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'There Isn't A Just Housing Choice': How We've Enabled The Pains Of Gentrification

A recently renovated Mariachi Plaza is pictured in Boyle Heights, Calif., is a Hispanic and low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles that's fighting hard to prevent gentrification, the threat of escalating rents and "washed out" identity.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
A recently renovated Mariachi Plaza is pictured in Boyle Heights, Calif., is a Hispanic and low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles that's fighting hard to prevent gentrification, the threat of escalating rents and "washed out" identity.

Gentrification is no longer something that just happens in low-income neighborhoods. As the phenomenon displaces communities of color, from Inglewood to Washington, D.C., "gentrification" has been co-opted to include food and culture as well. So, what does the loaded term really mean?

According to urban sociologist John Schlichtman, gentrification cannot happen without disinvestment. In the book Gentrifier, Schlichtman and his co-authors, Marc Hill and Jason Patch, define gentrification as "the reinvestment of real estate investment money or capital into dis-invested, devalued, centrally-located neighborhoods, which fosters a new infrastructure for middle and high-income residents."

The reason gentrification has a bad rap is due to the inequity between race and housing. "Race is, at its heart, a class issue," Schlichtman says. The devaluing of lower-class neighborhoods, usually residents of color, is the result of a history of unjust policies, including government defunding and redlining.

"There is an unusual gap between the devaluing and the revaluing in the United States," Schlichtman says. "How that gap is filled needs to be controlled. We can't just let a tsunami of investment fill that gap. It's obviously going to wash things away."

Schlichtman spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the complexities of gentrification, who's responsible for it and how we can minimize the pain it causes through a conscious shifting of priorities.

Interview Highlights

Who is a gentrifier?

A gentrifier is a middle-class person who moves into a disinvested context at a time when other people are doing the same. And, that middle-class person is bringing middle-class buying power. And that effect occurs regardless of the racial, religious, class upbringing of that individual. But they're entering into a context in which that devaluing occurred through decades and decades of unjust policies: defunding by the government, redlining, racial covenants, blockbusting.

On "gentrifier guilt"

That guilt is felt because there is a perception that someone is benefiting from an unjust gap. The first question I ask in regards to gentrifier guilt is: What is the just context for a middle-class housing consumer? Is it the suburb? Is it the devalued neighborhood? Is it the bottom of a middle-class enclave in the city that has never had the devaluing? Is that the just context?

There are many people of all backgrounds in the United States who are struggling with their housing choice and trying to figure out what the ethical footprint of their housing choice will be. I would argue that we have painted ourselves into a corner because of our history in the United States where there isn't a just housing choice.

On advice for people who have moved into a gentrified neighborhood

You can't behave your way out of gentrification, but you can be a kind person. Much of the pain that occurs as a result of gentrification is the result of people who move into neighborhoods and they're imagining a future neighborhood. So no, supporting businesses that are currently existing, that's not going to stop gentrification but it is going to make people like you more.

I think people need to own where they live; don't say you can't live somewhere else if you're middle-class. You could live in that suburb that isn't gentrifying. You could live at the bottom end of that middle-class community in the city that isn't gentrifying. But, there are other things that you're looking for. You're looking for class diversity, a racial diversity, an ethnic diversity. You're looking for restaurants; you're looking for a specific type of architecture. So, be honest about your housing choice.

And finally, this needs to be fought with large-scale things. We need to put pressure on our city governments as a community to not put profit and investment as the number one priority. It can be balanced with other priorities of community.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.