The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The deeper problems we miss when we attack ‘gentrification’

Customers dine in the quickly developing Over-The-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Poor, minority neighborhoods are frequently places where banks have refused to lend money, where retailers have declined to open shop, where basic businesses have been absent. Even city governments have historically denied them resources — for proper trash collection, or repaved roads and public parks, or essential services like fire stations.

These neighborhoods, in short, are places where much has been withheld.

With this in mind, I often wince when the first signs of new investment — a national grocery store breaks ground, a sit-down restaurant replaces an empty storefront — are bluntly derided as harbingers of "gentrification," a word that has largely negative connotations. If poor neighborhoods have historically suffered from dire disinvestment, how can the remedy to that evil — outside money finally flowing in — be the problem, too?

That question is an oversimplification. Every form of new investment won't bring amenities that would help existing residents. New apartments renting for $2,500 a month won't improve the housing options for a family living on $20,000 a year. A high-priced wine bar won't be accessible either. But a new supermarket will be. And so will the jobs there.

The problem with how we often talk about "gentrification" is that we leave no space for these distinctions when we equate anything new with something inherently bad. And we don't reckon with what it would mean in an alternative scenario for these places to continue having little investment at all.

The more useful question isn't whether "gentrification" is good or bad, but what it might look like to have new investment in a community that benefits existing and future residents alike. I know people who worry this isn't possible — that new investment and old residents cannot coexist, that the former can only displace the latter. But I'm convinced there must be a way to do this. And figuring that out is one of the great challenges facing cities like Washington today.

The word "gentrification" is also a distraction for another reason. A tremendously small number of places nationwide have actually undergone this kind of change. The much larger and more problematic force in the housing market isn't gentrification; it's segregation. It's not that some middle-class whites have moved in among poorer minority neighbors; it's that many middle- and upper-income whites would not.

And just as disinvestment and investment cannot be problems at the same time, segregation and integration cannot, either. If it's a problem that households with resources increasingly live in separate enclaves from people without (where they adopt zoning laws that perpetuate separation), it cannot inherently be a problem when these same groups live side by side.

I don't know at the end of the day what investment without displacement looks like, but I suspect the way we broadly scorn gentrification makes it harder to get at the answer. What if we allowed that historically disinvested places need new resources, and that diverse neighborhoods could be a good thing, and then we thought about how to get there?

I am thinking through this out loud because the Urban Institute's Rolf Pendall and I are discussing tonight the ways millennials will change cities, and I think this question is relevant. If you have any of the answers, definitely let us know.