Monday, November 5

The Gentrification Paradox

1. Neighborhoods and districts that improve in design and life attract new people.
2. Increase in demand leads to an increase in price - by basic market function.
3. Eventually, the market, with the help of property tax increases, flushes out the previous homeowners and tenants.
4. The ensuing homogeneity undercuts some of of the aspects that originally made the area attractive.

Jane Jacobs called this process "oversuccess". Once an area is identified as a potentially lucrative investment from outside, often only one use is selected as the most profitable. "Cataclysmic money" is then poured into this use from finance institutions, pushing out all other uses. The initial diversity of uses, the shops mingled with parks and different types of housing, is steamrolled over as everything is converted into the single most profitable use. Gentrification is the pejorative term for this process, when high-end housing dominates exclusively and pushes out lower-income housing.

On the other hand, is not making neighborhoods attractive places to live the whole point of urban planning? In the last half century, most people who had the ability to decided where to live chose the suburbs over the city. Short of outright authoritarian rule, the only way to reverse this trend is to make urban areas more attractive. It's pretty simple. Those in favor of gentrification argue that the problem is not with too high a demand, but rather with too low a supply. If there were plenty of urban districts in which people would choose to live, prices would eventually go back down.

I'm sympathetic to the pro-gentrification side, but transitions themselves are hard. As money flows in and out of neighborhoods, real people and real communities are displaced and reshaped. These are not abstract stock portfolios being traded back and forth. Stability is a necessary component of community life.

Missoula's Independent this week ran a cover story on the historic Wilma building downtown. It was recently purchased and will be converted from rental units to condos, selling for a range between $75,000 to $500,000. Some of the former tenants are upset and raising concerns about affordable housing. The whole thing takes on a vibe of class/age warfare.

In this case, I don't think their argument has any merit. There are very few downtown condos of any price range, let alone luxury ones. Most people with money live in the suburbs. Increasing downtown homeownership could only provide more diversity to an area full of commercial and rental uses. And the Wilma is selling a broad range of property values, anyway. The manager of the Poverello house, a downtown homeless shelter, is moving there. I wouldn't call her an over-consuming elitist by any measure. This is a good thing for Missoula.

Still, you have to have some sympathy for those who were evicted and could not afford to buy. Even if a plea is not entirely rational, it is still reveals a problem in the overall housing market of Missoula. Jen and I were evict on moments notice last year for the exact same reason. Even though we understood the situation, it's still no fun to have to find a new place to live by the end of the month.

Even if gentrication can be consider in the long-term interest of a city, the short-term effects have to be adequately addressed as well. And, as Jacobs advised decades ago, some efforts have to be made to maintain that delicate balance of mixed-use diversity.

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