Well, there's a huge gentrification debate on SSP Here and I just wrote an equally huge reply to it. I'd like to have get the throbbing brain of cyburbia's input it on it, so I decided to crosspost it here. I know gentrification has come up in some capacity numerous times here, but it's an important enough force to come out and tackle head-on, I think.
At any rate, here's my post:
Wow. So much to respond to. I've studied these issues a good deal, so let me take a crack at them:
Slum lording and developers -- Ok, slum lords and developers are completely different people. Slum lords make money by collecting rent while putting nothing back into the building, getting write-offs for assets they underpaid for in the first place, and getting paid back when the city condemns their building. I know no instance of a developer buying property and letting it deteriorate in the hopes of pulling prices down around it so they can buy them too and redevelop them into high priced housing. There's little incentive anyway, there's so many already deteriorated neighborhoods they can buy in.
Changing neighborhoods -- This happens all the time, and will continue to happen. Recall that Pilsen used to be a polish neighborhood. I have a friend who lives in Little Village who is incensed that his Mexican neighborhoods refuse to acknowledge the neighborhood's history --- in fact they actively work to eliminate all traces of its pre-mexican history and insist that it has always been mexican. My neighborhood, Uptown, used to be Hollywood (before Hollywood in LA existed). It was the trendiest neighborhood in Chicago. Now it's full of homeless people, but that's changing. I'd like to see it become very mixed-income just with all of the vacant lots full of nice buildings and better retail, but not as yuppie as Lincoln Park and Lakeview, but I don't know. I may be wishing for the impossible.
Destruction of the "Character" of neighborhoods -- Yeah, I suppose this happens to a certain extent, but I've also heard of reports that show neighborhood staples (both retail and people who run them) tend to stay in the neighborhoods, as the benefits of more wealthy customers tend to offset the higher rents.
Housing Projects and Hope IV -- Housing projects are a complete failure and need to be torn down. They're the last bad idea to survive from the 60s and 70s, and only survived as long as they did because getting rid of them is so painful. Hope IV (what the CHA is doing) has generally been a success in redeveloping old projects sites. It is not the solution of housing for the homeless though. They only do as well as they do, though, because there's such a rigid selection process for subsidized tenants. Most of the people living in the projects would not qualify to live in a Hope IV project, but they have to go somewhere, usually to Section 8s in other poor neighborhoods or suburbs. So Hope IV does get a lot of people out of poverty and cleans up projects sites, it is a good thing, but it's not a magic bullet for the problem of housing the poor.
Affordable Housing -- Affordable housing is very important, and cities, especially Chicago (although it's doing better than most) need to get more aggressive with it. It's not about housing the poor though, it's about housing median income people, the middle class, in cities where they might otherwise be pushed out. It's focused on cops and school teachers. It's important because we don't want to end up like San Francisco where those people have to live in distant suburbs. The city's current affordable housing laws should be strengthened as most developers can get out of their affordable housing requirements by paying into a city fund.
Gays -- I know a lot of gay people and they seem (I'm trying not to stereotype too much here) to be pretty well paid. Also, gay couples are almost always DINKS. I doubt people who make the same amount but have a few expensive kids in toe and have to work limited hours to take care of them are in much position to push them anywhere. :P I also think things are a little more complicated than "gays move in, etc etc." I know a couple (straight) who both work at Rush hospital (in residency). They had the choice to live on the east (trendy) side, or the west (shady) side of the hospital. They chose the west side because it was so much cheaper and they knew that neighborhood would turn up soon anyway, so they might as well get in on the ground floor.
Displacement of poor -- I, too, subscribe to the theory that nobody has a God given right to the neighborhoods they're in, for reasons stated above. Neighborhoods are too fluid. The fact that American poor tend to live in inner-city well placed neighborhoods with good transit is an American anomaly. Practically nowhere else in the world is that so. Quite frankly, it was getting to a point where that didn't matter anyway. Downtowns were declining because all of their middle-class workers were so far away anyway, so all of that transit going downtown wasn't going to do the poor a whole lot of good. Look at CTA ridership between 1960 and 1996. See a trend? Re-investment in the central city means that the middle class will live nearer to work, and will live less car-dependent lifestyles. That means we will consume fewer resources which is, in itself, a laudable goal. Sure, that doesn't help the poor any, but urban decay and the plight of the poor are two almost completely different issues that must be handled separately.
Care of the poor -- Thorny issue. I don't think that gentrification is going to make their plight much worse, but it's not going to improve it much ether. One danger is that if they all get forced out into suburbs (as they are in most of the world) the tiny and homogeneous suburbs will be unable to care for them even as well as the decayed central city could. That's been noted in south suburban Chicago as well as many other cities. The conditions in the suburbs are worse than the cities. Clearly the way to combat that is a new focus on regionalism. The central city (except in extreme cases like San Francisco and Boston where the central city is tiny) will always be more heterogenous and more open to the idea to caring for the poor of the region than current rich suburbs with the drawbridge mentality, so the political environment will be ripe for regionalism, but it would still take a lot of activism.
Where to go from here -- I think gentrifaction is a good thing, on the whole, and should be encouraged, on the whole. Affordable housing development should be aggressively pursued in gentrifying neighborhoods to avoid the "San Francisco problem" for the middle class, of course. Zoning should be tailored to allow the maximum healthy density, especially around transit, to allow as many people as possible into those neighborhoods. This current obsession with down-zoning in Chicago is close-minded and counter-productive and needs to end. That's what needs to be done, I believe to ensure that we have good, livable and diverse city neighborhoods in the post-gentrification era.
Like I said above, poverty is a separate issue from urban decay and needs to be delt with separately. One particular problem in this country is that we don't even have a good policy about the poor. Everything is stopgap. You're not going to make their lives great, that's why they're poor. Too many social services and you raise problems with entitlement, too few and you end up with what we have now, but too few breeds the awful social ills we currently have. I think that every member of American society, for the good of society as a whole, deserves to have a roof over their head, a healthy amount food, health care, a chance to better themselves through education, and to live in a neighborhood with adequate city services and not unreasonable amounts of crime.
Schools shouldn't be funded by local taxes, that creates private schools for people who can live in really rich districts and screws over poor people in poor neighborhoods. Instead, schools should be the responsibility of the state. That's the best way to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake. We need a single-payer health care system. We're the only country that pretends to be a first world nation without one. It's the only way to control costs and ensure that even the neediest portions of society get the health care they need. Food stamp and WIC programs seem to work fairly well now. They should be continued, of course. The city services issue can only be solved with the aforementioned regionalism. Regional funding for fire and police protection, regional funding for roads and sewers, and transit and everything else a neighborhood needs. The crime issue is a tough one, concentrated poverty always breeds crime, that's unavoidable. Obviously attempts should be made to avoid concentration, but to a certain extent it is unavoidable. I think the only thing that can be done is to make sure poor neighborhoods have comprehensive police coverage and leave it at that.
Just my 2¢.