Two Cheers for Gentrification

Contrary to what Councilman Goode and many others believe, it’s not a scourge.

Gentrification has been getting a bum rap in Philadelphia.

You read that right.

The assumption among elected officials — well, certain ones, at least — and many activists is that when more affluent people move into a neighborhood, the poorer residents get hurt or pushed out.

It’s that assumption that underlay Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr.’s shelved-for-now effort to limit the value of improvements eligible for the city’s 10-year property tax abatement. (No final vote was taken on the bill last week before Council adjourned for the year; instead, it was amended and held for later.)

I have a friend I’d like him to meet.

He lives in a duplex he owns in West Philadelphia, west of 52nd Street, along with a neighboring property. Not that long ago, as the tide of Penn affiliates began lapping against the borders of Malcolm X Park, he told me that he had advised every one of his homeowning neighbors to hang on to their properties as long as they could, because “they’ll be worth more soon.”

And they will. One of the things we tend to forget as we assess the effects of gentrification is that some residents of gentrifying neighborhoods own their homes. If property values around them rise, they finally have a chance to cash in if they choose. Since most of the homes we’re talking about here have passed through the Actual Value Initiative relatively unscathed, rising property taxes are likely not to become an issue for these homeowners — and if they do, we can enact measures to address that problem without breaking the virtuous cycle.

And there is a virtuous cycle — and its beneficiaries might surprise you. In 2008, a team of professors at the University of Colorado, the University of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied Census data on neighborhoods that gentrified and found that, contrary to what everyone assumes, minorities and poorer residents did not suffer as a result. Better-off African-Americans and Hispanics found gentrifying neighborhoods as appealing as their white counterparts did and moved into them at similar rates. And those less-well-off minorities who remained also did better — high-school graduates in particular tended to stay and post notable gains in income.

What actually happens in neighborhoods that gentrify, it seems, is simply normal population turnover at work, only with more educated and affluent residents replacing those who would likely have left anyway. And those who stay also benefit from the improved amenities and new businesses that follow in the wake of the urban gentry, as John Longacre pointed out concerning new development in Point Breeze.

So what’s not to like? Having to move when your landlord jacks up your rent, that’s what. That side effect of gentrification we haven’t figured out a fix for.

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