Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Dynamics of Gentrification

Sociologists have long criticized concentrated urban poverty. In his famous The Truly Disadvantaged and When Work Disappears, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson showed the ways that economic forces, including the movement of jobs and middle class residents out of cities, left islands of extreme urban poverty. In his article "American Apartheid," Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey demonstrated that both economic forces and racial discrimination in the housing market concentrate poverty. Sociologists called for the end of concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation.

Policy makers listened to the sociologists, but not necessarily in the way that sociologists intended. American University anthropologist Brett Williams states: "Animated by William Julius Wilson's vision of mixed-income communities, HUD has replaced 134 units of public housing at the abandoned Ellen Wilson Dwellings with the Capitol Hill Townhomes" (see the photo on the right). In 1993, the Hope VI program went into affect nationwide, which funded the demolition of public housing and the redevelopment of new mixed-income housing. In Ward 6, there is Hope VI housing at the site of Ellen Wilson (photo on the right), Arthur Capper (photo on the left), and Carrollsburg, while Temple Courts and Sursum Corda were redeveloped under DC's New Communities Initiative. I don't know if the New Communities Initiative is connected to Hope VI.

When reading reports of the closure of public housing, two things are striking:

1) The DC government again and again does not accept responsibility for the continual lack of investment in public housing, housing that the city itself owned. The DC government, like so many city governments nationwide, did not invest in maintaining or improving public housing. With the decision to demolish the public housing sites, the DC government then finally invested in the area. For example, according to Affordable Housing Finance magazine, the redevelopment of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg as mixed-income housing (in Ward 6) is using a total of $460 million, combining "12 funding sources to leverage a $36 million HOPE VI grant." One could say that the "failure" of public housing was a failure of government, businesses, or other entities to invest in poor areas and the "success" of mixed-income housing was the result of massive investment in these areas. Why didn't city governments make even a fraction of this investment earlier?

2) The residents of public housing did not passively accept the demolition of their homes. Yes, the public housing units were falling apart within neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. At the same time, the residents knew that they would probably not benefit from the gentrification that would come. The movie Chocolate City documents the protests and lives of former residents from Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing. An Urban Institute report finds that the majority of residents removed from redeveloped public housing sites never return to those communities. While some have found better places to live (for example, those who found housing with rental vouchers moved to neighborhoods where the poverty rate was 16 percentage points lower on average than their previous community), in mixed-income developments "there are simply fewer public housing units on site. Some sites have imposed relatively stringent screening criteria that have excluded some former residents" (Urban Inst. report 2007: 1). The redevelopment has thus helped to displace residents.

Something else is lost beyond the opportunity to live in new housing. While I search for survey data on this, we can witness a sense of loss of community from the many Facebook pages of alumni of now disappeared public housing. The Facebook page for Eastgate Gardens Public Housing (Ward 7), sometimes called "Cinderblock City," states: "the interpersonal relationships that were developed between Eastgate residents still stand just like the cinderblocks that composed of the housing units! This page is is dedicated to those families!" The 345 Facebook members organize an annual reunion and refer to the Eastgate "family" and to Eastgate as "home."

Why has redevelopment and gentrification displaced so many people? Maybe because such redevelopment has only dealt with the symptom of concentrated poverty and not, in the words of UCLA geographer Edward Soja, "underlying spatial structures and structurings of locational advantage and disadvantage." More on that in a future posting.

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