Can local policies handle the problem of gentrification?

While local policies to mitigate the displacement caused by gentrification are critical– perhaps now more than at any time in the last half century–local governments in the U.S. have little incentive to adopt such policies. 

A recent article in The Atlantic Cities by Daniel Hertz argued that being an agent of gentrification is, for many people, inevitable: “if you happen to have above-average economic power or the kind of cultural capital that attracts people with above-average economic power…your presence in a relatively low-income or blue-collar community will, in fact, make it easier for other college graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses.” The essay highlights displacement and transformation as unavoidable moral problems for those who care about their individual role in shaping economic geography–problems that cannot be mitigated with neighborliness. The author suggests that we should channel our awareness of the quandary into policy advocacy at the local level, at least starting with a push for local government low-income housing subsidies, eviction protections, and an end to land use policies that keep new construction artificially depressed. 

Others have already tackled, in earlier essays, the problem of defining gentrification so broadly that we conflate it with a mere increase in property values or neighborhood improvement. In this post, I consider the viability of local policy as a way to combat gentrification.

Most of the existing federal and state affordable housing policies in the U.S. implicitly embrace displacement. This has been true for more than three decades, in part as a reaction to the forced concentration that often occurred from the combination of public housing and local government’s exclusionary zoning policies. Despite the richness of the social support networks and cultural history that arise in the midst of economic devastation, concentrated poverty remains a persistent problem in U.S. metropolitan areas. The literature on the geography of opportunity describes at length the myriad disadvantages that attach to being born into or living in a poor neighborhood. Any attempt to break up this concentration relies on income mixing, and the path to this outcome has been either through supply-side incentives for new construction or rehabilitation, or through household level subsidies. The former is about bringing new people in, while the latter is about moving people out. Neither policy prescription was designed to maintain income mixing in the long term, or to encourage the translation of geographic income mixing into advantageous bridging or bonding ties across classes.

The urge to build housing policy on displacement is consistent with the cultural definition of the American dream. “Moving on up” for much of the 20th century did not simply mean moving into home ownership, but also moving on out to another–a better–neighborhood, city, or state. The ability to attach social mobility to geographic mobility, however, may be breaking down. Despite the decline in home ownership among millenials and the general increase in renting relative to owning, Americans on average have been moving less and less since the 1970s, most likely because the gains from moving to start a new job have eroded. Coupled with the well known drop in real wages among the middle class, and the risk of moving is increasing for most households.

Stated differently, the negative externalities at the household level arising from gentrification are now higher. Federal policy, at least currently, seems ill equipped to confront this reality absent a widespread shift toward place-based intervention that does not rely solely on private actors. Local policies that make displacement more difficult seem like a necessity, and in this regard Hertz is correct and the answer to the title question is a qualified “yes.” The qualification is that local governments have little rational interest in adopting policies that limit their capacity for economic development and winning the favor of higher-income residents and firms. In theory, the biggest winner in the intra-metropolitan competition for growth is the local government that exchanges the most poor residents for wealthier ones. In a small enough municipality, the effects of gentrification are entirely exportable outside municipal boundaries, at least in the short term.

Gentrification is about neighborhoods–we see buildings get torn down, and hear stories about families having to move because they can’t afford to live in a neighborhood. And local government may be best equipped to know which solutions are suited best to tackling how gentrification manifests in its neighborhoods. But local governments also need to exist in a governance structure that makes adopting these solutions more attractive.


Thomas Skuzinski is a doctoral candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on local and regional politics and governance in metropolitan areas in the United States. 


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