City and Neighborhood Comparison
We noticed several important similarities and differences across the cities that we studied. Understanding differences in how and why gentrification occurs, who is most impacted, and how inequitable outcomes are addressed and why, are important for designing responses at both the local and national level.
In each city we examined, growing populations are placing stress on existing communities and housing. In Denver and Seattle, growth has been particularly rapid.
All our cities have median rents above the national level, and again, Denver and Seattle in particular have seen rapid increases in rent in the past x years. However, all of our cities have seen a similarly high share of cost burdened renters. This is because nearly all of our cities, even those where population growth has not been as intense, are constrained in how much they can build housing. Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle all lack housing or have some difficulty building new housing. New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are all geographically constrained by water bodies. Los Angeles and San Francisco struggle with a local preference for low density and state laws that make development costly and time-consuming.
As prices rise, speculative building and house flipping decrease the supply of medium-quality affordable units available for current residents in several of our cities. Lack of affordable housing is particularly problematic in cities where the housing stock is relatively new and high-quality. Additionally, in cities like Seattle, incoming residents’ preference for new construction results in the rampant demolition of older, cheaper housing stock.
Together, population growth and a lack of housing are causing prices to increase and neighborhood change to occur. The increased housing instability that results is connected to homelessness levels in all our cities, which are all much higher than the U.S. average.
At the neighborhood scale, we can see some important trends in why gentrification occurs in some neighborhoods and not others. Proximity to downtown is an important factor in Denver and Los Angeles, but it is less important for the other cities where the most central neighborhoods are already expensive. The most important trend, however, is a history of disinvestment, which makes particular neighborhoods more vulnerable to loss of affordable housing and change over which residents have no control.
While most of our cities follow similar patterns of why gentrification is occurring and where, at the neighborhood level, it’s occurring, there is greater variation in how gentrification looks and is experienced between cities and between neighborhoods. Our cities are at different stages of gentrification. Denver and Los Angeles are in the early stages of gentrification, as many long-time residents are still present but housing problems and displacement are on the rise. New York and Seattle are in the middle stages of gentrification. Neighborhood change has been occurring in New York since the 1960s and in Seattle since the 1980s, and while several neighborhoods are completely gentrified, the process is just beginning in others. However, gentrification is much more widespread in New York than in Seattle. Indeed, gentrification feels like an urgent contemporary problem in Seattle to a greater degree than in New York San Francisco is the most gentrified of the five cities, with practically the entire city having lost its lower-income residents.
Regardless of stage of gentrification, all the case study cities are experiencing problematic trends connected with rising prices and neighborhood change. San Francisco and New York observe forced evictions by landlords who wish to remove rent control regulations and place their unit on the market. New York has a particular problem with loss of local retailers. Eviction without notice is more common in Denver and L.A., which lack long-standing renter protections like those of New York, possibly because gentrification is a more recent issue in these cities.
Some issues are unique to Denver and Seattle, both smaller cities that are more eager for growth and prestige than older and larger cities like New York and Los Angeles. Denver and Seattle governments have historically, and still do to some extent, react to neighborhood change by courting new residents. Both cities police homeless individuals to remove them from the public eye. Both cities are also eager to build, so eviction to make way for new construction is also more common. Seattle has also limited neighborhood planning in an attempt to build, which limits vulnerable communities’ ability to benefit from change. More recently, the cities have been pushing through growth and housing plans at a rapid rate, and while these policies help address a lack of housing, they can dis-empower residents when they don’t have a say.
Vulnerable populations are impacted by these trends in several different ways. The most prominent trend across almost all cities is overcrowding and informal housing arrangements for vulnerable populations. Other consequences have more variation. Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver are more likely to see displacement to suburbs as a result of gentrification. Thus, these cities’ displaced residents are more likely to see loss of access to services and higher transit costs, which are associated with moving out of areas closer to downtown. However, since Seattle and San Francisco have been facing gentrification longer than Denver, they are more likely to see domino displacement as people are displaced multiple times, increasingly further from the urban core.
In addition to citywide trends, there are also patterns at the neighborhood level. Four of the five neighborhoods chosen for this study are in the early stages of gentrification, with many original residents still in place. One local case study, Kent, however, is dealing with both early and late stages of gentrification, as it has received residents who were already displaced and is now seeing displacement of its long-term residents.
City-wide trends apply at the neighborhood level, but some neighborhoods have experiences that the city as a whole does not have. Vulnerable populations in all our cities shared a power imbalance relative to other neighborhoods in the city that resulted in a lack of neighborhood power to shape change. These factors combine to create anger and distrust of government.
The South Bronx and Bayview-Hunters Point also have their own unique issues. In the South Bronx, there is conflict among long-time residents about whether or not gentrification is a good thing for the neighborhood. In Bayview-Hunters Point, there is an exceptionally large problem with exclusionary displacement, or people of color not being able to move in even though many long-time residents and people of color remain.
Cities have tried a variety of policies to address problems of housing insecurity, spatial displacement, and political disenfranchisement. The most commonly used policies attempt to use the private market to increase the supply of both market rate and affordable housing. All cities have an incentivized inclusionary zoning program which either offers bonuses or is required in exchange for a zoning variance. Only Seattle and New York have proposed a mandatory policy that applies to nearly all new construction. Similarly, all cities have attempted to increase construction, often by requiring or planning for dense transit-oriented development. Seattle and New York have also made attempts to ease the construction process.
Four of the five cities are increasing funding for local affordable housing subsidies and approving the building of accessory dwelling units. Seattle in particular has seen great success in providing funding for private affordable housing development. Accessory dwelling units have recently been approved in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to try to house growing homeless populations.
Policies also go beyond housing. Increasingly, the cities have introduced policy to empower vulnerable residents and protect their rights, not only to increase growth. All have made recent attempts to involve vulnerable residents in planning or at least create policies on their behalf. However, these attempts have been met with skepticism in almost every city. Los Angeles recently decriminalizing informal housing and informal economic activity to help empower vulnerable residents, but it’s unclear whether these policies will achieve this goal. New York has longstanding and successful tenant protections and right to shelter policies, but only Denver has made recent attempts to emulate them. Rent controls and stabilization are popular in New York and San Francisco; however, these policies have come under increasing threat since the 1980s.
Finally, only Seattle has a precedent of regional planning with the Growth Management Act, which could be used to help meet housing need across a wider geographic area and prevent homelessness if displacement does occur. However, even the Growth Management Act lacks enough teeth to effectively meet housing quotas. Still, this policy can serve as a regional model for other cities and states.
It should be noted that several of our case study cities have instituted policies that other case study cities wish to emulate. San Francisco and Los Angeles have looked to Seattle for its ability to increase housing construction. Low wages are a considerable part of housing insecurity, and both Seattle and New York have increased wages. Given gentrification’s connection to lack of neighborhood agency, San Francisco’s commitment to local voice in new development is laudable. However, the ongoing problems of displacement and homelessness that these cities face indicate that none of these policies is a panacea to all of gentrification’s negative consequences.
Our case studies pointed to several common city or neighborhood attributes that can increase the agency of vulnerable populations, decrease the impacts of gentrification, or provide a base for more effective policy. The greatest similarity across our case study neighborhoods was the presence of resident activism and/or a neighborhood group, which helped empower residents in the face of displacement. Almost as common was the presence of buildable land that could be better utilized for more affordable housing. Further, a good transit system has helped displaced residents cope in New York and several other cities, while the lack of an extensive transit system in Denver and Los Angeles means that displacement has bigger consequences.
Some cities and areas also have unique opportunities that could serve as examples for other cities. Kent has built a stronger response to homelessness by helping its private service providers build capacity in partnership with service providers in other municipalities. Los Angeles’ strong informal economy builds capacity for vulnerable citizens and creates a strong sense of community. Seattle’s precedent of regional planning could pave the way for regional housing agreements.
There were several important policy limitation trends across cities. These are limitations that cities should keep in mind when creating policy or that cities, states, and the federal government should aim to address. Every case study city cited a shortage of funding to build affordable housing, pointing to insufficient funding at the federal level. Every city is also limited by policy at the state level. In New York and Seattle, these limits are around taxes the city is allowed to create, while in Los Angeles and San Francisco, limitations focus on rent control and creating a long approvals process that makes development difficult and expensive. Denver faces nearly all of these limitations plus a state law against mandatory inclusionary zoning.
Another important similarity between cities is a lack of willingness or ability to take on housing and gentrification as a regional problem. As discussed, even Washington state's Growth Management Act cannot require municipalities to build. This is a real limitation in cities’ abilities to address displacement, which is a truly regional problem.
A variety of other limitations appear or are important in some cities but not in others. Some limitations could be addressed by city governments. New York and San Francisco have a variety of local housing programs with requirements that are not aligned with the state or with each other, while Seattle spends more general funding on transitional housing than permanent housing. Uncoordinated housing programs and resources for transitional rather than permanent housing results in limitations on affordable housing development in these cities.
Some obstacles have more to do with the political will of citizens and are more difficult to change. Los Angeles and San Francisco face resistance to higher density building citywide, while Seattle and Denver face resistance to building affordable housing in suburbs, to which many people are displaced. These political situations make addressing housing shortages, and therefore counteracting displacement and homelessness, even more difficult.
While the process of gentrification is similar across cities because of shared population growth and housing shortages, the case study cities feature variations in their local gentrification contexts. The unique local attributes that contribute to gentrification pressures; who is most vulnerable; state and local policy; opportunities to address the problems; and policy constraints are all highly dependent upon the city.
Nonetheless, the important similarities shared among all of the cities, namely lack of affordable housing supply and population growth, prove the need for a national urban policy. Relying on local contexts to eventually meet the need for affordable housing is unwise, given the failure of all of these case-study cities to meet housing demand over several decades despite serious efforts. The creation of a national housing policy would ensure that vulnerable populations have their housing needs met, regardless of local context.
In the absence of a national urban agenda, the local attributes and policy contexts among all of the cities can, at the very least, inform how policy should be enacted in certain cities. Cities can learn from local policy successes and failures of other cities to inform which strategies are most relevant for themselves. In addition to informing local policy, the local variations illustrate what important topics are not being addressed adequately, or at all.