WHOA, that is a bold title. It’s also a really simplified snippet of an idea that is so much more complex. I’m sure there were some of you who were excited by the directness of it, and some of you who immediately felt your blood heat up a few degrees. I’ll start by saying this – I’m not an expert, a community organizer, or a city planner (though I did get a lot of research help for this post from friends who study and work within these topics). And, if while you’re reading this you feel like any of this is aimed directly at you, please know that I’m here to encourage self-reflection and critical thinking about some actions many of us (me included) may be engaging in. This isn’t an attack. Today is really about sharing what I’ve learned about gentrification, getting a conversation going, and sharing resources where you can keep that education going. So let’s jump right in.
WHAT IS GENTRIFICATION?
In the simplest of simple terms, gentrification is what happens when wealthy (and usually white) people purchase property in a low-income neighborhood, fix it up enough that other wealthy (and usually white) people want to live or invest there, and then increase property value so much that a majority of the original residents are pushed out. Now here’s a more eloquent and informed description. You know, the next level understanding:
Gentrification is a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in – as well as demographic change – not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.UrbanDisplacement.org
BUT, gentrification is much more complex. Like so many things in our world, if you start pulling at this one little thread called “gentrification” you’re going to find it’s just one thread in a horribly knit sweater of racial injustice, redlining, white flight, capitalism, and political corruption all tangled together. WHEW. But, it is a really important topic for us to educate ourselves about, especially in the interior design field where many of us are renovating or “house flipping.”
In fact, I’ll go first.
ME, MYSELF, AND GENTRIFICATION
Pasadena, where Mac and I bought our home back in 2018, was once home to the Hahamogna Tribe of Native Americans. I think it’s important to start there, and just acknowledge that the land now known as Pasadena is stolen Indigenous land. But in more recent history, North West Pasadena is a historically Black neighborhood.
And it still is, with the addition of a large Latinx population. The majority of our neighbors (at least the ones we know) are Black and Latinx.
Mac and I are, without a doubt, “gentrifiers.” We were able to afford a house that cost half a million with the help of family money, and are raising the value of the home by renovating it with excess wealth (trust me, it doesn’t feel excess when I’m looking at our bank accounts each month). If we ever sell this home we will want to at least make back the investment we put into it, which will necessitate us selling it for more than we bought it. But just increasing the value of our property, even without selling it, increases the property value for the houses surrounding us (meaning that houses around us can sell for higher prices, and all our property taxes go up). All of these things spell out gentrification.
SOME QUICK HISTORY
A few of you might be saying “It sounds like gentrification is a money issue, not a race issue.” Well, gentrification is a money issue, but money is ALSO a race issue. For total transparency, Mac and I are both white (I’m white Latina). To understand why gentrification is a race issue there are three topics we all need to understand.
First up is something called redlining. So what is redlining?
“For decades, many banks in the U.S. denied mortgages to people, mostly people of color in urban areas, preventing them from buying a home in certain neighborhoods or getting a loan to renovate their house.”
Khristopher J. Brooks
And why would banks do that? Because the US Government agreed to insure the loans that these banks were giving out, but the banks could only give them to people the US Government felt confident wouldn’t be a financial risk. So they literally color coded maps, outlining entire neighborhoods in red where the US Government thought residents would be “too high risk” to receive loans. I’ll give just one guess as to who those people were.
If you guessed “literally anyone non-white, but definitely Black and brown people” you would be correct. So, redlining plays a huge part in what created these de-invested neighborhoods that are just now becoming gentrified. That’s not to say that BIPOC communities weren’t able to develop and prosper even with the government and banks working against them. White people have just always done their best to tear them down. Look up the Tulsa Massacre, or Bruce’s Beach if you live in Southern California. (Speaking of, has anyone else watched Watchmen?!).
So redlining meant Black folks were largely unable to get loans to buy homes, and even when they were, it was to buy homes in already Black and brown neighborhoods that were deemed low value simply because the people living there were deemed, by lenders, realtors, and the government, as inferior. And what happens when you can’t buy homes? You can’t build . . .
This is a BIG one when it comes to homeownership. At its core “generational wealth” is wealth that is built, maintained, and grown by families over several generations. And it should come as no surprise that the majority of generational wealth in America belongs to white families. One of the main ways that wealth is accumulated over generations, especially by the not-crazy-rich but middle class and upper middle class people, is through buying homes. Generational wealth has everything to do with the exploited labor of enslaved people in America’s earliest days, discriminatory practices such as redlining in more modern history, and the underpaid labor of immigrants right now.
That’s not to say that your family hasn’t worked for that generational wealth. But it’s important to keep in mind that, if you and your family are white, the color of your skin has 100% made it easier for you to create and maintain that wealth over the course of history. It may have even played a part in the initial creation of that wealth. To learn more about generational wealth and race check out this article (it’s meaty, but important facts we need to understand!).
The truth is, Mac and I would not have been able to buy our home without the help of generational wealth from our families. A large portion of the money we used for our down payment came from our parents and grandparents. I’m extremely proud to say that the largest amount came from my grandparents, who are both Guatemalan immigrants. But they had to work ten times as hard to build it, and be ten times as careful to maintain it. When my brother is ready to buy his first home, it will be Mac and my responsibility to provide him with help for his downpayment using equity from our home, in order to continue the passing of generational wealth.
Note: I wanted to add a note based on some of the comments – I’m not assuming that all white families have generational wealth (or any wealth). There are many white families and individuals in our country that live below the poverty line, or even just pay check to pay check without any family support. White privilege does not equal financial privilege (or conventional beauty privilege, or male privilege, or health privilege, etc.). However, it is important to recognize that for someone who is white, or perceived as white, the color of their skin is not one of the reasons why they do not have wealth.
Again, I’m not an expert so I’m going to try and boil this down to a basic explanation. White flight is a phenomena that occurs when neighborhoods become “too diverse,” and the white residents move to areas that are still majority white. The biggest example of this our country saw was in the 1900s, when white residents of urban cities began moving out to suburbs in large numbers due to the increasing populations of BIPOC in the urban cities. Read this article to really get into the details of White Flight (and why it’s happening again).
And while you might think that “white flight” is the opposite of “gentrification,” just like with redlining, it’s important to understand the historical context of why modern neighborhoods are more or less desirable. What else makes a neighborhood more or less desirable? Things like how well funded a school district is, how much public recreation space there is, or how much access to fresh food there is – all of which are things that BIPOC neighborhoods have been historically denied. “Less desirable” neighborhoods mean lower property values, which in turn means cheaper property. Cheaper property upfront means more money can go into the property renovation, which means a higher resale value. And that means that only someone wealthier can move in. See the pattern?
WHAT IS GENTRIFICATION DOING?
Now that we’ve got some historical context, let’s talk more about what the effects of gentrification actually are. If gentrification means re-investing in areas and revitalizing them, why is it viewed as a bad thing?
Currently, cities like LA are investing in their neighborhoods with big-dollar projects intended to bring amenities to more people in the form of rail lines, sports stadiums, new parks, or shopping centers. Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look at one example:
The upcoming Crenshaw/LAX rail line will go through four predominantly Black neighborhoods (Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, and Hyde Park). Already, just the start of construction of this line has caused rent to go up and resident displacement to begin because living close to a railway is a great option for commuting (check out an interactive map of gentrification along LA transit lines here). The sad irony is that the very transit investments that could help the livelihood of low-income people (who are much more transit-dependent) actually leads to their displacement by wealthy (often white) people who don’t necessarily rely on public transit.
What does the displacement look like? Oftentimes, landlords aggressively and illegally force residents out. Moving out of one’s neighborhood sucks! It causes dramatic negative effects from kids having to switch schools mid-year, to longer commute times, to destroying a family’s networks they rely on for social and emotional support, childcare, and more. Not to mention the extreme toll that stress of housing uncertainty can take on a family (can rent be paid that month, will an eviction notice come, can a new apartment be found on short notice?).
Sure, gentrification on one hand helps some existing homeowners. The value of their homes go up, meaning the equity they can take out of their home or the resale value of their home increases. If they choose to sell, they’re likely selling to newer, wealthier (and often whiter) residents, like Mac and I. And they can generally make a decent profit and move even further out of the city where that money goes further. But if they choose to stay in a neighborhood as it gentrifies, their property taxes are still going up, even if they haven’t made a single improvement to their home.
Note: Someone kindly pointed out that Prop 13 in California does protect neighboring homes from increases to property tax!
As property values go up, and the desire to live in an area increases, existing renters become at risk of being priced out of their apartments or rental homes in favor of new residents who can afford higher rent. Or for the demolition of existing buildings to make way for newer, fancier accommodations.
And thus begins a cycle. As residents either “willingly” leave to capitalize on their property value or are forced out due to financial constraints, existing store and restaurant owners lose their customer base. Especially as new businesses that the newer residents prefer to shop at move in. The local Latinx market (which provides culturally important ingredients) now has to compete with a shiny new Trader Joe’s. A Black-owned restaurant that has existed for decades is slowly losing its clientele as new residents instead go to Chipotle, poke restaurants, or Starbucks. And as more wealth moves into a neighborhood, the schools become better. But the children who are benefiting from it aren’t the kids of the families who have been suffering due to underfunded schools for decades.
It’s important to remember that when someone new moves in, someone else had to move out.
And listen, this all sounds awful, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably pulling your hair out and screaming at the computer “WHAT CAN I DO?! DO MY NEIGHBORS HATE ME?” I can’t speak for your neighbors (or mine), but the people interviewed for this article, published by the Los Angeles Times back in 2015, said they aren’t hostile towards new residents who are gentrifying their neighborhood. They just want to be included in the come up and protected from being displaced. The article hit me like a gut punch because it’s talking specifically about my neighborhood. (If you’re ever in NW Pasadena, you gotta hit up Perry’s Joint for THE best sandwiches.)
Even Mac and I are seeing gentrification happening, though we’ve only lived here for two years. The house across the street from us was completely flipped last year, and is now being rented to a young white couple who drive a Tesla. The house across the corner from us recently sold for somewhere around $800k, and now there’s a newly built McMansion down the street with a “For Sale” sign up in the yard. I was speaking to our neighbor a few nights ago, who’s lived in her home for 16 years, and she was telling me about all the people who have moved out over the years. And yea, she sounded sad.
Here’s the really simple question I have (that I’m sure a lot of you now also have, especially if you’re looking to buy your first home) for a very complex issue: Where am I supposed to live?
Mac and I weren’t able to afford a home in a neighborhood that had already undergone gentrification, like Highland Park. And we definitely couldn’t afford a home in an upper class neighborhood like Los Feliz or South Pasadena. North West Pasadena is where we could afford a home (and barely at that).
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT GENTRIFICATION?
As individuals, it can be really difficult to act in a way that tries to solve a problem that is wildly big and complex. But here’s what you can do:
- The biggest thing you can do is buy a home in a neighborhood you are ready to become an active community member of as it IS, not just how you hope it will be in 5 years. And plan to live there long term (you know, as far as anyone can plan ahead).
- When you’re looking for a home, research the history of that neighborhood and possibly the home itself.
- Once you move in, invest your dollars. Now that you are part of that community, you need to support that community. Shop at the local stores instead of driving out of town, eat at the local restaurants instead of franchise chains, and donate to local organizations that are making a difference in the lives of your neighbors.
- Get involved in local politics, and make sure that you’re advocating and voting in favor of legislation, laws, and elected officials who support anti-displacement policies, tenant protection laws and affordable housing policies (like this one), prioritize community reinvestment, protect existing businesses, and care about their school districts. It’s likely you have more time privilege than a neighbor who is a single parent working two jobs to keep paying rent on their home (especially now that the school districts are likely getting better and they want to keep their children within the district). Use your time to get to know your City Council member, what committees they sit on, their positions on affordable housing and tenant protection, how much campaign funding they receive from luxury developers, and whether they advocate for anti-displacement strategies. Attend city hall meetings, read about legislation your city is voting on, and email your representative. Advocate for the community you moved into!
- When your neighborhood gets new investments, find out what developer is building it & if there are any anti-displacement strategies coming. Many politicians receive campaign funding from developers who, frankly, don’t have an incentive to build affordable housing. Some cities have begun implementing anti-displacement strategies like providing financial incentives to developers to build affordable housing, giving grants to small businesses located near new rail lines or changing zoning codes to allow more apartments (higher density housing – meaning more room for affordable housing, versus low density housing which is big expensive houses with large yards all spread out) in all neighborhoods.
- Learn from and support local organizations fighting for affordable housing and tenant protection with your time! (Check out Inclusive Action and Investing In Place if you live in Los Angeles.)
- Get to know your neighbors! It sounds so simple, but I think it makes a huge difference. If you truly want to be a better neighbor and part of a community, you need to know the people around you and be aware of their issues and concerns. For example, in North West Pasadena one of the biggest concerns is over-policing. I speak Spanish, and I use it all the time living in a neighborhood with a large Latinx community, but don’t let a language barrier stop you from saying hello 🙂
SO WHAT ABOUT HOUSE FLIPPING?
For a lot of us design-obsessed folks, there is nothing more fun than the idea of buying a property, making it our design playground, and then doing it over and over again. Some people love it SO much that they’ve turned it into a full-time hobby or career. But if house flipping is your jam, it’s important to be cognizant that house flipping is part of the cycle of gentrification. I’m not in a position to tell anyone that finding a piece of property that has good bones and just needs some love isn’t the right investment. But I think it’s important to remember that buying a house just to resell as an investment within a few years, versus buying a house to live in and become a part of a community are two different things. And if you’re white especially, recognizing that the very act of reinvesting our largely unearned wealth can maintain white supremacy – because white wealth (and I’m not talking billionaires here, my wealth is included in this) came at the expense of Black wealth (whether we are willing to face that reality or not).
This should be at the forefront of our minds as we start seeing rising rates of home foreclosures. It means many “cheap” properties will be hitting the market, but only due to new homelessness, caused by COVID related financial hardships that have not been appropriately handled by city, state, and federal governments. And by now I’m sure you can guess which populations are being disproportionately affected by these COVID related financial hardships and home loss.
I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I barely have any of them. There is still SO much work I myself need to do to keep educating myself and supporting the communities I am a part of. But with gentrification, just like with other important topics, it’s vital to start the conversation, and see our part in it. If you want to learn more, I highly suggest listing to the podcast There Goes The Neighborhood, watching this short documentary, and reading this awesome article. These are California-based resources, but many of the same issues apply to gentrification all over the country (and world).
So, who’s ready to chat about gentrification? I know there are likely going to be some strong opinions. And there are probably a lot of factors or important issues within this conversation that I missed. But, like I said, this is how we start the conversation 🙂