Friday, December 12, 2014

The Delicate Balance Between Neighborhood Improvement and Gentrification

Townhouses replace older bungalows in many of Houston's neighborhoods.

It seems like the finest line in urban development today is the line between neighborhood improvement (+) and gentrification (-). Everyone loves community improvement: "Yes, please clean up that lot full of weeds and trash! Yes, please fix my street that's been full of pot holes for the past few years. Yes, please tear down that house that's been vacant and falling apart for years"... But the word gentrification strikes a nerve in most. We're quick to answer, "No, we don't want those big new homes here!" Or, "No, we don't want that apartment complex at the end of our block."

People might not be able to easily define gentrification, but they seem to know it when they see it. It's akin to Potter Stewart's famous Supreme Court decision in Jacobellis vs. Ohio regarding explicit material. Gentrification was a term first used by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, who used the term to explain how working class families in London were being replaced by middle class families, leaving a neighborhood with a completely different social character. (For some history on the use of "gentrification", see this Next City timeline).

It normally involves the displacement of people, groups or cultures from an area that becomes populated with a higher socioeconomic class, or simply an increase of people within that higher socioeconomic class. These events normally make it uncomfortable or simply no longer affordable for long time residents as a result of higher property values and tax rates. Gentrification is a term that is being used so often in critiques and analyses of cities, with varying applications. It's helpful to consider that there may also be different types of gentrification, as posed by planner Pete Saunders. (He classifies Houston's gentrification status as "Nascent".)

In many people's eyes gentrification is "ruining" neighborhoods all across the country. If we're worried about ruining neighborhoods, we should be alarmed at the continued increase in the concentration of poverty in many of them. This City Observatory study, "Lost in Place", does a fantastic job at outlining why concentrated poverty is ruining our cities at a greater rate than gentrification is. When we look at that study, it's almost difficult to describe some of these gentrified neighborhoods as having been "ruined".

Nonetheless, gentrification is happening in Los Angeles as Hispanic business are pushed out of neighborhoods. It's happening in New York, where new neighborhoods, like Cromwell Jerome, are being created. And it's happening in Nashville. Steve Haruch in the New York Times has said that gentrification is "threatening Nashville's soul." I was even at a breakfast this week where someone noted that they had just been to Nashville and loved the fact that so many bars were located near the convention center. It's important to remember that honkey tonks like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge were there breeding country music stars far before Nashville's convention center opened. The convention center and Bridgestone Arena are simply reaping the benefits of a vibrant neighborhood of lively bars. But now, it seems many think that Nashville's growing corporate culture may be eroding its country roots.

Back home as I drive through Houston's neighborhoods, I ask myself the question, "Is this gentrification, or is it not?" It's a complicated topic, because there are cultures and populations that are severely affected by the land use and real estate decisions that we all make.

What is less complicated is that unless you are among the first people to settle a place or buy a home in a new subdivision, then it's almost impossible not to be a gentrifier. After all, you moved somewhere because of some sort of opportunity, a lower rent, community amenities, or a safe, inviting atmosphere. Or, if you moved into a new home, someone once likely valued the trees or meadow that once occupied the land your home now sits on. If I displaced or replaced someone within a neighborhood, I suppose I am just another thread in the gentrification blanket.

Simply put, people need places to live and things won't stay the same. More and more people want to live close to areas of activity. For too long we created housing that could only be driven to, but we've become aware of the opportunities that exist within cities to create housing that gives people better access to jobs and transportation. It's no secret formula; people want to live in neighborhoods with services, amenities, and that are close to their places of work and leisure. We must take into account public works projects like new streets or transit lines that help to change an area's development and demographic. We're quick to point the finger in our neighborhoods at businesses and residential development.

People identify so strongly with their home and neighborhoods. They want to preserve them and have some influence in their development. In Houston though, things are tense, as there are very limited opportunities for residents to have input on how our city will develop. Even with limited influence in how our city develops, people still like to talk about the development of our city, especially surrounding gentrification. Just this week Houston Matters hosted an interview with Bill Fulton, former Planning Director for the City of San Diego, and current Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. When commenting on gentrification in Houston, Fulton said "You have to accept and understand that cities are dynamic in nature." About a year ago I featured "Talk of the Townhouses", recounting a conversation I overheard in a YMCA locker room about disdain for townhouses.

A few weeks ago Salon published an article from Houston resident Anis Shivani voicing frustration about the way that his neighborhood has changed over time. Unfortunately, the article seemed more alarmist than anything, and presented Houston as having been "destroyed". On the same Houston Matters episode as mentioned previously, Shivani said that he was disturbed by Houston's culture of tearing down buildings and building, in most cases, something larger at a more intense use than what previously existed. This is simply a result of an expectation of a development code to perform the functions that a zoning code might in other cities. This is a good example of the need to understand our city's ordinances and codes, and for discussion as to how possible revisions or changes in how our city is developed.

I hear cries for gentrification to stop in neighborhoods here in Houston, such as in the East End and East Downtown, or EaDo, as it's more commonly referred to. But the gentrification has already started. There are new coffee shops sprouting up around its edges, and developers are building townhomes all over the place. It's hard to sympathize at times because many of those opposed to the gentrification spend their time and money at these new businesses. It's safe to say that neighborhoods like EaDo have not typically supported establishments serving $5 lattes and artisan bread.

We can see examples of gentrification (or neighborhood improvement and growth) here in Houston, especially in areas like the East End and East Downtown, many of the neighborhoods surrounding the Houston Heights, and Montrose. It's happening almost all across the city though. Vacant lots, abandoned buildings and old homes are being replaced by both townhomes and traditional single family homes. Sometimes, the scale of development and intensity of use is of stark contrast to how the land was previously used, and the current surrounding land use.

New townhouses.
Old bungalow.

A street in Houston's Sunset Heights neighborhood.

But again, we must ask ourselves, "At what point does neighborhood improvement become gentrification?" Where is the tipping point?

How many new homes can be constructed before neighborhood improvement becomes damaging gentrification? How much can the socioeconomic characteristics of a neighborhood change? How much of a decrease can we see in a predominant culture or race before neighborhood development is considered to be gentrifying? What happens if only vacant properties are restored back to their historic usage? What if the new population is of the same race, but of higher income? What happens if the population of the area is restored back to historical averages? How much can property values be raised? What if a development that takes the place of a nuisance?

Are all those things listed above gentrification? It's hard to tell. We're trying to diagnose and assign a condition without knowing more about the symptoms and causes. Before we simply blow the gentrification horn, there's more to consider. We should also look and consider whether we're actually contributing agents in the process.

I suppose we can walk away with this much: it's hard to define gentrification, and we must remember that our cities are growing and evolving, especially Houston. Houston is still an adolescent city. Cities will continue to grow, and we can't expect them to stay the same forever. All of this conversation probably leads to many more questions than answers, and that's okay. In New York they're asking, "Can we make new neighborhoods without displacing or destroying existing ones?" Here in Houston, where neighborhoods can change much faster than some in other cities, we need to ask questions that lead us to explore whether we can all do a better job concerning development policies and practices, and look toward the greater benefit of our city for generations to come. We all want improvement in our neighborhoods and cities, but just how much, and what kind? After all, one man's neighborhood improvement is another man's gentrification.