Development, Housing Affordability, and Gentrification: Exploring the Issues (Part 1 of 3)

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This is the first in a three –part series that explores gentrification as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the (re)development of a place, and identifies innovative tools that cities are using to address the overlapping issues of mobility and affordability.

A few weeks ago, a blog post announcing the 50 “fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States” went viral. With Washington D.C. holding 3 of the top 25 slots, and my zipcode placing 10th overall, I was flooded with the hyperlink to the original post and several follow- up commentaries from family and friends who know that this issue – and my neighborhood – are close to my heart.

Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC

Having lived in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C. for several years now, I admit to being one of the earlier ‘gentrifiers’ of the neighborhood – one of those mid-twenties professionals who moved in because of cheap rent, proximity to work, and access to transit. Over time, I’ve witnessed the rapid transformation of the U Street corridor into a thriving commercial center and weekend destination spot for all ages. Anecdotally, I know the author’s claim about my neighborhood to be true – the construction of condominiums, the disappearance of vacant houses, and the popping up of small businesses, restaurants and bars are difficult to ignore.  Successful economic development strategies, especially after the construction of the metro line and the convention center devastated many existing small businesses, has meant a very sudden change in the neighborhood’s demographics. And so, while some may argue with the methodology used to produce this list of 50 zipcodes, the article certainly raises several critical implications about the intersections of development and affordability.

Interestingly, a recent Urban Land Institute forum, “Moving Out: How Future Demand Will Impact Housing Opportunity,” discussed a related phenomenon.  Researchers are trying to better understand what particular housing amenities my generation of roughly 85 million ‘unpredictable’ Gen Y-ers (about 4 million more people to account for than the preceding baby boomer generation) will seek in the coming years.  Will it be access to transit, smaller housing units, proximity to work, availability of rental housing, location of retail, or something else that is the driver for location decisions?

The only clear answer is that there isn’t one, and more than likely some combination of all of the above (and more) will affect where and how folks in my generation, specifically those who can afford to be mobile, choose to live.  However, a more pressing issue is to understand the present and future tradeoffs of this fluctuation in housing demand on populations that are typically less mobile—populations that often are inevitably forced to move out of homes they can no longer afford as their neighborhood or surrounding areas become the focus of a city’s redevelopment efforts.  In other words, as neighborhoods are ‘gentrfying’ in cities, or as new businesses create vibrant corridors (such as U Street) and nearby residences become hot commodities, what is the true burden placed on those who can no longer afford to live in their homes? What are the housing costs for long-time residents who either choose to stay in these neighborhoods or are pushed out to the suburbs or to other neighborhoods in the city?  And what can city planners and elected officials do to ensure that both new and long-time residents are able to reap the benefits of a city’s (re)development and subsequent economic growth?

In the next few weeks, stay tuned to hear about tools, strategies, and programs that several cities around the country are utilizing in order to preserve affordable and workforce housing in neighborhoods that are economically benefiting from development strategies such as main streets initiatives and transit- oriented development.  The next post in this series will further examine the challenges in preserving a mix of housing types in rapidly developing neighborhoods and identify tools and mechanisms to address this issue, followed by a final post providing successful city-supported examples of such redevelopment efforts.

Has your city faced similar challenges and/or identified effective strategies to encourage redevelopment while preserving affordability and equity in neighborhoods? If so, please email to share.  Also, follow us on Twitter @SustCitiesInst to hear when we post the next blog!

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