For this topic, we called on two of our talented Foolish contributors to present both sides of the issue in one fell swoop. We'll dive in with an anti-gentrification perspective by Marc Rapport, and then look at what Laura Agadoni has to say on the other side of the fence.
Anti-gentrification perspective: There are better options
The process now known as gentrification has arguably been going on as long as people have been living in cities, but the term itself was coined in the 1960s by a British sociologist to describe what was happening in London.
That’s from a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) that says, "From its inception, gentrification has been understood as a form of neighborhood change, resulting in the displacement of incumbent residents of one social class and culture by another more affluent class, linked with an increase in property values."
Further, the report says, "the segregated residential structure of American cities" leads to gentrification often taking the form of affluent white arrivals displacing the minority population that was already there. (Queue “Ball of Confusion” here.)
So, can cities be improved without gentrification? I say yes but that it won’t be easy.
It takes a collective effort
First, we have to ask, what do you mean by "improved"? If that means -- and it reasonably should -- good schools, decent and affordable housing, safe streets and parks, robust grocery stores to address the food desert problem, and financial services beyond payday lenders and check-cashing shops, then yes, cities can be improved without gentrification.
Doing so will take both private and public commitment. The public part includes investing in schools, including realistic teacher pay and reviving tried-and-proved programs like Head Start, as well as other urban infrastructure that would help make down-on-their-luck neighborhoods more viable for private, mainstream businesses to set up shop.
Underpinning this would be private-public partnerships through myriad avenues, including providing the same level of incentives states across the country have long thrown at job-producing manufacturers. The new opportunity zone program is potentially a great first start, both for the potential of investment in residential and job-producing businesses.
Tens of billions of dollars reportedly have poured into qualified OZ funds to be reinvested in these very areas. The program is so new that its impact hasn’t really had a chance to be felt, but it appears promising.
There are myriad other programs and incentives out there, too. So suffice it to say, there are plenty of opportunities to make urban neighborhoods more livable and attractive. And that could do a lot to keep people in place and attract others, with a collective commitment to helping communities thrive without uprooting current residents of changing its demographic makeup,
Pro gentrification perspective: The benefits outweigh the disadvantages
People who want improved cities without gentrification often have a skewed perception of gentrification: They think it’s worse for a city than it often really is. Although it’s possible to improve a city without gentrification, the improvement process itself leads to increases in property values, and there you have gentrification starting to sink in.
The 'people will be displaced' claim
A claim from anti-gentrification folks is that gentrification "pushes people out." This assumes gentrification always displaces people, which is simply untrue. Gentrification does displace some people, certainly, but not always to the extent that it permanently alters the demographic makeup of the given area.
A U.S. Census Bureau report that analyzed data from 2000 to 2013 found that in Minneapolis, only one of 22 gentrified neighborhoods had indications of displacement. And in Los Angeles, of 73 gentrified neighborhoods, there was displacement in only 13 of them. The bottom line of the study: Only 22% of gentrified neighborhoods showed displacement.
You can't always attribute residents leaving an area purely to gentrification. People move for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they get a job elsewhere or maybe they simply want to relocate. Just because a resident leaves a gentrified area doesn’t necessarily mean it’s solely due to being priced out.
This is especially true for renters who simply move more often than owners do, which is one of the benefits of renting, after all -- being able to pick up and move with no strings attached. Some people are displaced with gentrification, but certainly not everyone. Some people would have left the area whether it became gentrified or not.
The racial component
People who dislike gentrification often say it’s white people pushing out people of color. And it's true that minorities do tend to be displaced under gentrification. However, that's not true across the board. Additionally, because gentrified areas tend to attract middle- and upper-income earners, it benefits the area as a whole.
Opportunity zones and tax-advantaged investments
Opportunity Zones that allow investors to defer taxes in designated opportunity zone areas are controversial regarding gentrification. Communities benefit from new investment in the area, and the reach is huge. But some groups worry about displacement as the economy benefits. The hope, however, with opportunity zones is that residents will share in the economic growth and development.
So, can cities be improved without gentrification? It depends on who you ask.
Marc Rapport argues that in an ideal world, yes -- because the steps toward achieving it are what we should be striving for as a civilized society. City life may never be perfect, but it can be more inclusive and equitable.
Conversely, Laura Agadoni presents the uncomfortable reality that declining cities lead to more decline and more vacant properties. In booming cities where people want to be, land appreciates and redevelopment occurs. Cities need the stabilization that gentrification brings.