When you move somewhere, Trader Joe's comes to you. That's equality.

SCOTT: She calls it retail justice. It's not the same as racial justice, she says. But it's a kind of equality she'd like to see here in Inglewood. OnChanera Avenue, I'm Anna Scott for NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anna's story is part of a collaboration between member stations WNYC and KCRW and the NPR Cities Project.

When you hear a report like that, what goes through your mind?

JOHN SCHLICHTMAN: How complex this issue is. I hear keywords such as disinvestment, devalued, reinvestment, revalued, retail justice. I mean, these are all very important things that have quite a history to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Schlichtman is an urban sociologist at DePaul University. He's also co-author of the book "Gentrifier." He told us more about the history of those words and why you can't decouple race from gentrification.

SCHLICHTMAN: Race is, at its heart, a class issue. A gentrifier is a middle-class person who moves into a disinvested context at a time when other people are doing the same. And that has a huge effect on the fabric - the economic fabric, the political fabric, the social fabric. And that effect occurs regardless of the racial, religious, class background or, you know, class upbringing of that individual. But they're entering into a context in which that devaluing occurred through decades and decades of unjust policies - defunding by the government, redlining, racial covenants, blockbusting. And so in order to consider just reinvestment, there has to be an eye towards the disinvestment, the devaluing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the responsibility of the gentrifier, though, that comes into one of these communities?

SCHLICHTMAN: So we hear a lot about gentrifier guilt, but that guilt is felt because there is a perception that someone is benefiting from an unjust gap. The first question I ask in regards to gentrifier guilt is, what is the just context for a middle-class housing consumer? Is it the suburb? Is it the devalued neighborhood? Is it the bottom of a middle-class enclave in the city that has never had the devaluing? Is that the just context? And so, number one, I would argue that we have painted ourselves into a corner because of our history in the United States, where there isn't a just housing choice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What advice do you have for people moving into these neighborhoods and people already living there?

SCHLICHTMAN: You can't behave your way out of gentrification, right? So I just want to say that off the bat. But you can be a kind person. Much of the pain that occurs as a result of gentrification is the result of people who move into neighborhoods, and they're imagining a future neighborhood. So no, supporting businesses that are currently existing - that's not going to stop gentrification, but it is going to - it is going to make people like you more, right?

So I think people need to own - people need to own where they live. Don't say you can't live somewhere else - if you're middle class. Of course you could live somewhere else. You could live in that suburb that isn't gentrifying, but there's other things that you're looking for. You're looking for class diversity, a racial diversity, an ethnic diversity. You're looking for restaurants. You're looking for a specific type of architecture. So be honest about your housing choice.

And finally, this needs to be fought with large-scale things. We need to put pressure on our city governments as a community to not put profit and investment as the No. 1 priority. It can be balanced with other priorities of community.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Schlichtman wrote "Gentrifier" along with Marc Lamont Hill and Jason Patch.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on the Call-In, Super Bowl Sunday is coming, but football has had a bumpy year. The past few NFL seasons have been mired in controversy from findings about concussions and brain damage to protests on the field. Have you changed how you watch football as a result? Call us at 202-216-9217. Please tell us your name, where you're from, and a phone number, and we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S SONG "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.