I don’t write about gentrification, but I read about it often. Most of what I read about gentrification is less lucid than I’d prefer, generally because it is vague, myopic, or needlessly narrative. This has started to bug me, and so I figured I’d try my own hand at writing about the topic.

As far as I can tell, gentrification is not a sui generis problem. Rather, it is just a particular instance of a broader phenomenon that can be summed up as follows:

When (1) a rich person and a poor person (2) vie for (3) the same resources, the rich person gets them and the poor person does not.

The numbers in the above statement demarcate what I take to be the three significant elements of gentrification. Nearly all gentrification analysis focuses on one or more of these three elements. Potential mechanisms for preventing gentrification can be grouped into these three buckets as well.

(1) a rich person and a poor person
Gentrification, understood as the displacement of poorer residents by richer residents, is only possible because of economic stratification. This is true by definition: without stratification, any displacement would not be done against poorer residents by richer residents because there wouldn’t be such things as poorer and richer residents, just residents.

But the point here is more than mere tautology. Gentrification is driven by the fact that richer would-be residents are able to outbid incumbent residents for the housing units. With less or no economic stratification, a concerted effort to displace incumbent residents would fail because those residents would be able to match the bids of the would-be displacers.

Background economic stratification is the initial necessary condition of all gentrification. Naturally, then, one way of preventing gentrification is to reduce economic stratification. Making incumbent residents and would-be displacers more equal in income and wealth makes gentrification harder to pull off. For some reason, this potential solution is rarely mentioned in gentrification discussions.

(2) vie for
Gentrification is only possible when rich people vie for the housing units that incumbent poor people currently control. The vast majority of gentrification articles focus on this element of gentrification. That is, nearly all gentrification articles concern themselves with theorizing why rich people come to vie for housing units that they formerly did not vie for. The reasons that pop out of that analysis are then often called the “causes” of gentrification, which is only sort of true depending on what one means by “cause.”

There are many reasons given for why rich people come to vie for housing units that they formerly did not vie for. Some argue that waves of newcomers to areas — starting with bohemian and hipster types and ending with the vey rich — improve the image of the area to richer and richer people, causing them to vie for the housing units. Some argue that developers buy up land in an area and add private services and amenities that are more attractive to richer people, which causes the richer people to vie for the housing units. Some argue that public authorities provide public services and amenities to an area that are more attractive to richer people, which also then causes rich people to vie for the housing units. Some also argue that the residential preferences of (especially younger) rich people have shifted away from suburbs and towards urban centers, and that this has caused them to vie for urban housing units, which is where many poor people currently reside.

Analytical battles over gentrification seem to primarily focus on which one of the reasons in the above paragraph is the most true. As far as I can tell, they are all true to varying extents depending on which case of gentrification one is talking about.

As this is where most of the gentrification analyses focus, it is also where most of the gentrification solutions focus. Here are some common solutions people explicitly or implicitly offer to prevent richer people from vying for the housing units of poorer incumbents:

  • Reduce an area’s attractiveness to the rich. This means blocking rich-attracting development like Whole Foods stores. It also means blocking rich-attracting public services like good parks and transit options.
  • Educate richer people to not vie for the housing units. This involves telling richer people that it is morally wrong to decide to relocate to certain areas and convincing them to make the individual decision not to do so.
  • Provide advantages to incumbents that make it impossible for richer people to vie for the housing units. This can take the form of imposing rent controls that also force landlords to give incumbent residents the right to renew their lease before the landlord tries to replace them with someone else.

(3) the same resources
Finally, gentrification is only possible because rich people and poor people are vying for the same resources, which is to say the same housing units. Although this obvious observation is closely related to element (2), it gets at a slightly different point that suggests a significantly different solution. The suggested solution is that more housing units be created in the area that rich people are vying to live in so that rich people can vie for those housing units rather than the housing units of the poor. More generally, the point is that increasing the housing supply in an area reduces the extent to which rich people and poor people are bidding against each other for the same exact resources, and thereby cuts down on the displacement of incumbent residents.

Personally, I find this presentation of the issue much easier to get my head around than the kind of thing I usually see. I think it also makes it easier to contemplate ways to prevent gentrification-fueled displacement. I intend to write more on solutions better once I feel more confident in my research on that particular topic.