May 04, 2015

RPA Conference Focuses on Inequality and Gentrification in New York City

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Recently, at the Regional Plan Association’s general assembly, more than 1,000 civic and business leaders from around the New York metropolitan region discussed some of the major issues of planning and development affecting quality of life in the region. Among the topics signaled out for debate, the RPA included one of, if not the most contentious issue in city planning: gentrification. In a large meeting room that was packed to capacity, the panelists gave their take on the morning’s question: “Is gentrification good or bad for neighborhoods?”

The panelists began with a discussion of how to define gentrification. Answers ranged from the issue of displacement of long term, lower-income residents by higher-income newcomers to investment opportunities, ethnic changes, the arrival of the “creative class”, and an evolution of food culture.

“Gentrification is demand outrunning supply,” said Jenny Schuetz, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank, “it’s a good problem to have when you compare it to neighborhood decline, which is the other option. Nationwide, it’s much less common than we think.”

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New York’s Lower East Side in the mid 1970’s. Since then, the neighborhood has undergone significant changes, including increased real estate prices that have forced out many long term residents.

Moderator Toni Griffin, a professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture, said that 41 percent of New Yorkers are living in poverty or near poverty, and that, despite the amount of media coverage the issue receives, only about 30 percent of New Yorkers are living in areas that are “eligible for gentrification”. Poverty, not displacement, is still by far the more important issue in the city. The question, however, is how we can improve quality of life in these neighborhoods without displacing their residents.

“Neighborhoods change all the time, they go up or down, and gentrification is part of that,” said Allah Mallarch, a panelist from the Brookings Institution, “We need economic diversity for cities to work. A city of poor and near poor is not going to have the tax base to support services, housing services, or a high level of consumer services.”

Michele Neugebauer, the executive director of Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, is working to prepare her community for the change that they know is coming. “These [gentrification] trends mostly haven’t happened yet, but everyone is afraid of it coming,” said Neugebauer, “there is already real estate speculation and housing costs are rising. There are fears of displacement, and losing manufacturing jobs to new zoning.”

These fears are common among residents in cities around the world, and city governments and planners are struggling with how to improve and invest in neighborhoods without having their residents worry that these improvements won’t be enjoyed by them.

The panel did propose solutions, such as revising tax policy to favor long term residents, outreach to local businesses to help them take advantage of their new customers, co-op housing, assistance for tenants to become first-opportunity homebuyers, but they admitted that, in many cases, these are not going to significantly change the outcome.

“We live in a capitalist economy,” said Mallarch, “there is only one way to own a neighborhood in this system, which is ownership in the literal title sense. Everything else is symbolism, and that’s difficult in a city where most people do not own.” He pointed to the example of New York’s Lower East Side, where there were passionate efforts over decades to improve the area, and create a neighborhood identity. Today, the LES has been transformed beyond belief, and most longtime residents have been priced out.

Schuetz pointed out that the larger issue is that we have so much inequality of income and wealth across ethnicities, and as long as that remains, no one approach will solve this problem. “If that wasn’t the case, this would not be nearly as sensitive an issue. Inclusionary zoning and building more housing will help, but its never going to be the whole solution.”

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