Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 33 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Gabriella Mickel [*]
Gentrification: Remedies and Consequences
Gentrification is defined as “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” The inequities caused by gentrification in many communities are manifest. For example, the disinvestment in lower-income neighborhoods caused by redlining, racial covenants, and zoning provisions preventing property improvement resulted in dilapidated buildings, lowered real estate prices fueling development of manufacturing and industrial uses, and lowered the cost of investment in polluting infrastructure, such as highways and public works facilities. The legacy of these effects is the exposure of the residents of such neighborhoods to toxins and pollution not found in moderate- or higher-income residential neighborhoods. In fact, Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in communities where they are exposed to soil, air, and water pollution and experience a higher risk of cancer, asthma, and other life-threatening illnesses.
This is clearly an equity issue that many municipalities are interested in rectifying, but they must be careful to assess and avoid unintended consequences. One solution, for example, has been to build green infrastructure, such as parks, in these neighborhoods. It may seem as though the neighborhood would benefit from this supposed step away from the historic inequity; however, once the green infrastructure is built, gentrification and displacement can occur. Those trees and parks can cause property values to rise, gentrifiers to move in, and low-income residents to be displaced. Displaced residents are more likely to experience negative mental health effects, food deserts, less walkable streets, less access to transportation, and more exposure to pollutants.
The same cycle happens with other “solutions” to historic inequities. Reducing crime leads to higher property values. Giving school vouchers to kids in underfunded schools can encourage moderate-income parents to become gentrifiers and move into low-income neighborhoods. Increasing transit options and transit-oriented development can drive up rents and property values. Even addressing food deserts and swamps by attracting grocers, encouraging farmers’ markets, and incentivizing community gardens can result not only in food mirages, but also in gentrification.
The question thus becomes: how do we stop this cycle of inequity? Part of the answer could be leveraging the resources of gentrifiers and preventing displacement of low-income residents through land-use solutions. To prevent displacement, municipalities are building more affordable housing, preserving current affordable housing stock, and keeping residents in and returning them to their communities.
The Neighborhood Jobs Trust in Boston, Massachusetts is funded by fees paid by commercial developers with projects greater than 100,000 square feet. Boston’s zoning law requires these developers to obtain a zoning variance. To get the variance, the developers must pay a linkage fee, based on square footage, to the Neighborhood Jobs Trust. The trust supports job training for low and moderate-income residents. By creating this trust, Boston is using its land use authority to mitigate a con of gentrification in addition to displacement – the loss of low-skill jobs.
Right-to-purchase ordinances offer cities, tenants, or both with advanced notice and the right to purchase a multifamily rental property “when the owner decides to sell the property, exit the affordable housing program, or convert the rents to market rate.” These ordinances not only mitigate displacement, but they also create low-income home ownership opportunities for residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. The possibility for home ownership is especially important given that building equity is an equity issue. Homeownership is an established route to building generational wealth, yet Black Americans have a homeownership rate of 46.4% compared to 75.8% for white families. The homeownership and racial wealth gap are the legacy of slavery, segregation, redlining, and other anti-Black policies.
Washington, D.C. runs the oldest right-to-purchase programs in the U.S. via the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) and District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA). TOPA gives tenants the opportunity to purchase a building when the owner decides to sell and DOPA gives the D.C. the right to purchase if the tenants do not. Tenant ownership is typically structured through the creation of a limited equity cooperative, where residents collectively own their building with resale restrictions that preserve the long-term affordability of the units. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) encourages tenants to exercise their right to purchase to stabilize neighborhoods and prevent displacement. The DHCD provides tenants with financial assistance (seed money, earnest money deposits, acquisition funding, etc.), technical assistance, and “specialized organizational and development services, to include structuring the tenant association, preparing legal documents, and helping with loan applications.”
Some municipalities are going a step further by trying not only to prevent displacement, but also to undo displacement. Local governments are using right-to-return policies to allow displaced people to move back into their communities after being pushed out by gentrification. Portland, Oregon created a right to return policy that allows tenants, mainly minorities, forced out by gentrification to move back to communities with the help of an affordable rent program. The program gives priority to displaced people via a point system that considers three generations of potential displacement.
In February 2021, Providence, Rhode Island released its Anti-Displacement and Comprehensive Housing Strategy. The strategy is a solid case study of how a municipality can address displacement and housing insecurity in the context of climate change, COVID-19, housing insecurity, and racial equity. These pandemics not only adversely affect public health, but they also do so interconnectedly. Therefore, addressing them effectively often means addressing them together. To create affordable housing, the Providence strategy recommends modifying zoning to allow more infill development (via pre-approved architectural designs that developers and property owners can use to build affordable housing on small lots), improve ADU regulations, allow for greater use of row houses, enable cluster development on large residential lots, provide density bonuses for land development projects, and creating a process to approve adaptive reuse administratively. To preserve affordable housing, the Providence strategy recommends creating a mandatory rental housing registry to facilitate code compliance inspections and creating a certificate of habitability that requires inspections every three years. To keep people in their communities, the Providence strategy recommends creating a Right of First Refusal Program to give the city an option to purchase existing income-controlled units.
For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is a free resource featuring best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.
[*] Gabriella Mickel is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.
Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.
The previous blogs in the series are listed here:
- Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
- Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
- The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
- Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
- State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
- COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
- Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
- Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
- Urban Heat Islands and Equity
- Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
- The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
- The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
- Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
- Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
- Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
- Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
- Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
- The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
- Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
- Housing, a Crucial Determinant of Health
- ADU Introduction
- NIMBY Restrictions to Poison the Prospects of Accessory Dwelling Units to Address Housing Insecurity
- Zoning to Fill the Missing Middle Housing Gap
- Old Tools to Fight Housing Insecurity: Adaptive Reuse and Infill Development
- Racial Impact Analyses
- A New Era of Equity-Based Comprehensive Planning…Finally
- Equity-Based Comprehensive Plans: Land Use Policies to Correct Past Disparities
- Reversing the Legacy of Redlining: Reducing Exposure to Toxins and Pollutants Through Land Use Law Reform
- Addressing the Four Pandemics – A Case Study
- Health Impact Assessments: A New Tool for Analyzing Land Use Plans, Zone Changes, and Development Projects
- Putting the “e” in TOD
- The Four Pandemics Explained and Addressed by Land Use Law and Policy
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