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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Confronting Gentrification in Anti-poverty Organizing

by Katharine Rankin

Anti-poverty activists and social movements have long grappled with the slippery distinction between economic revitalization and gentrification. Economic revitalization, resulting from investments in a neighborhood by the private and/or public sectors, holds out the possibility of improvements—livelier and safer streets, better amenities, beautiful spaces, feelings of belonging. Gentrification raises the spectre of displacement. Fixing up a neighborhood attracts more and more gentry (highly educated, highly skilled, highly paid middle and elite classes) to move into a neighborhood; increased housing costs, demolition for new construction, changes in the social fabric, threats to critical community networks, all put pressure on people with low incomes and other vulnerabilities to move out. A key challenge for anti-poverty organizing and community economic development is whether and how it is possible to achieve revitalization of disinvested neighborhoods, without displacement of the people who live and work in them.

To grapple with this question, it is important to take seriously the analytical focus on class that is suggested by the term gentrification. Reformulating revitalization as gentrification directs attention to changes in the class composition of a neighborhood and to the perspectives of those who are excluded from or displaced by upscaling processes.

An expansive literature on gentrification furnishes some important analytical tools for probing these dynamics. The notion of ‘displacement pressure’ captures the ways in which social and cultural marginalization may precede actual physical displacement—when a neighborhood ceases to feel welcoming, meaningful or livable, pressure builds on people to move, rather than wait for the inevitable. ‘State-led gentrification’ acknowledges that these processes are not merely the purview of an open, competitive market, but may be produced in large part by state action: when governments invest in transportation improvements, furnish incentives to developers, or help upscale streetscapes, they create enabling conditions for real estate capital to invest in new spaces of consumption targeted to professional-class elites.
Much of the research on gentrification focuses on how the tastes and desires of the middle class shape neighborhood upscaling processes and the formation of neighborhood identity. Or on the demands of real estate capital to reap the benefits of a ‘rent gap’, the difference between rents that a disinvested area can generate now and rents it could generate after redevelopment.
There has been relatively less attention given to the experience of gentrification from the perspective of poor and marginalized groups experiencing displacement pressure and physical displacement. Recent research has begun to identify deterrents to gentrification—such as high levels of working class employment, high concentrations of social housing, rent regulation, non-market sources of housing finance, political mobilization and local resistance; but little effort has been made to actively bring these insights to bear on planning processes in areas that may be ripe for redevelopment.
In an expanding city like Toronto, predictions of extraordinary population growth (20% by the year 2031) create conditions where even the disinvested inner suburbs can anticipate redevelopment pressure. APCOL research on the commercial street in these inner suburban regions where poverty and new immigrant populations are concentrated is investigating how exclusions and displacements can begin in the development planning process itself, as publicly accountable approval processes are sidelined in favor of increased influence by privatized institutional actors like developers and property owners. These processes of ‘gentrifying participation’ can form the front edge of a series of displacement pressures that start to marginalize people in their own neighborhoods.
Researching processes of neighborhood change in disinvested areas of the city that are experiencing redevelopment pressure brings into focus some common myths about gentrification:
Myth 1: Most people stand to gain from gentrification.
Gentrification brings with it many visible benefits, which might include: cultural assets, government and business investment, active street life, new stores and services. The harms are less visible: the loss of affordable and ethnic amenities, a decrease in socioeconomic and ethnocultural diversity, and displacement pressures on low-income residents and businesses. In order to understand the true outcomes of any process of neighborhood change, it is essential to consider both sides of the story: who is helped and who is harmed?
Myth 2: Gentrification leads to a more diverse and mixed neighborhood.
Early stages of gentrification may indeed increase various kinds of ethnocultural and socioeconomic diversity in a neighborhood. But evidence suggests that this diversity is a temporary characteristic of early stages of gentrification, which will pass with time. If allowed to run its course, gentrification has the tendency to decrease social mix, ethnic diversity, and neighborhood accessibility and affordability.
Myth 3: Gentrification results naturally from the competitive market.
It is tempting to regard the neighborhood commercial street as a self-regulating competitive market subject to autonomous economic processes. But, like other spaces in the city, commercial streets are dynamic, complicated networks of politics and culture – created by individuals, institutions and market rules. There is a great deal of variation around the world in how these spaces are formed—in Shanghai commercial streets are a product of direct or indirect state investment; in Amsterdam, the city government deploys ‘street managers’ to coordinate desired retail mix; in Toronto, Business Improvement Areas are afforded some powers to shape commercial streets, but the power is tipped relatively more in favor of real estate capital. If we acknowledge the human decision-making behind the way markets are organized, we may find points of intervention and a new sense of possibility to decide what kind of neighborhood we want to encourage.
Is gentrification of disinvested commercial streets possible without displacement? We are not sure it is, but APCOL research suggests that a first step must surely be to take stock of the views and experiences of small, independently owned businesses that are providing affordable goods and services to the low-income, new-immigrant communities that predominate in Toronto’s inner suburbs. A second step must be to name the risks of displacement and the processes of exclusion in well-intentioned attempts to redevelop marginalized neighborhoods like Mt. Dennis, where we are conducting this research. And a third step must be to creatively imagine how revitalization could be engaged critically—not as a euphemism for the displacement of economically and culturally vulnerable groups—but as an opportunity to improve the livelihoods of all people in a community.
Katherine Rankin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto. She is the academic co-leader of the Weston-Mount Dennis case study on small business and local employment for the APCOL project.
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