Monday, June 23, 2014

Join a conversation about gentrification on June 30th.

Many advocates of affordable housing, neighborhood activist and advocates of the poor have a knee-jerk reaction opposed to what is called "gentrification."  Gentrification is a shift in the population of an urban area and an increase in property values. Upper middle class and wealthy people move into the urban core and poor people move out. Certainly gentrification does lead to fewer "affordable" homes. Small home such as many of those modest homes that remain in neighborhoods like Woodbine and Madison get torn down and replaced by much bigger homes. A $75,000 home may go off the market and be replaced by a $375,000 home. The older better quality homes get purchased and restored to their former glory and triple in value.  In the neighborhood in which I live, many homes have been gutted to the wall studs and completely rebuilt except for the shell.  In some cases beneath a shell of aluminum siding is original quality wood siding and Victorian features.

What happens to the working poor and the welfare class who were living in these homes?  They move to Antioch or other suburban areas in many cases. In the car-dependent suburbs it is more difficult to serve the poor than in a dense urban environment.  The concern of displacing low income people is a legitimate concern and the shrinking of housing stock that is affordable is a legitimate concern. A city needs housing in a variety of price points so that the working poor as well as younger middle class and people like firemen, and policemen, and teachers can live in the community where they work.

In addition to policy concerns about affordable housing and concern for the poor, there is often a resentment of homeowners who live in a modest neighborhood who sees homes in the neighborhood torn down and replaced with much larger new homes that are out of character of the neighborhood. While that is understandable, in some cases so many of the old homes have been torn down and replaced that now the out of character homes are the remaining two-bedroom, nine hundred square foot houses with aluminum siding or the modest 1200 square foot brick ranch style homes.  I do not think that neighborhoods should be allowed to stop transition of a neighborhood to a neighborhood of larger and better homes.

Gentrification  has its positive points.  From purely aesthetics and historic preservation, gentrification restores and protects the housing stock and makes for a prettier community. Also many of the homes being replaced which were hurriedly thrown up in the decade after World War II never were quality homes and they are being replaced with better housings. Gentrification also slows urban sprawl.  If people who want to buy a $500,000 home can't get it in Nashville, then they likely will move into adjacent counties. and commute to Nashville. Also having more people with more disposable income means more business opportunity and more coffee shops, and restaurants, and neighborhood pubs, and all kinds of businesses and a more vibrant community. This creates new jobs and opportunities for people to escape poverty. Probably the most important positive aspect of gentrification is the impact on the tax base.  A larger city almost always has higher cost of government than a smaller city and there is always more demand for public services as a city grows. To meet the needs of the city and demands of the citizens for services requires more revenue.  If the tax base grows revenue comes from growth, if not then it comes from tax increases. A $375,000 home can bring in five times the property tax revenue of a $75,000 home, and also all of the new business they sprout up to serve a population with disposable income, pay taxes that was not paid before.

While I support good zoning and land use planning, I think we should be cautious when we let planning replace markets in guiding development. If planning is used to prohibit what the market would determine is most advantageous, then development may not occur at all and decline may occur. While we plan, we should always be mindful of protecting the property rights of others. Also, it is wise to be mindful that what is though of as good planning today, may be realized to have been a terrible mistake in the future. Much of our strict separation of uses, urban sprawl and commercial corridors with vacant buildings and inadequate development was the result of planning that had unintended consequences. Gentrification and the related issue of maintaining an economically diverse community and a stock of affordable housing can be a complex issue with both positive and negative aspects. If you are concerned about the future of Nashville, I urge you to join the conversation June 30th.

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