Housing Complex

For Longtime Residents, Sometimes Gentrification Isn’t All Bad

Nobody wants more of this in his neighborhood.

Nobody wants more of this in his or her neighborhood.

There's nothing more divisive in the District than the G-word. Gentrification conjures up images of omnipresent dog boutiques and $5 lattes in what used to be working-class, wallet-friendly neighborhoods. The well-heeled people moving in call it neighborhood revival; the poorer folks being priced out call it displacement.

Except it's not that simple. Most longtime residents of low-income neighborhoods don't clamor for "gentrification," exactly, but they do want the things it often brings: grocery stores and other retail within walking distance; better transit connections; reduced crime; and attention from the city government that's sometimes been lacking.

And as a story today on NPR highlights, gentrification doesn't have to imply displacement. In fact, according to two recent studies, it generally doesn't. The author of one, Lance Freeman of Columbia University's Urban Planning program, told NPR that his research has found that longtime residents are no more likely to move out of their homes when their neighborhood gentrifies; sometimes they're actually less likely to move.

Obviously, there are a few classes of people for whom gentrification is bad news. The owner of a corner grocery store probably won't fare well if a Whole Foods opens up next door. A family renting a house won't appreciate the rent getting jacked up. But for others, it can be a boon. Homeowners and people in rent-controlled apartments—60 percent of D.C. rental units are rent-controlled, and that percentage is probably higher in low-income neighborhoods with older buildings—won't see their costs increase substantially, but they'll get the benefits of new stores and restaurants. There's every incentive to stick around.

The fact is, the gentrification debate has been cast in false terms. People in low-income neighborhoods may not want exactly the stores that ride in on the gentrification wave, but they do want more places to get food and clothes and services, not more affordable housing and homeless shelters. (Of course, the city should still be providing these things, but neighbors object to the overconcentration of them in already-poor areas.) Take the Anacostia residents who loudly (and successfully) opposed plans for a six-story development in their neighborhood, largely because they wanted market-rate housing to attract middle-class neighbors, not the 100 percent affordable housing the developer planned. Or Ward 8 resident Nikki Peele, whose blog Congress Heights on the Rise constantly argues that what her ward needs is higher incomes and more amenities, with headlines like "Sorry Folks, It's Not Gentrification but Revitalization."

Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has argued that his ward shouldn't get any more rental housing, and instead needs ownership homes and retail options. The trouble, he told me recently, is that "people think we don’t have any money over here. Don’t think that we can be homeowners. Think we’re coke dealers and all that kind of stuff."

The million-dollar question, of course, is how to attract retail and condos and the like without making a neighborhood prohibitively expensive. It's a delicate balance that few if any cities have achieved. But even in its absence, the effect of so-called gentrification on low-income residents—at least the ones who are able to stay put—might not be as dire as most accounts would have you believe.

Photo of the abandoned Parkway Overlook by Aaron Wiener

  • http://www.empowerdc.org Empower DC

    That wasn't news on NPR this morning, that was pro-gentrification propaganda. A few comments on the "scholarly" work they rely on so heavily for proof of how gentrification is lifting all boats:
    1) They don't link to or provide any specifics on the study conducted by the Columbia University professor who supposedly found that poor people are not moving out of their neighborhoods any more frequently when they gentrify then they do in general... by the way, shouldn't increasing housing stability be "improvement" - not "they lose their housing at the same rate whether the neighborhood is richer or poorer?" -- we know the lowest income people often are forced to move often, not something we should be happy stays fixed even when the neighborhood gentrifies...
    2) Take a look at the info they link to for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland "study" and you will see that calling gentrification financially "positive" for long-term residents is more then a stretch, but a shameful manipulation of the facts ---
    a) the "caveat" at the bottom states that they don't even know if the people they looked at were "long-term residents" since their records started in 1999, and the period they looked at was 2000-20007
    b) the grand improvements in financial health are evidenced by a measly 8 point increase in credit score (we all know 8 points ain't nothing) and a 2% reduction in people with accounts over 90 days due... huh!? these are the great improvements that prove gentrification is good for poor people????

    I know gentrifiers and their apologists are desperate to flip the script but ya'll are gonna have to try harder. 53% of African Americans told the Washington Post recently that gentrification is mainly a bad thing, but you didn't speak to any of those residents. You only mention one resident - Nikki Peele - and we all know she is new to DC, just like you Aaron.

    How about talking to some of those long term residents you are referring to and not anointing yourself to speak for them?

  • Tom M

    Weak and myopic. Get out a report beyond listening to another NPR "package."

  • New Guy

    *EmpowerDC* You said "We all know that she is new to DC, just like you Aaron." You are trying to devalue the opinion of others by signaling that they are "new." But even if they are "new" (which you have presented no evidence for) didn't they come from somewhere? Are you saying that people that are "new" to DC shouldn't have an opinion about what type of neighborhood they want to live in or how to change it? It is this arrogant and ignorant pitting of "new" vs. "old" that keeps certain neighborhoods in DC in the gutter while the others rise all boats with the tide. Maybe it is you that needs to get out of DC and travel a bit. Look at other cities as models. Expand your horizons. You might learn something!

  • Nikki Peele

    Thank you New Guy I couldn't have said it better myself. :)

    To be honest I saw the Empower DC comment yesterday and I was just going to ignore it but I can tell this has the potential to become a "thing" so I might as well address it now. If for nothing else but for clarity sake.

    I been living in DC (and the DC metro area) since I was 18, I went to college here and stayed. After 12 years of renting I worked two jobs, saved, enrolled in a free homebuyer program offered by MANNA Inc. and purchased a small condo in Ward 8 where I currently live. Since 2007 I have worked and volunteered 24/7 for and in Ward 8. I may not have been in DC for 50 years (I'm only 37 afterall) but I think I have made my time here worthwhile, at least I hope so. That Aaron opted to include me in this article was his own choice and what I am going to assume is a simple acknowledgement of my community work.

    I'm not sure what Empower DC was trying to imply by my alleged "new" status. I definetly don't know why an organization that is about "empowerment" would feel the need to try to devalue me publicly. In 2011 there were no concerns about my length of residency when (at their request) I provided Empower DC with free event space, volunteered my time, and promoted their events. Years later still promote their events on my blog.

    Now that we have gotten that out of the way maybe the focus can return to the subject of this article and not my length of residency. :)

  • Derek

    I feel that the article and the NPR segment is very narrowly scoped. The evolving process (which is called gentrification) happen in every city and in every country. It is not always a black and white issue - pun intended. I recall having this realization when I was in Germany for school and visiting Marburg. I came across a a group meeting to discuss what a developer wanted to do and the impact a small section of the people would have. It felt like I was in some American city, but everyone was speaking German.

    I have been here for 8 years and I am still very new. I have witness in that short time various changes happening. The development of neighborhoods need to include the various groups of people. Yet, you can not satisfy everyone and you should not try too. It is a balance.

    I have attended a number of local community groups and there is always at least one person who is hateful and is resistant to any sort of improvements.

  • Maya

    This article brings up interesting points about the potential "gentrification" or "revitalization" or "redevelopment" (whichever loaded term you prefer to use--because let's face it, these are all biased terms in one way or another) has to improve the lives of longterm and/or impoverished residents.

    The Columbia University research aside, there is a wealth of very sound academic research to demonstrate that "gentrification" tends to hurt, not help, pre-gentrification residents; a simple google scholar search for "gentrification" returns a plethora of interesting results.

    Of course, as several individuals have pointed out in their comments, "gentrification" is a complicated process. Neighborhoods are "living, breathing" things. They have life cycles. They change and evolve over time, sometimes more "organically" and sometimes less "organically" (i.e. planned development). Check out John G. Bruhn's The Sociology of Community Connections, published in 2005, for a great overview of community types, relationships and change.

    Moving beyond the traditional "gentrification-as-good" vs. "gentrification-as-bad" argument, energy should be spent ensuring that planned development benefits all parties involved. As Derek points out, planned development, whether building a road through the Amazon or building a new high-rise condo building in DC, should always include existing community members among key stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. This does not necessarily mean that each and every individual should be pleased with each and every development project, but just each development plan be carefully crafted and evaluated to be sure that it does not bring harm to communities and their residents, even if said harm is unintended.

    For a DC-specific look at gentrification, I recommend Gabriella Gahlia Modan's Turf Wards: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place, published in2007, which is based on her ethnographic fieldwork in Mt. Pleasant during the 1990s. The book provides a fascinating in-depth look at the changes Mt. Pleasant experienced throughout the 1990s, including shifting racial, ethnic, and social class compositions.

    Finally, while I respect NPR and the City Paper as honest and hardworking news organizations, if you are looking for real substance about gentrification, you really need to turn to the wealth of academic research out there. That said, it would be nice if this article hadn't simply restated the NPR story, but instead critically examined it and the study it referenced by looking at other gentrification/development research in the fields of urban sociology and ecology.

  • http://www.empowerdc.org Empower DC

    Ya'll are funny!

    The article is titled "For Longtime Residents, Sometimes Gentrification Isn’t All Bad" -- "LONG-TERM RESIDENTS."

    We pointed out that the article does not quote even one long-term resident. Only Nikki's voice is heard - and she is NEW.

    You getting offended by that makes our point for us!

  • spirit equality

    "...because they wanted market-rate housing to attract middle-class neighbors, not the 100 percent affordable housing the developer planned."

    Except the affordable housing included people making up to 60k, a/k/a/ middle class workers. So, that point is a bit muddled.

    This piece doesn't deal with deeper issues, such as "why do food deserts exist in the first place?". Sure Ward 8 residents want more grocery stores. Why do poor people, who eat like anyone else, have to be deprived of quality grocery options? This would have been better served as a multi-part piece.

    Also, there are retail options that are displaced when gentrification occurs that pre-gentrification residents utilized. The short documentary on Men's Fashion Warehouse illustrates this well.

    This is a complicated issue that deserves more than one piece. Good initial attempt at opening the conversation, though.

  • spirit equality

    I agree with Empower DC that neither this article nor the NPR piece actually links to the study in question. That is a massive failure in reporting. How do we know the study stands for what you say it does if we can't read it ourselves? At least say you tried to locate it, but the study couldn't be found by press time.

  • JP

    I find it interesting that even low income residents don't want to live next to other low income residents. The first thing that needs to change is the entitlement mentally of the low income residents. They want all of the amenities that the wealthy neighborhoods have AND a subsidized house to rent. Why does anyone think they DESERVE to live in a neighborhood they can't afford to live in? Hell, I would love to live in a row house in Logan Circle but I can't afford it. That's life.

  • Max

    More endorsement of gentrification from a totally clueless reporter (why is he on the housing beat?).

    The only time you ever quote Marion Barry and are not trying to humiliate him in the process, is when you can use his street cred to prove your non-street cred point (ironically, any other time you mention Barry, you are actively trying to undermine his cred).

    But more to the point, you are not only attempting to conflate development- which everyone wants- with gentrification- which residents of low income communities do not want- but trying to change the meaning of gentrification in the process.

    Gentrification is the forced removal of lower income people in order to make room for wealthier- often whiter- people.

    Is that good for housing? Yes. The housing is improved. Is that good for amenities? Yes. The city will always build better amenities for higher income whites than lower income blacks. Is that better for those being forced out? No.

    You, of course, cannot fight that logic, so, instead, you change the definition and you find the 1% people who think gentrification is good and quote them, while intentionally excluding and ignoring the 99% who know it first hand and oppose it.

    The NPR story is not journalism? Aaron Wiener is not journalism. He is a cheerleader for developers and the gentrification vanguard.

  • Back Assward

    My wife and I bought a house a few years ago. Nearly every one of our neighbors has lived in his/her house for decades. And because they have been in their homes for a long time, most of them are quite wealthy. Their houses are now worth $500-600K and, in most cases, they own these houses outright. On top of that equity, not having a mortgage means that their living expenses are very low. They are much wealthier than I am. I have a large mortgage and minimal equity. My income may be greater than most of my neighbors', but they have much greater wealth. At least financially, gentrification has been very, very good to them.

  • SEis4ME

    It does seem as if this "study" was conducted in order to confirm some people's feel-good ideas about gentrification.

    Although I do get Empower's point about writing an article about longtime residents w/a quote from only one person who actually isn't a longtime resident of her ward, Aaron mentioned Peele as it related to the discussion of "false gentrification narratives" and applied it to the recent discussion about Anacostia's housing.

    She's one of the few W8 bloggers (and in that context)...why wouldn't she be included? I don't agree w/many things she says but can't imagine her NOT being referenced wrt a subject she is constantly here talking about.

  • Max

    If your neighbors are low income, then having a house worth $500k is not helping you. There are only two ways to benefit from the "equity":

    1. Take out the equity. You can only do that in the form of a loan, which means you must repay your own "wealth" WITH INTEREST. It also pre-supposes you can get a loan, which is more difficult for long time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods who are low income. Then, you have a debt you can't repay, which often results in a loss of the house.
    2. Sell the house. At which point you no longer have it and must buy or rent another one. That also means that you sold your house in a formerly low income community for half a mil, thereby, forcing you to contribute to gentrification.

    The idea that your lower income neighbors are wealthier than you because of the magical equity dust does not survive any level of critical thought. Of course, that makes Aaron Wiener's column the perfect place to repeat it because it will not only go unchallenged, it will likely be regurgitated in a future column.

  • Back Assward


    I never said that they were low income. Most of them make very decent money, considering that they own their houses outright and their living expenses are therefore very low. If I made $40K/year and didn't have to pay a mortgage, I imagine that I would feel like a rich man. On top of that, a HELOC should be very accessible with that sort of equity and should come with very low interest rates. So there's liquidity available.

    Between great wealth and great income, I would choose great wealth.

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  • max


    Having to pay your own money back- with interest and under the threat of eviction- is not wealth, it is access to capital. There is a big difference. There are many in this situation and they often have been living in the neighborhood the longest, but have the least improved home- non-weather resistant windows, older paint, unfinished basement, etc.

    There are two problems with the HELOC in that case: the first is that they are not easy to get for everyone regardless of equity levels. It seems you are not that familiar with redlining or gentrification patterns which make it difficult to get those LOANS, but those barriers are very real, particularly for lower (even if not now) income people targeted by gentrification. A couple making $40 per year living in a community of $500k houses is just such a target.

    Second, however, is that HELOCs, particularly the hard equity variety, generally include onerous terms, such as really high interest rates. You not only pay back the principal (your 'wealth'), but alot of interest. At the end of the process- think about it- the person is LESS wealthy. Again, maybe not a problem for higher income people, but a major, major problem for those making $40k.

    The wealthy DO NOT get wealthy from home equity. That is simply not true. I am not saying it never happens, it does on some occassions, but it is not at all the rule. Not at all. The wealthy get wealthy through two things: great income and great investments.

    Mitt Romney (just to pick a random name out of the hat) did not get wealthy by tapping into a HELOC. Neither did Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. They got wealthy through investments and/or income.

    And, by the way, I call your bluff on great wealth vs. great income. If that were true, you would have purchased a nice $200k home in PG county and it would be paid in full by now, and you could move to a part time job with all of your new found wealth. But you did not. You kept your high paying job and paid half a mil for a house.

  • Back Assward


    I think we've gotten sidetracked. I agree with your initial point about gentrification not being good for those who are displaced. At the same time, I think that for those who are not being displaced, my neighbors included, it has been quite good for them. I've never asked them directly whether they would prefer for there fully paid off houses to be worth less than they are, so I don't know what they would say. I imagine, though, that they are quite happy with the appreciation. At the same time, their cost of living has increased only very marginally, if at all. You say that people get rich through good investments. You're rights. My neighbors made very good investments.

  • http://www.tinyurl.com/westend-vid co2_in_dc

    When gentrification happens due to purposeful poor urban planning and corporate investor banksters cognitivley releasing unrelenting waves of speculative capital to real estate gamblers, it is a form of modern-day DISCRIMINATION because the results affect disparately a certain segment of the population -- longtime DC families and individuals making less than $35,000 a year.

  • max


    I am glad we agree on those who were displaced. And I can see why you think your neighbors made a good 'investment,' even though I disagree with that characterization. There are two issues I would like to leave with you:

    First, if a policy results in a bad outcome for the majority of people in a neighborhood (90% are forced out and 10% gain "wealth"), then it is bad policy. Focusing on the good it does for the minority only serves to obfuscate the hard reality: it is bad policy. An entire report, and then uncritical "reporting" like this story are deliberate attempts, I believe, to conceal how bad gentrification really is and, ultimately, to promote gentrification by focusing on the results for the 10% and ignoring the results for the 90%, or, worse, blaming the results on them.

    But second, and more to our debate, @back, I don't think even the benefits are what they are purported to be. The "benefits" of your neighbors "investment" are dubious (they must take out an interest bearing loan to realize it, leaving them with LESS wealth), but equally as important, those individual benefits only came about through a process which displaced their neighbors, a process which you acknowledge is harmful. If I gained wealth through a process that forced you out of your home, would you be happy for me?

    Gentrification improves roads, houses, lights, parks, sewage lines and more. That is not the problem with gentrification. The problem with gentrification is that it harms poor PEOPLE.

    If the standards used by the City Paper is around what policies benefit inanimate objects or the rich, then I don't know how to debate that. If the standard, however, is how development impacts those in greatest need of development- the MAJORITY of low income resident of historically low income communities- then it is difficult to imagine how anyone could defend gentrification, except newspapers and columnists who get their bread buttered by the industries that financially benefit from gentrification.

  • Back Assward

    @ Max

    Well said. I think we're mostly in agreement. I do, though, think that your numbers regarding the portion of renters (those who are, for the most part, negatively affected) versus owners (those who, I believe, benefit from the appreciation) are exaggerated. Your split of ninety-ten seems unrealistic. At least where I am (North Petworth), the people who have been in the neighborhood for a long time tend to own their properties. These owners may now have the financial resources to retire, send kids to college, etc., even if doing so depletes their wealth. I see that as a good thing.

    I'm also not sure that I agree with your suggestion that gentrification is driven by policy. Perhaps I am naive, but I see it as part of a larger trend that is occurring quite organically and largely apart from deliberate government decisions.