In Living Color: The Impact Of Green Gentrification
Is environmental resilience being used as an excuse to make gentrification worse?
As climate change intensifies, cities around the world have been preparing for the new reality of frequent, severe weather. Events, like hurricanes, can decimate vulnerable communities of color by threatening their lives and livelihoods. Aside from the bodily harm often associated with extreme weather, the resulting property damage can worsen already tragic situations. Since most homeowners’ insurance policies lack specific coverage for damage from natural disasters, property damage from environmental crises can also be financially ruinous for Black homeowners and renters. Due to a disproportionate number of Black communities situated near, or in, environmental crisis areas, public anxiety surrounding environmental issues have created the perfect incubator for Green Gentrification.
Gentrification comes in colors now?
Like what you're reading?
Get more in your inbox.
In preparation for environmental crises, from unmitigated pollution to impending natural disaster, developers and landlords (usually in communities of color) disaster-proof buildings and invest in local environmental remediation activities. Actions that could potentially remedy environmental racism actually lead to a rise in living expenses. Landlords and developers then shift the costs of these improvements onto residents in the form of rent hikes. These rent increases lead to displacement identical to that of conventional gentrification.
In the aftermath of more immediate environmental emergencies, like hurricanes or wildfires, resulting property damage and lingering environmental hazards can temporarily or permanently uproot residents. Their absence gives real estate developers an opening to purchase properties for prices far below their original market values. When low-income residents of color return after the emergency has subsided, many find renovated properties or entirely new construction they can no longer afford to rent or buy. This type of Green Gentrification effectively redlines poor residents of color out of their own neighborhoods by placing financial barriers to re-entry.
Wait, how does this even happen?
This is often demonstrated when high-rise apartment buildings are constructed adjacent to low-rise or small multi-family homes. For example, nearly ten years after Hurricane Katrina, city officials in New Orleans amended building height regulations to increase the maximum height of residential buildings in historic districts. Many of these historic districts contain waterfront property that was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina and has since been gentrified. This building height modification in New Orleans’ zoning laws makes large apartment buildings feasible in areas that once only featured single-family homes.
New Orleans’ officials also provided a great model for how zoning laws can also be changed in ways that simultaneously promote environmental sustainability and accelerate gentrification. According to Article 18 of the New Orleans Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, new developments may qualify for building size bonuses if they are “designed utilizing energy efficient design or other innovative sustainable design characteristics, sufficient to achieve a recognized green building certification.” This would allow energy-efficient buildings, an environmental good, to be built even larger to accommodate more, often non-Black, residents. Zoning changes that permit construction of spacious multi-unit residences where single-family homes once stood spur gentrification by inserting multiple white families where single Black ones used to live. In fact, according to Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella, from 2000 to 2010, the Ninth Ward has lost 64% of its Black residents while seeing a 22% uptick in white residents.
Beyond zoning laws, pollution control standards have long been used to prevent residential development on or near contaminated sites. In most urban municipalities, concentrations of certain contaminants (often cancer-causing compounds) usually have to be extraordinarily low before any residential construction can begin. Many real estate developers proceed with construction anyway by hiring environmental services companies to remediate polluted locations to be in compliance with pollution control standards. The costs associated with remediation efforts are often incorporated into incredibly high rents, frequently locking Black residents out of safer, cleaner housing in their own neighborhoods.
This type of development was once viewed positively, but now, a growing number of local and state governments are relaxing or modifying environmental standards to encourage new development on contaminated property. In 2003, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) introduced its Brownfield Cleanup Plan, which allowed developers to avoid completely cleaning up contaminated sites by allowing them to create their own individual cleanup plans. These individual plans often promote apartment construction because the DEC perceives apartments as better buffers to toxic chemicals than houses. Actions like these not only price Black residents out of their communities by creating high-rent apartments, but they also fail to accomplish total environmental remediation.
So, where exactly is this happening?
Changes to zoning and pollution regulations have led to some pretty egregious cases of Green Gentrification.
Following Hurricane Sandy, developers in New York City aggressively invested in real estate acquisition in the Far Rockaways, one of Queens’ largest Black communities negatively affected by the storm. From 2016 to 2017, applications for residential development in the Rockaways doubled. During the same period, some rents ballooned to approximately $2,400 higher than the neighborhood median. As a result, many residents who fled during the storm have been unable to return.
In Miami, Black residents of Little Haiti have been experiencing a type of speculative Green Gentrification, in which wealthy, often white, beachfront homeowners move into Little Haiti to avoid issues of sea level rise.
Is my neighborhood at risk?
The sad reality of worsening climate change is that cities will experience more events like Harvey and incur more related damage. This gives Green Gentrification that many more opportunities to pop up in communities of color. While this is a disheartening prediction, knowing the signs and causes can help you proactively advocate for yourself and your neighbors by contacting your local elected officials.