How liberal critics of gentrification are hurting the poor

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. This column originally appeared in his blog Notes from the Underground and is republished with his permission.

Gentrification (noun) – the process by which people of (often modest) means who were once castigated for abandoning the city are now castigated for returning to the city

Gentrification is a word we hear with increasing frequency in contemporary discussions about American cities. But what does that word really mean? And, more importantly, what does it mean in the context of the region that I live in and love – the Rust Belt?

Does gentrification mean the displacement of the poor – pushed aside to make way for the affluent? Or does it mean reinvestment in economically distressed neighborhoods that haven’t seen any significant investment in decades?

It is important to be clear about the meaning of this increasingly ambiguous term, because what needs to happen in the vast majority of urban neighborhoods in the legacy cities of the Rust Belt is far less ambiguous.

Despite over 50 years of well-intended social programs, concentrated generational poverty, entrenched socioeconomic segregation and the resulting lack of social and economic opportunity for urban residents still remain the biggest challenges for the older industrial cities of this region.

As Joe Cortright says, in his brilliant piece, Cursing the Candle, “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”

And, as the Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube says, “It’s hard to imagine that the city will do better over time without more high-income individuals.”

High poverty rates in cities like Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit are partially due to regional economic conditions and structural economic challenges related to deindustrialization.

But, overwhelmingly, concentrated poverty in these cities is due to private disinvestment in the urban core, made manifest by upper and middle-class flight to the suburbs, socioeconomic and racial segregation, and the loss of neighborhood retail and basic services. Today, the geographic disparities in household income between the central city and the surrounding suburbs remain profound.

In Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, respectively, 24 percent, 31 percent, 35 percent and 36 percent of the population live in poverty, as compared to 14 percent, 14 percent, 15 percent and 15 percent in these cities’ respective metropolitan areas. Keep in mind that these metropolitan area figures include the core city – meaning that poverty rates in the remainder of the metro area are even lower.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists.

Writing about gentrification is becoming a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks. Many of the pieces that have been penned on the topic are important, thought-provoking and well-reasoned.

But as more and more people in the Rust Belt read these accounts, and take them out of their geographic context, alarm over gentrification (particularly on the left) is steadily growing in metropolitan areas and housing markets where it should be the least of our urban policy concerns.

In the eastern Great Lakes region, with its low-cost of living, depressed housing markets and surfeit of vacant and abandoned properties, most of the changes that are being held out as disturbing examples of gentrification and are provoking hand-wringing in places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit simply amount to the return of the middle class (with a sprinkling of the truly affluent) to several small pockets of the city.

The degree to which these fledgling positive examples of private reinvestment in long-neglected neighborhoods have truly taken root and have begun to influence regional housing markets is still uncertain. As for documented cases of low-income residents being uprooted and displaced by spiraling housing costs – these have proven even more elusive.

While it can be unclear whether the return of middle class and affluent residents to a neighborhood will really do anything to improve economic conditions for the poor, it is an ironclad certainty that a continued lack of socioeconomic diversity, and its concomitant concentrated poverty, will improve nothing and help no one in these cities – the poor most of all.

For 50 years now, people, jobs and economic opportunities have steadily left our cities for the suburbs. The status quo in our region is, indisputably, one of widespread, entrenched urban poverty, geographically separated from (predominantly suburban) economic opportunity.

Yet even the earliest signs of neighborhood revitalization, and nascent attempts at building new housing and opening small businesses in these cities are frequently opposed by people who are convinced that they are acting in the name of social justice.

Sincere as these anti-gentrification sentiments might be, I believe that they are harmful, and, if allowed to derail incipient efforts to reinvest in urban neighborhoods, simply serve to ensure that the existing dynamic of socioeconomic segregation will remain unchanged.

In many cases, the very people who claim to be fighting the current unjust system are inadvertently perpetuating it. Gentrification alarmists have yet to come to grips with the fact that their position usually serves to reinforce the existing, highly inequitable, situation.

Many critics of Rust Belt gentrification are holding cities to an unreasonable standard, and placing them in an impossible situation.

If much of the city remains poor and run-down, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

If, on the other hand, parts of the city begin to attract new residents and investment, this is proof that the city does not care, and is not trying hard enough.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

Sometimes, it seems that the only thing that people dislike more than the status quo, is doing anything substantive to change it.

In Akron, 81 percent of the people who work in the city and earn over $40,000 per year (hardly a king’s ransom) live outside of the city. It is unclear how Akronites living in poverty will be better off if these people remain in the suburbs.

Let’s get concrete. If you are a well-educated, middle-, or upper-income person (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), and you live in an economically diverse urban neighborhood, is your presence a bad thing for your community?

Should you move, instead, to a suburban community that is likely to be highly-segregated and economically homogeneous?

If you are an entrepreneur starting-up in the urban core, should you decide to open your business somewhere else? And how, precisely, will doing that help the community that you are leaving behind?

When middle class people return to urban neighborhoods they have some disposable income, which helps create markets for retail and small business, that, in turn, provide basic services and job opportunities for the urban poor.

This means that urban residents who are struggling to get by may no longer need to overextend themselves to purchase a car, or endure long and inconvenient bus rides to access entry-level jobs and basic services in far-flung suburbs, but instead may be able to save time and money by walking to businesses in their own neighborhoods.

With the return of middle- and upper-income residents, business districts and housing markets, long dormant, may begin to approach at least minimum levels of functionality and attractiveness to prospective entrepreneurs, investors and residents.

For existing urban homeowners, the gradual rise in property values in areas with extremely depressed and artificially low home prices often means the difference between a house ultimately being rehabilitated, or it beginning a tortuous cycle of neglect and decline, culminating in demolition.

This is especially important in the legacy cities of the eastern Great Lakes, where low property values and a glut of vacant and abandoned properties, rather than financially crippling housing costs, are the largest real estate challenge. And, unlike superstar cities on the coasts, cities in this region still have large percentages of households that are comprised of working-class homeowners living in single-family homes.

Take it from someone like me, who lives in a city with 96,000 housing units, where only 16 single-family homes were built last year, while nearly 500 were torn down, and where the median value of an owner-occupied house is $78,000.

To be sure, the return of new housing, small businesses and more affluent residents is not a panacea, and there may be legitimate concerns, at some point, about how people moving back to the city might result in rising rents and higher property taxes for existing residents.

But in the end, I have yet to see a proven model for improving economic conditions in an urban neighborhood that is predicated on ensuring that concentrated poverty remains. Maintaining the status-quo in urban neighborhoods, in the name of opposing gentrification, will do nothing to help the poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Cities typically begin to rebound with small successes in individual neighborhoods, attracting new housing and jobs, and eventually building upward and outward from there – setting the stage for further incremental investment by the private sector.

If we urbanists truly believe that socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods are as important as is often claimed, we cannot panic every time a new house is built, a new person moves in, or a new business opens. These are overwhelmingly good things for neighborhoods and cities that have seen precious little investment for decades.

Should we remain vigilant, and work together, in a cross-sector manner, to help ensure that the rising tide is actually lifting all the boats?

Absolutely.

Should we double-down on the status quo in our region – one of entrenched poverty and racial segregation, because we are afraid of what any type of socioeconomic change could mean for a neighborhood?

Absolutely not.

Squelching private investment in the urban core is the wrong solution to the wrong problem. It will only serve to ensure that lower-income, middle-income, and upper-income people continue to live apart in separate and unequal enclaves, and it will make social and economic conditions in our urban neighborhoods worse, rather than better.

If we are really serious about breaking down barriers in our neighborhoods, and celebrating socioeconomic diversity, then we have to come to grips with what that means and what that looks like.

Yes, it is complicated, and messy, but it is simply not good enough anymore to say that the status quo is unacceptable.

We need more than words. We need to act. We need to fight the correct enemy. We need to do more than curse the darkness. We need to light a candle.

We don’t need more top-down economic silver bullets. We need collaborative, incremental change – person-by-person, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, informed by humility, prudence, sensitivity, wisdom and love for our neighbors.

Working together, we can become a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place. The only people who can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

It’s not enough anymore to be against something. It’s time to be for something.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

CARL VER BEEK
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 9:41am

He is right. It is unfortunate that the coastal journalists bemoaning housing costs in those areas are encouraging city planners in the Midwest to assume all cities will become San Francisco. The gentrification issue (whatever it is) is not a one size problem, so a one solution approach will fail.

TJH
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 10:19am

The author certainly make some valid arguments, but he bases them on the premise that many on the left are anti gentrification and pro status quo. That is not probably a solid basis for his arguments. He also makes very little reference to the ways in which race factors into the equation. He does mention the creation of new ethnically diverse neighborhoods within our rust belt cities, but he doesn't provide any evidence that he neighborhoods are really very diverse. In many cases they are more like forts or outposts in an urban wilderness and are not particularly ethnically or economically diverse. I am glad the author is willing to approach this issue will a different lens, but he does not address the incredible complexity of the gentrification phenomenon.

Mary Pat Lichtman
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 10:25am

I see the value of your comments and I hope we will hear from people like Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services, whose efforts have created jobs, housing and hope for reducing poverty among the poorest in Detroit. Could Bridge do something similar to what was done with exchanging jobs? If the people who invest money in the city exchange with organizations that fight against poverty and vice versa, would that exchange broaden their perspectives and spur even more ideas?

John S.
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 10:49am

The author makes some obvious and truthful observations about cities like Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. Gentrification is not the problem. It's the solution. These cities should be doing everything they can to retain and attract middle and upper class residents who pay the income and property taxes that allow these cities to furnish a decent level of public services to all its residents. The cap on the SALT deduction on federal income taxes won't help. Middle and upper class residents in Detroit pay what might be called the "Detroit" tax: the resident income tax if they work in the city, high property taxes from one of the highest millages in Wayne County, sky high auto insurance, higher costs for property insurance and other security measures, and the extra costs of tuition if children are sent to a private/parochial school. It's small wonder that over the years they have picked up and moved to the suburbs. Living in the city has a lot to offer but for many it's just too expensive a place to live.

John
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 10:56am

Good response TJH! I'd only underscore that Mr. Segedy doesn't effectively demonstrate that those concerned about gentrification are actually harming efforts to revitalize our urban cores. They are a needed reminder, and voice of caution, about the flow of people and capital back into these areas. One clear parallel between the experiences of low-income people in the inner cities of Detroit and San Francisco is the sense that they risk being disenfranchised by the economic and political interests of people from outside their communities. Their fears are legitimate . Mr. Segedy should turn his considerable energy and talents to documenting examples of urban renewal that have worked and then helping all of us figure out how to replicate them. People cite Cleveland. Is it happening in Cleveland, and if so, how?

Barb
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 11:35am

Chicago has experienced some of these positive outcomes when housing projects were torn down and businesses like Whole Foods moved in. People from the neighborhood can be found working there. Pretty cool. But since I lived in the Southwest suburbs I was also aware that many of the displaced migrated to far south suburbs which were affordable but not equipped to handle the inflow. There was white flight from those areas then, a decline in schools, and basically just a shift in the area with a predominantly low income population . I don't know what is happening now since I've been in Michigan 8 years.

John Saari
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 3:59pm

We generally receive income from one or more: Manufacturers/Producers, Tourists, Richer People or the government. Our Country has the best opportunities to make a decent living..

John Q Public
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 4:33pm

"Should we remain vigilant, and work together, in a cross-sector manner, to help ensure that the rising tide is actually lifting all the boats?"

Contrary to what the author claims, at least in Detroit, I see very little criticism along the lines of claims that gentrification is forcing people out of neighborhoods where they've lived for decades. Most of the criticism is focused on the fact that many areas of the city don't feel that all the new investment downtown and the influx of new residents and new wealth is benefitting other areas of the city. The way that the city and state have structured the flow of tax dollars from the new development so that it goes back primarily to benefit those who live and own property in those resurgent areas, those criticisms may be valid. The author gives a nod to that with his quote but makes no effort to acknowledge that it's a major point of contention in Detroit or how to go about addressing it.

John Q. Public
Fri, 01/12/2018 - 9:19pm

Really? Someone can use a screen name the same as mine but for a period? If so, so long.

Scott Roelofs
Fri, 01/12/2018 - 10:25pm

JQP: I say the solution is to use your real name. I have read a number of your posts on Bridge articles in the past, and I don't recall reading anything incendiary that would call for anonymity. I like to read thoughtful comments from real people who are confident enough in their rationale to use their real name. Keep writing. Sincerely, Scott.

Jason Segedy
Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:41am

Did you not see that this piece is about the Rust Belt, and not about Washington, D.C.?

"This article is a joke" is not a critique. Please make an actual counter-argument.

Dianne Feeley
Thu, 01/11/2018 - 11:47pm

The author's argument doesn't take what happened in Detroit into account: the infrastructure created to lure folks back to Detroit has been at the expense of longtime homeowners. Banks scammed homeowners with inflated mortgages, refused to renegotiate when people lost jobs or their health and foreclosed. The city did not reassess property taxes and foreclosed on many properties and sold those properties to developers. Meanwhile the developers redeveloped properties after kicking out senior citizens and raised rents. Many got tax breaks to carry out this displacement. The state and federal governments played their part by reducing the amount of money available for infrastructure, services and job creation. The state took over the Detroit school system and caused both a rising deficit and the loss of more than half the student population. Why not start with wiping out the debt unjustly created, keeping people in their homes and making sure schools flourish?

lol
Fri, 01/12/2018 - 4:34am

yeah sure gentrification is good for poor people. they love 9 dollar coffees and 35 dollar a day pet day care.

Jason Segedy
Fri, 01/12/2018 - 11:44am

You're begging the question with anecdotes about expensive coffee and pampered pets. It's not a counter-argument. Please make one, or no one will take your critique seriously.

Nick
Sat, 01/13/2018 - 2:11am

Understandable points about not jumping the gun on all developments as bad, but I do have some critiques.

Akron ain't Detroit. Detroit should not act as the poster child of all solutions and problems that each city along the Erie and belt region faces. Pull examples from other legacy cities, here are plenty that are improving their socioeconomic mobility than the concentrated "Woodward Ave" examples you give.

Indianapolis is on the verge of implementing one of the most progressive​ bus system redos (a city that has historically lost just as much population percentage as Detroit)

Look to Youngstown with one of the best community engagement in their recent comprehensive plan. Though you're probably aware of this since you are from the region. Their shrinking cities plan with centered development, tho still iffy in my opinion, is pretty alright.

Pittsburgh is understanding that concentrated development doesn't trickle down. Much of this has the assumption that development will trickle down, even on a neighborhood level without much proof of raising the bottom line.

I'm sure the Rubber City has a good future ahead of itself and it is nice to hear from someone that is passionate about their legacy city... I'm hoping more people grow passionate about our cities here in the belt region. But keep aware, the reason we are in this situation is because of sketchy business deals of profit and abandonment, don't build for today, build for 50 years from now. When I think development from the private sector, I see high profits and lack of long term implementation with the surrounding neighborhood. We can't rely on the private sector, for they are the ones that got us in this mess. But I do have hope, and I do see some good points in this article.

Howdy from Cincinnati.

Brian McLean
Sat, 01/13/2018 - 11:02am

Great article! Well rounding perspective due to diligent open minded journalism. Well done

Mark
Sat, 01/13/2018 - 1:48pm

Well thought out article. I would only add that Generational Comfortable Poverty has decimated cities like Detroit. The last 4-5 Decades of babies born to Single Mothers already in poverty has resulted in a very tough cycle to break. Schools have become Childcare Centers rather than Learning Centers. The child may have interest in the classroom, but goes home to parents without any educational resources or fortitude.

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice and Michigan HHS Director Maura Corrigan was always shocked while visiting Detroit Schools...she would always ask Children of all ages if they knew anybody that was married....She says very few if any students raised their hands.

Nadina Cole-Potter
Sun, 01/14/2018 - 5:51pm

Excellent article. I'd like to post it to thebrokerlist.com and link it to linkedin.com. How would I go about that? Thank you.

Jason Segedy
Mon, 01/15/2018 - 6:54pm

DM me on Twitter @thestile1972

Eric W
Wed, 01/17/2018 - 9:37am

Thank you, Mr. Segedy, for this well-written summary of nearly exactly how I've been feeling for the past year about the events in Ypsilanti, my home of 14 years. While the situation here is surely unique from that in Detroit, Flint, Akron, etc., the point of the article is very appropriate for us. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive myself, it saddens me to see "activism" against economic growth or construction for fear of gentrification that is as haphazard as it is vehement. It reminds me of the ridiculous situation at The Evergreen State College, where dissent for its own sake cost the college two of its finest professors, meanwhile making a mockery of what could otherwise have been worthwhile civil disobedience. This type of activism has given the far right media a poster child of the rise of "dangerous leftist tactics" in our nation's liberal arts colleges. In any case, I too would have enjoyed reading more specific examples of either successfully growing or status-quo Rust Belt cities as some other commenters have mentioned, but for the latter I can basically just look around at my own city, at least for now.
(Also thanks to Jack Lessenberry for bringing this fine source of regional journalism to my attention!)

Jason Segedy
Thu, 01/18/2018 - 7:06am

Thanks for reading! I'm grateful to Bridge for giving me the opportunity to share this perspective with my next-door neighbors in Michigan.

Erich Z
Sat, 01/20/2018 - 11:01am

Very interesting critique.

My own experience in Detroit is that in the prosperous enclaves like Midtown, businesses tend to cater to suburbanites coming into town for a meal and a show, and maybe some shopping. The lack of diversity in employees at these establishments always distresses me - shouldn't these businesses be hiring local talent? Why is the wait staff at a nice restaurant literally all white in Detroit?

If gentrification is to benefit a city, the middle class neighborhoods and establishments need to mix better with the poor areas. I'm not sure how to go about accomplishing that, sometimes it feels as though the suburbs just moved into a small spot downtown.

But yes, the alternative, of complete suburban/urban segregation, is certainly worse.

Chris M.
Mon, 02/05/2018 - 4:53pm

I think overall I get the message. Status quo isn't helping anyone. Yet, a piece that still remains for me is the issue of structural racism creating poverty. I'm reading Richard Rothstein's book, "The Color of Law". A whole system was created to separate Whites from Blacks. The resulting effect is generational poverty. It is hard for me to have a discussion about gentrification without some context of structural racism. This is echoing TJH's posts. I wonder how to have conversations around gentrification and improving socioeconomic conditions for all, while not ignoring systemic and structural issues.