Friday, April 14, 2006

Gentrification: A dark side of Infill?

   Infill!  Density!  These are the rallying cries of the urbanists and the battlers of sprawl.  Encourage Americans to live in smaller housing units close to downtown, they say.  But some residents of Houston’s close-in Third Ward have another name for the new attraction of their neighborhood: Gentrification.
   A fascinating cover story by John Buntin in Governing magazine tells the story of how artists and childless middle-class couples are attracted to the Third Ward’s small houses just outside of downtown Houston.  Most of the long-time residents are black; most of the new migrants are white or Hispanic.
   A black legislator who represents the district in the Texas legislature has plans to try to stop the transformation.  The desire to preserve a historically African American neighborhood raises a number of complex questions:  Should law recognize some sort of “cultural property” that belongs to a particular group of current residents, or even a particular race?  (In the Third Ward, this issue is complicated by the fact that it used to be a largely Jewish area until the 1960s.)
   One of the legislator’s ideas is to have the government somehow impose restrictive covenants on the houses that would require that they be used only for rental housing – forever.  Such a restriction would make the houses less attractive for white middle-class residents, who prefer to buy.    
   Concerns over maintaining black neighborhoods have a solid basis in history.  When governments have looked for ideal locations for freeways and other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs), such neighborhoods have been targeted disproportionately, both because of the low cost of land and because of the lack of political power of their residents.  The article in Governing quotes an economist as saying that gentrification actually helps social integration, but this may be missing the point; opponents don’t necessarily want integration, they want to keep the character of their neighborhood, just as suburbanites do.  And it isn’t that opponents of gentrification merely want more low-cost housing someplace; they want to keep it where it has been located in the past. 
   Considering the history of government’s exacerbating many of the problems of urban neighborhoods, I am very skeptical of plans to use government to try to maintain a neighborhood’s racial makeup.  Indeed, cities have been pressured to use their powers to foster gentrification (see the 2003 PBS documentary “Flag Wars” about Columbus, Ohio).  Moreover, considering the market demand for the little close-in houses of Houston’s Third Ward, it may prove to be very difficult to keep newcomers out.  Perhaps concern about those displaced by gentrification would be better channeled to encouraging a variety of laws to build and maintain affordable, convenient housing in various locations, rather than in trying to keep newcomers out of the Third Ward.

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