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the downside of gentrification

March 29, 2014

Gentrification has a dark side and it’s something I think we need to start talking about it, as well as having a broader conversation about the way our political-economic system is organized.

A lot of people I’ve talked to about gentrification seem to be for it primarily based on the positives of urban renewal projects, such as the influx of business it brings and how it helps to revitalize neighborhoods that’ve seen better days. What often happens, though, is that many of the people who already live in those areas get displaced.

Poorer yet up-and-coming areas of the city targeted for gentrification essentially get makeovers by the city, with improvements to public transit, good grocery outlets, etc. that tend to attract young, middle-class families and upwordly mobile individuals from other areas of the city, particularly the suburbs. Developers also play a role, buying properties to flip or convert into more profitable enterprises. It seems like a good thing. New things are being built and new people are moving in. Win-win, right?

A big problem, however, is that this influx of people, in combination with all the trendy, new (and pricier) dining and shopping establishments and living spaces that pop up, starts to put pressure on surrounding rents, real estate prices, and low-income communities, forcing many of the poorer, long-term residents to move to elsewhere, which often ends up by necessity being poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the neighborhood or city in question that lack many of the basic services of the one they’re forced to leave.

Portland, one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the US, has seen its fair share of this, from gentrification in the 80s and 90s pushing out long-time working-class and African-American residents into the north and northeast to where it’s currently threatening to push out homeless encampments and shelters downtown, and lower-income residents all over Portland outside of city limits.

One of the major issues this story raises, in my opinion, is the way the state (like many others) actually forbids things like rent controls while at the same time allowing property owners to rent based on income caps, highlighting the unequal relations between renters and property owners. As Commissioner Fritz so blatantly puts it, the state values land ownership rights over tenants’ rights; and this hurts people. People like my friend Joe are being displaced, with little-to-no compensation; they’re losing their homes and access to their communities as a result. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Renters essentially have no rights nor recourse within the current system based on profit and property rights. They’re at the whim of markets, often unsympathetic legislators and courts, and property owners and developers who are conditioned and/or coerced by competitive pressures to make decisions based on profit rather than the needs of tenants or the surrounding community.

And worst of all, many in their own community are conditioned by the same system to to shrug off their suffering and say, “Tough luck, you should just stop being a loser and make more money or else move.”

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