I do understand that neighborhoods can only gentrify one time. My husband and I bought our first home only four years ago. We were slightly older than the typical age of most first time homebuyers when we decided to start shopping. We delayed our home purchase because we were fortunate to rent a nice, big apartment very affordably on a beautiful tree lined Chicago block. Our Puerto Rican landlord and his family had purchased the three-flat building thirty years prior. When they lived in the property decades before we did, drug dealing and prostitution were visible and gang bangers owned the corner at the other end of the street. When we signed our lease, the neighborhood was only hinting at the possibility of gentrification. Although there was a decent coffeeshop and one popular restaurant in existence when we moved in, the area was not a destination.
Over the next six years, we watched the community change. Latino bodegas and discount retailers were replaced with bookstores and coffee shops. Boutique gyms began to take up vacant storefronts. Holdover greasy diners were priced out by rent increases and replaced with trendier bars. Our landlord never raised our rent. At the same time, comparable units on our block were being priced twice what we were paying. The area around us got nicer and nicer while we continued to pay the same. The nearby discount flea market, known for decades for hosting local vendors with an eclectic array of goods was slated to be torn down. A Target store and luxury residential development were planned to appear in its place. The project now exists, taking up the entire street just one block from my former home. A one bedroom in those new apartments rent for double the price of the charming greystone three bedroom unit (with in-unit full laundry room) where we had lived. Unlike many long time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods, we were not priced out. Ironically, this is because our Latino landlord chose to keep our rent stable; a situation that does not usually happen in reverse. We had the financial option to purchase and we exercised it.
The year we bought our home, I was also the CEO of a small community based credit union. The organization had been chartered to serve a diverse community on the far north side of Chicago. The credit union’s mission was hyper-local, with the intent to provide fair and affordable financial products to low income residents of the neighborhood. The neighborhood I commuted to daily began to gentrify at the same time I moved to get away from that exact process. I witnessed the transformation of a 300+ unit affordable high rise into luxury micro-studio apartments across the street from my workplace. Trendy coffeeshops, bars and restaurants began to occupy space in other locations around the community.
The income levels of the individuals who sought to open deposit accounts at the credit union rose. Many new depositors were White. Progressive values dictated their decision to bank locally. They chose the tiny financial institution because they did not want to support big banks that funded projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. Most were not inordinately wealthy; they were just stable professionals with opportunity like I had in my twenties and early thirties. I wondered how many of them thought about the impact their dollars made on the local residents who had lived in run-down SROs (single room occupancies) almost as long as some of them had been alive. The credit union was eventually absorbed into a larger institution that could provide more products to new residents with more financial options. Although the decision to be acquired involved many complex factors, gentrification and lack of mission fit with the new neighborhood dynamic was a key reason. Four decades after its founding, my organization was gentrified out and into a merger.
I am White. My husband is not. We bought our home in a predominately Latino neighborhood. Our home is bordered on the northeast by the neighborhood we just left, and touches a high poverty neighborhood on the southwest. Our house is nowhere near an el line or train station; paths that Chicago gentrification usually follows. Because of this, we were hopeful urban development would not accompany us again. “You aren’t going to see any gentrification here for at least five years,” our realtor told us, suggesting we should not bank on rising property values. Despite five new homes being built on vacant land a few blocks away, we believed him. Those new constructions were not ridiculously expensive. For the first two years we lived here, we thought he was right because we saw few signs of change. In year three, markers of gentrification and change began to emerge. Now we are at the end of year four, and newly constructed homes are materializing all around the neighborhood. Last month, one of these homes listed for over twice what we paid for our similarly sized property.
What is gentrification?
The definition of gentrification provided by Wikipedia states: “gentrification is a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses. It is a common and controversial topic in politics and in urban planning…It is a complex process involving physical improvement of the housing stock, housing tenure change from renting to owning, price rises and the displacement or replacement of the working-class population by the new middle class.¹” The topic is complicated and nuanced. Like many systemic problems, gentrification is not set in motion by one individual decision. The relocation of one White person or family into a poorer community does not create the conditions for gentrification on its own. Places do change over time organically, and income diversity can help stabilize a financially fragile community. Proponents of gentrification point to improved safety and community amenities as positive outcomes. The process does have an interim stage where the growth and development feels hopeful. Crime decreases, resources improve, and restaurants and coffee shops make the neighborhood feel walkable. But this is merely a warning sign that full fledged gentrification is coming, which rarely accommodates long term residents as it accelerates. If we want to tackle injustices in our country, we need to examine our relationships with community and housing.
I did not anticipate gentrification when I began my career in community development in 1998. Back then, most people I knew thought I was odd to move to the city. I am also an average White person whose choices impact the communities with which I interact. In my opinion, the gentrification of three neighborhoods in my personal sphere in one decade is too many. The fact that it happened says something about current sociological, economic and cultural conditions around housing. Suburban poverty has been rising as cities evolve. Low income residents are moving out of the city to try attain affordability. Necessary social services and funding have lagged the increasing need in collar communities. Not everyone relocating out of urban areas is leaving because of choice, or for a better life. Our decisions around where we choose to live in the city matter.
This series will explore gentrification over the next several weeks.