Improving Social Equity as Neighborhoods Change: An Expert Dialogue

Neighborhoods are constantly changing as residents come and go, businesses open and close, and properties go up or come down. No place is the same for long. When community changes are widespread or stark, the conversation shifts from change to “gentrification,” the definition of which is often subject to debate. At its heart, gentrification happens when a low-income area that has experienced disinvestment attracts new economic investments and higher-income residents. But the benefits of these changes can be overshadowed by the perpetuation of disadvantage.

Changes in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood have been particularly stark, as Derek Hyra describes in his new book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City. The community, which had a rich cultural history before decades of decline, saw reinvestment and the restoration or removal of abandoned properties, but new and longtime residents are only superficially integrated. The book examines exclusion and displacement of residents and businesses and considers how to generate more social equity and meaningful integration when neighborhoods change.

To think more about gentrification and social equity in Washington, DC, and nationally, How Housing Matters asked a group of experts to weigh in. Contributing to this conversation are Derek S. Hyra, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University; Lance Freeman, professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University; Awesta Sarkash, director of advocacy at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development (CNHED); and Gustavo Velasquez, director of the Washington-Area Research Initiative at the Urban Institute. Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.

How Housing Matters: Gentrification often comes with concerns about displacement and the fragmentation of political power. Is there evidence of these concerns coming to fruition?

Freeman: Displacement related to gentrification can refer to different types of displacement. The different types include physical displacement, when residents are forced to move from their homes when they can no longer afford their housing costs; cultural displacement, when the vernacular culture changes as a result of gentrification; and political displacement, which arises when the gentry exercise political power.

There is evidence of all three types of displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods. The evidence on physical displacement, however, suggests this type of displacement is not necessarily higher in gentrifying neighborhoods than other neighborhoods. All three types of displacement can serve to animate opposition to gentrification and contribute to long-term residents’ feelings that they are being “pushed out.”

Hyra: The processes of political and cultural displacement often coincide with gentrification but not always. When I studied the redevelopment of Harlem in New York City and Bronzeville in Chicago in the late 1990s and early 2000s, black gentrification occurred. In these historic African American communities, intraracial class conflict was evident, but there was relatively little political displacement. In Washington, DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood, its revitalization, in the 2000s, was associated with dramatic racial demographic and political shifts.

Velasquez: In Washington, DC, for example, the African American community has shrunk substantially, and with it, the ability of this community to maintain the majority in Advisory Neighborhood Commissions of those gentrifying neighborhoods, as well as city council. Other ethnic minority groups have completely disappeared: how many Chinese minorities live in DC Chinatown now? Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, considered the heart of the Central American community since the 1970s, are home now to a very affluent white, non-Hispanic population, while small Latino-owned businesses are rapidly disappearing.

Sarkash: Typically, gentrification ultimately results in a higher cost of living—housing costs go up, commercial rents increase, etc.—and the newfound economic prosperity is not broadly shared with the long-term residents and businesses. As a result of the hollowing out of the District several decades ago, there was a very intentional strategy to increase the District’s population and its tax base by bringing in different types of businesses and higher-income individuals. There was not, however, an intentional plan to relieve the negative effects of this increased investment and surging middle- to high-income populations. Without the intentionality to have investments benefit a broad cross-section of the community, market forces are left to dictate the infrastructure and development in communities, causing the displacement of (typically) people of color.


HHM: Does gentrification also have benefits? And to whom?

Velasquez: Gentrification can help cities improve services and the safety net for disadvantaged communities. The very expansive and promising school choice movement in DC is, in part, the result of strong economic and real estate activity that created the momentum and resources in the city to provide a new and significantly improved public school system.

Sarkash: Investment in places clearly has its benefits, but that investment must be intentionally planned and managed to assist the broadest spectrum of people and to take care of, particularly, low-income residents and disinvested neighborhoods. Since gentrification is often the result of the private market operating without adequate policies in place to leverage its benefits for the broader community, higher-income residents accrue most of its benefits.

Hyra: In the gentrified communities I have examined, there is no question that certain real estate developers have financially profited from the neighborhood transformation process. What is less certain is the extent to which long-term, low-income residents who have been able to stay in place have benefited. In some redeveloping communities, crime rates have decreased and often long-term residents perceive this as a vital benefit. However, beyond the perceptions of a safer environment, other benefits such as increased employment prospects seem less likely. Moreover, many of the “improved amenities” that often come to a redeveloped neighborhood, such as bike lanes, coffee shops, wine bars, and high-end restaurants, are not always perceived by low-income residents as accessible and inclusive community assets.


HHM: Some research has pointed to micro-segregation persisting within diverse neighborhoods. Have you seen evidence of this in gentrifying communities? What contributes to it? And how can community organizations, planners, and policymakers address it?

Freeman: Micro-segregation is not uncommon in gentrifying neighborhoods. Public housing developments in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification are examples of this type of micro-segregation. Such segregation is more likely to occur when, as in the case of public housing, sharply different types of housing are set apart from other housing in the neighborhood. These can be differences in tenure (renter versus owner) affordability (market rate versus subsidized) or clientele (e.g., senior housing versus student housing).

Combating physical segregation may not be feasible if the segregation arises from physically separate and different types of housing. The negative consequences of this segregation may be alleviated by organizing and mobilizing residents in an inclusionary way.

Hyra: During my six-year investigation of Washington, DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood’s redevelopment, micro-level segregation was very apparent. It has also been discovered and documented by Laura Tach in economically transitioning communities on Boston’s South End. We have assumed if people of different racial and economic backgrounds live next to one another they will interact. This is a faulty assumption. Likely due to our country’s prolonged history of discrimination and segregation, as well as persistent racial income and wealth inequalities, even new residents that appreciate diversity are not often trusted by low-income, long-term residents in transitioning neighborhoods. Moreover, contemporary processes of political and cultural displacement exacerbate conflict, distrust, and micro-level segregation.

In cities filled with gentrification, policies are needed that grease the wheels of integration. Neutral third spaces can help stimulate interactions and conversations across divisions of race and class, which can reduce micro-level segregation. We must go beyond mixed-income housing to build social bridges across populations that have been traditionally segregated.

Velasquez: More research is needed to discover the cause of micro-segregation. From anecdotal evidence, we have heard communities struggle with keeping support networks in places they have lived for generations. As gentrification and displacement occurs, certain families and smaller communities resist the change to a point where hyper segregation at a smaller scale takes place.


HHM: What solutions do you find promising—whether in policy, finance, or other areas—for ensuring equality and equity are maintained as neighborhoods change?

Hyra: In gentrifying communities, there is often the threat of residential and commercial displacement. We must preserve affordable housing options in redeveloping areas. But we must also preserve the voices and political actions of long-term residents as more affluent people arrive. To ensure political equity, we should designate opportunities for long-term residents to maintain some form of political power. Lastly, we must help mom-and-pop minority-owned businesses obtain adequate capital and credit to remain and benefit financially from the increased aggregate income present in gentrified communities. These steps will help reduce social tensions and micro-level segregation, which in the end will make diverse communities engines of inclusion that are sustainable and just.

Freeman: Two things seem necessary to insure equity in the face of gentrification. Perhaps most important is making sure poorer, long-term residents are empowered so that they have a voice and can help shape changes that impact their community. For this to occur, it is likely that the neighborhood residents will be highly mobilized and engaged, that the local governing structure has an outlet for direct resident participation and influence, and local elites are sensitive to the concerns of poorer, long-term residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. Empowered residents are in the best position to articulate their interests, and such empowerment can go a long way towards dampening the threats of cultural and political displacement.

Any strategy aiming for equitable outcomes in gentrifying neighborhoods also has to include affordable housing as a component. Without affordable housing the population of low-income households is likely to shrink over time. Even if poorer residents are not physically displaced, without an adequate supply of affordable housing, low-income residents will be unable to continue to move into the neighborhood, long-term residents will move away, eventually die, and the neighborhood will become completely gentrified—hardly anyone’s idea of an equitable outcome.

Sarkash: CNHED has taken steps to abate the undesirable consequences of gentrification. By advocating for key investments in programs like the Housing Production Trust Fund, a medium to build affordable housing throughout the District, we can help ensure native Washingtonians do not have to pay a majority of their income towards rent.

We have to couple those efforts with an intentional strategy to grow residents’ incomes and create more jobs. This includes fully funding workforce development providers and training organizations. For small businesses, it is imperative that they have access to business support organizations and flexible, low-cost capital to plan, start, and grow their operations.

We also have to create easily accessible pathways for people to be involved and fully engaged in their communities, so that we can harness their ideas for how they can best prosper in a new District of Columbia.

But the solution can also include the gentrifiers. At CNHED, the Housing For All Campaign aimed to shed light on and address the housing affordability crisis in the District. The campaign encourages newcomers to the District, who are unintentionally part of the gentrification forces, to also be part of the solution to mitigate its negative effects. The aim of the campaign, and CNHED, is to build equitable communities so that existing residents, particularly low-income residents, can benefit from the economic prosperity.

Velasquez: Preservation of affordable housing and support for small, local, and minority-owned businesses are both key. But more importantly is the geographic balance in the investments made. There is so much emphasis on preservation efforts in areas of high opportunity, but cities tend to respond when those areas have been dramatically transformed. The investments ought to occur as the process of gentrification and the threat of displacement starts to rapidly transform neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in DC that are overlooked today in the Northeast and east of the Anacostia river are indeed ripe for the next wave of gentrification. DC should not repeat the same mistakes it did when investments came too little and too late to other areas.

Note: This dialogue was developed with assistance from Kimberly Burrowes, Janae Ladet, Jimmy Gastner, and Maya Brennan.