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What can we learn from Newark?: Public Policy and Anti-Gentrification Efforts

October 25, 2017

Just last month, the City of Newark, New Jersey voted against a housing law that aimed to curb gentrification in the city. The law sought to “mandate 20 percent of large residential projects to be set aside for low and moderate income residents.” [1] The law did not pass, but it was an attempt nonetheless by the city’s legislators to try and find a balance between, “development and affordability.” [1]

By Mona Hagmagid

SAS Class of 2020

Wharton PPI Intern 2017

Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Although Newark is only one city and the proposed law was only one potential solution presented to help address the growing issue of gentrification, it is an excellent example of conversations that are happening all across the country. Such conversations cut across fields such as urban studies and africana studies, public policy and economics, engaging different people, both residents of gentrifying neighborhoods and policy makers and shapers themselves. 

Growing up in Northern Virginia, I have watched the city of Washington D.C. change and shift significantly over the past decade. Neighborhoods like Shaw and Howard have seen shifts in the demographics moving in and have been witnessing rising rates of eviction of poorer tenants. Richer people are moving into what used to be seen as poorer neighborhoods, previously struggling with crime and other social difficulties, those of which are now brimming over with expensive cafes and bakeries. [3] The money of the rich brings better resources to communities, such as libraries, grocery stores stocking fresh produce, and community programming. Neighborhoods become safer, schools produce higher performing students, and more businesses move into old spaces. But at what cost?

From an economics standpoint, the numbers look good for many gentrified neighborhoods. The average household income is higher, and the overall economic health of the neighborhood has improved. In DC alone, the average neighborhood shift in average income level witnessed only a 17% increase, but in special neighborhoods more prone to gentrification, average income increased by 147% and 138% from 1999-2010. However, in many cases there is a very racial, and very real cost to that change: the residents of those neighborhood, generally predominantly African-American and low income, sometimes can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods where they once resided. [4] In a sense, gentrification does not make a poor neighborhood rich. Instead, it moves the poorer neighborhood into other poorer neighborhoods and replaces it with a wealthier one. The populations who were poor and underserved at the beginning of the gentrification process tend to still be poor decades later, just moved into another space or neighborhood. 

Some might say, that gentrification is simply an effect of capitalism at work, and that the benefits that gentrification brings (lower crime rates and better access to health and educational resources) can positively impact all residents who can afford them, regardless of race or ethnicity. However, in communities across America, urban spaces included race and poverty are closely tied together for a number of historical and political reasons. Additionally, in the case of Washington D.C., the numbers show a clear decrease in the population of African Americans in neighborhoods over the past decade. [2] However, other studies argue that black low income families are not more likely to move out of their homes in a gentrified neighborhood as compared to a non-gentrified one. But the reality still insists however, that even if that is the case, when low income residents move out of their neighborhoods, they are often not moving to higher income areas but lower ones, further crippled by crime, drug trade, poor schools, and other issues.

Public policy serves many purposes, but a key one is to develop policy that protects and advocates for the betterment of the public. In a sense it can be viewed as an attempted system to protect American citizens and residents from the possible downfalls or harms from political, economic, and social phenomena. Urban residents, particularly poorer, older, black and Hispanic residents, deserve to feel as protected and benefited by policy as the richer and often whiter residents that move into the same neighborhoods.

Rowhouse in Newark.Rowhouse in Newark.

It is also critical to look at gentrification seriously because of how it furthers cycles of poverty. Policy aimed at preserving income diversity in neighborhoods benefits all residents. Just as stated previously, many of the benefits of gentrification are not just benefits but things that former residents have been wanting, demanding, and working towards for decades in some cases: more jobs, better schools, safer streets, more access to healthy foods, etc. All of those resources can help people rise out of poverty especially access to better education, which helps to make the city a healthier place for families of multiple backgrounds. Diversity is important not just to minorities and disaffected populations, but it can and should be important to the majority of the population as well. In any cases those moving into gentrified neighborhoods are younger, single, white residents who make more money and have few dependents Gentrification not only changes the racial landscape and economic landscape of a neighborhood but also changes the age of the neighborhood, not just in terms of historic buildings (some of which are torn down or renovated) but in terms of the population’s age. [2] Having communities that are more diverse in age brings stability to a neighborhood’s older residents who are now less likely to move out, switch careers, etc. Families tend to have children who are sent to schools and in turn can offer students a more diverse set of students to go to school with, collaborate with, and communicate with as well. Additionally, community is important in gauging the health of a neighborhood as well: the feeling of creating a home with cultural spirit and story. Neighborhoods and homes are not just commodities but places where people live. They are special, personal, and hold deep emotional, familial, and historical ties. If maintaining that vibrancy is important to people living in those communities, then policy should respond to that need for residents.

But this discussion begs the question, what is there that public policy can do to both bring economic development to underdeveloped neighborhoods and ensuring that those benefits are made accessible to a diverse and wide community of residents?

Newark, New Jersey is a case example of a city that attempted to pass legislation that could better regulate the housing market and opportunities for Newark residents. However, anti-gentrification laws could also focus on addressing the businesses moving into neighborhoods to decrease the cost of living, allowing more residents to afford to stay in their homes. Or, on the other hand, policy could go a different route and instead of regulating the economy, it can work harder to make sure that basic resources that any community needs to flourish, libraries, good schools etc., are being provided to neighborhoods across the board regardless of average income. Community programming and offering opportunities for dialogue and intergenerational conversation allows for neighborhoods to be able to create their own solutions and means to help those who live within them to feel as though their needs are being met.

Some might say that my vision is idealistic, that I have not accounted enough for the hard and fast facts about economic development, poverty, and corporate greed . Of course there will be no complete solution for gentrification as cities shift and change all the time. That is the nature of human settlement and as the economy shifts and changes so do the ways in which, and the places where, people live. However, I do believe public policy can aid in making sure that more than just wealthier, younger, and single urban residents can share the benefits of anti-gentrification policy, and that the costs will not continue to disproportionately affect African American and poorer residents.

Newark’s law might not have passed and it arguably might not have been what was best for the city, but it is clear that the pressure is mounting for lawmakers to begin to investigate real and significant solutions, both short term and long term, to address America’s changing cities, and the people who are being left behind.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References:

  [1] Yi , Karen. “Newark Law Intended to Curb Gentrification Fails.” NJ.com, NJ.com, 12 July 2017, www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2017/07/affordable_housing_law_fails_in_newark_on_annivers.html

  [2] Kate Rabinowitz, “DC Gentrification by the Numbers,” DataLensDC, September 14, 2015, , accessed August 06, 2017, https://www.datalensdc.com/gentrification-by-numbers.html

  [3] Gringlas, Sam. “Old Confronts New In A Gentrifying D.C. Neighborhood.” NPR. January 16, 2017. Accessed August 07, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/01/16/505606317/d-c-s-gentrifying-neighborhoods-a-careful-mix-of-newcomers-and-old-timers.

  [4] Billingham, Chase M. “THE BROADENING CONCEPTION OF GENTRIFICATION: RECENT DEVELOPMENTS AND AVENUES FOR FUTURE INQUIRY IN THE SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY OF URBAN CHANGE.” Michigan Sociological Review, vol. 29, 1 Oct. 2015, pp. 75–102. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/43630965?ref=search-gateway:61a2caead9798afb282819cf09997fbf.

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RESOURCE SPOTLIGHT:

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