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Gentrification — not government — revitalizes inner-city neighborhoods

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For all the bluster and opposition to gentrification, it’s been more successful in revitalizing neighborhoods than government action.

Those benefits have been seen in the United States and across the pond in England, as Niall Crowley notes in Spiked.

 “Politicians have long talked to little effect about regenerating the inner city, and increasing opportunity, social mobility[,] and diversity. But gentrification has achieved all this in spades,” he writes.

Empty promises from governments have been fulfilled by people moving from other neighborhoods and other cities. It’s also built up legitimate diversity along racial, religious, and economic lines. The relative affordability compared to other neighborhoods in a city promotes social mobility. After decades of urban decline, the city is desirable again.

That doesn’t mean that the process has been painless. “The chronic lack of new house-building thanks to restrictive planning laws, or the authorities’ heavy-handed regulation and licensing of bars and venues,” as Crowley notes, prevented city residents from revitalizing their neighborhoods. It also pushed up rental and housing costs that benefited the propertied.

The result of that has been for critics to view gentrifiers as harbingers of displacement, wealthier newcomers who remove long-time – and lower-income – residents from their homes. One study of gentrification in Philadelphia found that “gentrifying neighborhoods do not lose residents at a substantially higher rate than other neighborhoods” and “residents of gentrifying neighborhoods also tend to benefit from gentrification across the board.”

The downside was that “gentrification ultimately hits hardest at the least advantaged and most economically vulnerable” because those residents, though at no more risk to leave the neighborhood than others, move to higher-crime and lower-quality schools if they do move. That can also fray social and neighborhood bonds that go beyond the economic.

The trouble with opposing it, however, is that critics misplace the blame and ignore that “gentrification is an irresistible force,” as Megan McArdle noted for Bloomberg.

 “Gentrification will stop when demand ebbs, and not before,” she wrote. So long as cities function as an engine for social mobility and economic mobility, gentrification won’t stop. Regardless of whether it’s someone from another part of the city or the city’s suburbs, or a young college graduate from a rural area with limited economic prospects at home, gentrifiers will demand living space.

Restrictive NIMBYism that rejects economic fact, along with the real-estate crash that made former homeowners into renters, has pushed up housing costs. Perversely, that could hold down demand, and gentrification, as millennials who look to own a home have turned to the suburbs. The facts of gentrification, however, stand: myopic government policy, not young professionals, have driven the squeeze in the city.