Jeremy Németh, PhD, is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver and one of seven recipients of the inaugural TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholars award, an award which recognizes outstanding contributions to the Denver metro region through community-engaged scholarship. This is the beginning of a series of first-person accounts written by the Scholars.
I am a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at CU Denver, and today I am going to talk about gentrification, or, simply, the replacement of the working class by the middle class that is happening in neighborhoods across the country.
I will start with a story. Recently my wife and I were riding our bikes in a historically Black and now very hip neighborhood in Denver. We came upon a group of several students of color walking home from school. As we approached, one of the young women waved at us. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Have a nice bike ride—thanks for ruining our neighborhood.”
Immediately I was stunned into silence. As a researcher, I study the relationship between social equity and the built environment. I’m the person trying to help, I thought. But based on this incident, I realized so much more work still needed to be done. I went home and wrote a colleague to say, “We have to start studying gentrification. Not just the impacts of it, but how to stop it before it takes over another neighborhood like this one.”
Average rents in the U.S. have more than doubled over the last 20 years, with the fastest growth in mid-sized cities like Denver. Now, there is not a single place in the richest country in the world where a full-time, minimum wage worker can afford an average two-bedroom apartment, so on any given night two million people in the U.S. sleep on the streets.
Study after study shows that this gentrification can have disastrous consequences on small businesses, on personal relationships, and on the sense of rootedness among long-term residents. And these impacts persist across generations: we are now seeing shocking effects of gentrification on children’s mental health, physical well-being, and school performance. For families able to stay in their gentrifying neighborhoods, many spend more than half of their income on rent, sacrificing doctor’s visits, heating, and even food, because “The rent eats first.”
So what can we do? How can we improve cities without displacing the most disadvantaged among us?
This is a real challenge for planners and residents. Of course we want adequate housing, bike lanes, and healthy food stores in all neighborhoods, but many residents have begun to fight such development, fearing the ensuing waves of investment that good planning can attract.
A colleague and I recently published a set of papers that helps city leaders understand how we can best predict and prevent gentrification. We studied the largest cities in the US and found four key steps that all cities should take:
First, we need to get in front of this issue. There are certain hallmarks of neighborhoods that make them very vulnerable to gentrification. They have what we call “good bones” — they’re near transit stations, they’re close to downtown, they’re walkable, and they have lots of historic single-family homes. And residents are much more likely to be renters, people of color, have lower incomes, and be less educated. So, we need to direct as much of our resources as possible into these places.
Second, we must increase supply by providing more publicly subsidized housing and, to a lesser extent, market-rate housing. This combination has worked in places like Seattle (a city very similar to Denver), where rents are finally flattening after many years of growth. Our research attributes much of this leveling-off to the construction of tens of thousands of new housing units over the past decade.
Third, community land trusts and tenant protections like anti-eviction ordinances and property tax rebates have proven very effective in regions around the U.S., and Denver, to its credit, is starting to invest in these.
Finally, we have to support grassroots groups working to organize residents in the fight against involuntary displacement. At the same time, we need to start electing leaders who champion anti-gentrification platforms instead of those who merely blame the market for these inequities (I would argue that cities in fact create markets through plans and policies). Planning is and always has been political, and changing the status quo requires both organized movements and everyday actions that together challenge how we treat our least well-off.
As Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholars, this is what we do: we seek out the most pressing problems and set out to solve them, dedicating our careers to translating our findings into practical outcomes that guide local decision-making. As employees of an urban public research university, this isn’t just in our best interest, but I believe it’s also our duty.
Guest contributor: Jeremy Németh