The Dream Revisited

Choice and Gentrification

by Olatunde Johnson | May 2014

Discussions about gentrification are often puzzling. To start, we cannot seem to agree on the definition of the term. Commonly, it has a negative tint – newer, wealthier residents come in to a community, and make housing less affordable for existing residents. This is the concept of gentrification that dominates recent debates about tech-induced neighborhood change in San Francisco, as well as discourse about Brooklyn by cultural critic residents and filmmaking former residents of the borough. But listening to these discussions, one might begin to wonder who constitutes the gentry, and who one should blame for change. Artists and middle-class residents worry about an influx of wealthy residents and luxury condos. But these artists and middle-class residents could easily be recast as first-wave gentrifiers themselves --- increasing housing prices and giving formerly lower-income neighborhoods cultural appeal (be it for hipsters or breeders ). And then sometimes the term “gentrification” disappears from our discussion of neighborhood change. Blocks from Columbia University, the South Harlem neighborhood along Frederick Douglas Boulevard (“8th Avenue” to Harlem’s old-timers) is utterly transformed, in the space of a decade, with new condos, luxe rentals, beer gardens and craft cocktail bars. This change was orchestrated bycity planners who sought to remake the troubled corridor. Indeed, the very devastation of the neighborhood – its abandoned lots and brownfields – allowed for its dramatic, from the ground-up transformation. This change though is not faulted as gentrification, but celebrated as a “revitalization.”

In this confusion, Godsil invites us to consider the integrative benefits of “gentrification,” and the role of law and social policy in offsetting potential harms to poorer residents as communities “upscale.” As Godsil recognizes, neighborhood change is inevitable. Accordingly, Godsil appropriately places a large part of the onus on government planners and policymakers to identify and offset harms to low-income residents who will inevitably lack the clout to advocate against private interests. I particularly appreciate that Godsil recognizes the crucial role of federal policy and specifically the Fair Housing Act, which are often left out of discussions of how to constitute our urban spaces.

At the same time, I have questions about the “autonomy” framework . If change is truly inevitable, one might wonder who constitutes the “community.” One might feel less confident in determining who is “old” and who is “new,” or in identifying the point at which neighborhoods begin to change. Further, many of the urban neighborhoods whose character we wish to preserve are a construct of discriminatory public policy and private discrimination – revealing the complexity of disavowing that history yet honoring individual and family connections to place.

This all leads me to ask whether honoring “autonomy” is the best goal. Or rather should it be ensuring participation and advancing inclusion? Participation and inclusion allow us to ask: What kinds of neighborhoods do we want to create? How do we preserve and expand affordable housing? Who should participate in planning and policy decisions? And how do we construct public policy to achieve these goals? We might then abandon our struggle with terminology--gentrification, displacement, integration, revitalization – and instead construct a positive vision for communities, that recognizes the constancy of change. If our goal is economically and culturally vibrant, mixed-income, racially and ethnically integrated , and democratically inclusive neighborhoods, we can stop talking now about who was there when, and focus our efforts on how state, local, and federal policy might best be harnessed to achieve those goals.

Olatunde Johnson is a Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Prof. Johnson's area of expertise lies at the intersection of housing, race and poverty.

More in Discussion 4: Neighborhood Gentrification