Author’s note: This article was co-written by Yazmine Nichols and Ashley Meadows. Ashley Meadows is a New York native and U.S. Army veteran. She received her M.S. in Tax Accounting from St. John’s University and currently attends Fordham University School of Law.
New York City has always been a place that is dynamic and evolving. Change is inevitable, but as the maxim goes, “not all change is good.” In recent years, parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan have seen an influx of high rises, green spaces and private businesses with little to no input from current community residents. Ultimately, these changes are not meant for low-income Black and Latinx people, but for an ever-growing group of affluent white professionals and tourists. The phenomenon known as gentrification — often described as the process by which depreciated properties are converted and less affluent communities are “renewed” — is really a misnomer for a form of colonization that is rooted in racialized economic exploitation. Research and articles tend to focus on the commercial indications of gentrification, but in fact, changes to local laws, regulations and other policies may be the first indication that gentrification is looming. Ultimately, gentrification (1) displaces low-income Black and Latinx families; (2) creates and exacerbates abject poverty; and (3) contributes to racialized over-policing.
1. Gentrification Displaces Low-income Black and Latinx Families
In many U.S. cities, local laws and regulations or “zoning laws” set the parameters for building usage (i.e. residential, commercial or mixed use), building height and income-based allocation of affordable units. In New York City, rezoning is often a precursor to community landscape changes that ostensibly benefit the entire city, but ultimately displaces low-income Black and Latinx people. Many of the recent zoning changes have been advanced by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the City Council. Such zoning changes have had significant effects in the borough of Brooklyn, where a report from CityRealty predicted that a staggering 22,000 new apartments would be built by 2019.
As the number of luxury housing sites surges throughout NYC, fewer units of affordable housing are being built. And even those few units that are deemed “affordable” are beyond the means of most community residents. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), housing is considered affordable when a household earning 80 percent of the area median income (“AMI”) spends no more than one-third of its income on rent. In the NYC region, AMI is calculated using not just households within the five boroughs, but households in Westchester and Nassau County. Because residents in those counties typically earn a higher annual income, 80 percent of the current area median income is $75,120 for a 3-person household. “Affordable” monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment is $2,096.
Reductions in affordable housing units, rezoning, in addition to surging rental prices, harassment of tenants and unethical evictions are primary causes of the rise of homelessness in New York City. A June 2018 study found that approximately 61,421 people sleep in the New York City municipal shelter system each night. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are not spread evenly among racial groups: 58 percent of New York City’s homeless population is Black, 31 percent is Latinx.
2. Gentrification Exacerbates Abject Poverty
Many proponents of gentrification argue that it creates employment opportunities in affected communities, however, a recent study in Washington, D.C. revealed that while gentrification purportedly increases economic mobility, it actually can exacerbate abject poverty. In the aggregate, the urban development model that manufactures gentrification is failing the poor. Gentrification under the veil of community development creates a clear delineation between the “haves” and “have-nots,” as shown by large luxury construction projects juxtaposed to median-income and low-income housing in urban communities. In an article published by Strong Towns, an urban development media organization, the author describes how gentrification breeds an uneven economic distribution:
Concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty are two sides of the same coin. They are symptoms of a development model in which places are built and financed in a way that makes long-term decline inevitable, an "all or nothing" development environment in which investment is distributed extremely unevenly, and a bias toward "big-ness" — big projects, big price tags — that excludes small players from the market. Small crafts can't sail in big waves.
The “small crafts” are poor people who are trying to stay afloat as the “big waves” of gentrification crash on their communities. The poor struggle to stay afloat partly due to the fact that employment opportunities for Black and Latinx people working in gentrified neighborhoods are typically confined to hourly and low-wage service positions. Malcolm X once explained the inextricable relationship between low-wages, housing and social immobility, saying:
When you live in a poor neighborhood, you are living in an area where you have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. When you get a poor education, you can only work in a poor-paying job. And that poor-paying job enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. So, it's a very vicious cycle.
Taking X’s analysis to its natural conclusion, as more low-income Black and Latinx people are deprived of living wages, their ability to escape the cycle of economic exploitation is significantly diminished. Low-income families become trapped under the poverty line because what little disposable income they have is reallocated toward increased food, living, transportation and costs.
3. Gentrification Contributes to the Over-policing of Black and Latinx People
Lastly, gentrification contributes to the over-policing of Black and Latinx people because it redefines boundaries and seeks to protect predominately white spaces. One writer at The Georgetown Journal On Poverty Law and Policy put it this way: “instead of community integration, there is selective development and enforcement of distinction between different areas.” Such de facto line-drawing is exacerbated by gentrification, which rests on the principle that the boundaries between and within neighborhoods must be tightly guarded by law enforcement. This is most evident in the New York City public school system, where students are segregated by factors like race and income, and where Black and Latinx students are disproportionately punished for minor infractions. What gentrification ultimately requires of Black and Latinx people is not just that they give up their neighborhood, but that they remain under constant law enforcement surveillance if they can afford to stay. As white professionals slowly move in, ordinary recreational activities (i.e. blasting music) gradually become criminal. The Economic Opportunity Institute defines such “order maintenance” policing as the surveillance and control of non-serious offenses that has the potential to criminalize current residents.
The battle against gentrification has and will continue to be fought first and foremost by community organizations and tenant associations that use their power to negotiate zoning laws, affordable housing and the alteration or elimination of law enforcement occupation and surveillance.
This year, residents of the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood organized against a rezoning plan that would allow for the construction of a 5000-unit apartment building with only 25 percent of the units allocated for affordable housing. The groups’ efforts were undermined, however, when the NYC Council Subcommittee passed a rezoning plan before residents had the chance to review and contest it. Despite facing an uphill battle, many communities have developed a social ownership model that prevents developers from assembling large sites commercial sites. These models are commonly known as community land trusts (CLT) — a concept originally conceived by Black farmers in the Jim Crow South — and have spread across U.S. cities as residents strive to regain control of their neighborhoods and maintain affordable housing. Residents have won victories here in NYC, where the de Blasio administration recently announced that it received $1.65 million for a variety of CLT projects in 2017; and where the City Council passed legislation officially codifying CLTs and allowing the city to enter into regulatory agreements with them.
Similarly, residents have made efforts to combat racialized policing in their communities by launching #CopWatch, a movement of individuals and groups who exercise their right to observe and document police activity. Other groups can hold lawmakers accountable by demanding that business owners and corporate entities are required (by law) to offer living-wage jobs that allow residents to earn an income that offsets increased food, living, transportation and costs.
Although the tide of gentrification continues to rise, residents’ power rests in their collective ability to compel local government to yield to community interests. This collective ability can result in changes that better suit low-income Black and Latinx residents while fostering much-needed economic development and employment opportunities.