Monday, February 29, 2016

Does "gentrification" equal displacement?

This Sunday the SUN placed an editorial by Baltimore Reverend Dante Hickman on its opinion pages in which the pastor asks the old gentrification question with new urgency. He uses some national examples of urban revitalization of previously distressed areas as examples of what shouldn't be done. About our neighbor Washington DC he writes:
Our nation's capital was once known as "Chocolate City," but recent development has changed the demographics, with nearly half the residents today white. A southeast D.C. neighborhood called Anacostia is rapidly changing, for example, increasing its portfolio of people with disposable income to support a great deal of retail.
I find this interesting because I typically use the District, a city which had been seen as a total basket case not very long ago, as an example that proves that cities in deep distress can recover, can fill vacant houses and revitalize and grow. Before DC, Boston had done the same, and to some extent Philadelphia is doing it right now.
New market rate housing in Hampden, Baltimore
(photo: ArchPlan)

The District grew by more than 60,000 people in ten years not by displacing a whole lot of people but by adding new people. Baltimore, by contrast, is still adding about as many people as it is loosing which is why the Mayor's goal of 10,000 additional households has been elusive to date. The 2,250 new apartment units recently completed in the downtown Baltimore area, the 1,680 apartments under construction and over 3,000 still in planning have hardly displaced anybody since they are mostly conversion of old office or industrial buildings or new apartment buildings on what used to be industrial land or parking lots. But while they slowly fill, a stead y stream of working and middle class families still leave Baltimore's established neighborhoods, leaving behind possibly vacancies and the potential for blight, the opposite of gentrification.

In DC, by contrast, in-migration was much stronger than out-migration. If all the new residents in DC would have displaced old residents, there would be not as much net growth, even though, there certainly still is some out-migration.

The DC City Paper reported last year in more detail who is coming and who is leaving. The results were surprising since it did not confirm the common assumption that the the affluent move in and the poor move out. They discovered that in-migration included a lot of people of lesser means, especially among singles with dependents.
The more interesting question is who's coming, and who's leaving. We can find some of the answers in another recent report from the CFO's office.
The conventional wisdom is that D.C. has been flooded with well-heeled 20-somethings in recent years, while low-income families have been pushed out by rising housing costs. But the numbers tell a different story.
According to an examination of tax data by the CFO's office, there's a sharp income divide when it comes to demographic change among D.C.'s single and married adults. And it's almost the opposite of the commonly held belief.
Hickman's complaint about the relative shrinkage of African Americans in the District, this new demographic reality doesn't prove that black residents got pushed out, it means that more other races came in, actually increasing the diversity of the city.
New affordable housing on North Avenue
(photo: ArchPlan)

The translation of Boston or DC to Baltimore is fraught with peril. However, it is fairly safe to say that Baltimore like the District needs to re-populate the city so there will be less abandonment, more taxes and more demand for retail and services. To have healthy functional sustainable communities there needs to be economic and racial diversity in all communities. The Reverend concludes his editorial with a call for diversity as well, but throws in a piece about the "integrity of pre-existing culture" that isn't otherwise much explained in his column:
Will we follow the same detrimental patterns of other major cities that have given in to gentrification? Or will we develop a new model that leads the country in redeveloping communities of affordability, diversity and integrity to pre-existing cultures? I'm pressing for the latter.
The discussion about opportunity cannot be separated from the issue of affordability; there is no question that DC has an increasing affordability problem. Opportunity should mean that the existing conditions and poverty are not considered immutable and can be overcome. In fact, Baltimore should aspire to a revival where the existing high rates of poverty will be lowered, where new opportunities arise from the fact that our city will attract new talent, disposable income and growing industries which offer new jobs. The Brookings Institution in a report released just now advises how cities can have the kind of economic development that avoids further polarization between rich and poor. One of their "action principles" is this:
Invest in people and skills—
incorporate skills development
of workers as a priority for
economic development and
employers so that improving
human capacities results in
meaningful work and income
gains (Brookings Report)
Abandonment: Former Sphinx Social Club,
Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore
This is not a "trickle down" theory but a realization that without a broader tax base, without more diverse demographics, especially in dis-invested neighborhoods, there won't be better services, better schools, better retail and safer communities. The future of Baltimore does not simply lie within, it also has to come from outside. In spite of all the rhetoric, this is also true for Maryland and the entire country.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for reference to the Brookings Report 16:30h

Editorial
Brookings Report about Equity and Economic Development
Sagamore "We will build it together" video

Rev. Donte L. Hickman and his Southern Baptist Church recently completed the Mary Harvin Transformation Center in East Baltimore which unfinished had burnt down on the day of the uprising last April.