The Big Question: To Gentrify or Not To Gentrify?

This is the inaugural piece from the first contributor to The Suburban City, Shona. Shona is a web content editor, former cancer researcher, and outdoor enthusiast. Shona grew up in the Atlanta area and after recently returning from a five year stint in New York City, she has become fascinated by the growth and change Atlanta has experienced and by the current crop of urban renewal projects. She is excited to share more of her observations and experiences in this blog.


 

The other day, I met a friend at San Francisco coffee in Poncey-Highland.  My friend, who was visiting from the real San Francisco after a 5 year stint of living in Atlanta, gave me a brief greeting and then immediately expressed dismay at the hulking frame of 675 N. Highland being erected across the street – a soon-to-be goliath of mixed use development along North Highland Ave.

675 N. Highland render
Artist’s rendering of 675 N. Highland, courtesy of Curbed Atlanta

In the relatively short time since my return to Atlanta, I have seen many similar sentiments lobbed toward the rapid growth and redevelopment of in-town Atlanta and its neighborhoods.  Concerns range from “outsiders” flooding in to rob the neighborhoods of character and grit, to the frustrations wrought by the growing pains of a car-centric city gaining it’s walking legs (multiple negative Yelp reviews of the newly opened Ponce City Market bemoan its lack of free parking), to the social justice implications of potential mass displacement of low income residents (fears which might actually be overstated).

New York Apartment
What $1350 a month gets you in Queens, NY

As someone who has seen both sides of the gentrification coin, I have a bit of an understanding of the conflicting viewpoints. When I lived in New York City, the epicenter for rising rents and displacement, I once resided in a fantastic pre-war apartment in my beloved Queens neighborhood in the late aught’s, moving less than two years later to a smaller, more decrepit, and yet somehow more expensive apartment a few blocks away. Though it was substandard, it was all that was available to me once my neighborhood became more “desirable” and thus, less affordable. At the time, I quietly resented this influx of “newcomers” (who had the gall to arrive in the neighborhood a mere five years after I did), and the change they brought with them. 

However, when I moved to Atlanta last year, I fell in love with the top floor apartment in a historic house, situated walking distance from such attractions as Piedmont Park, the Beltline, and the new and polished Ponce City Market, among others. I gave little attention to how this quaint apartment on a tree lined block was also located just minutes from older apartments, low-income neighborhoods, a homeless shelter, and longtime (and sometimes struggling) Atlanta institutions. At the time, I didn’t give a thought to how my presence, and my willingness to shell out for the increasing rent, would impact the surrounding area and its residents.

Shonas block
Upgrade: My Current Street in Atlanta

I realized that it’s easy to only take one’s own needs into consideration when moving, renovating, building, and developing, but that there can be a real, human cost to this way of thinking. As I thought more about this issue, I began to wonder how urban development can ride the current wave of increasing economic capital and re-investment while remaining thoughtful and compassionate to issues of economic equality.

A young professional might see himself as an “urban pioneer,” whereas his neighbor might accuse him of “Columbus-ing” the neighborhood.

Once a neighborhood gentrifies and home values increase, long-time homeowners may experience the sticker shock of a larger property tax bill. Renters are particularly vulnerable to rent increases brought about by gentrification and new, more upwardly mobile residents; bound by the terms of the lease, renters are at the whims of landlords, who, without rent stabilization laws in place, can raise rents as market prices dictate, often leaving long-time residents without affordable housing options in the neighborhoods they have called home for years. My own situation in my Queens neighborhood was downright mild compared to what families residing in rentals may experience – the need to switch schools, downgrade to a less suitable space, or move away from beloved family members. The displacement, along with the changing character of neighborhoods, typically leads to resentment and tension between new and old residents…an enterprising young professional might see himself as an “urban pioneer,” whereas his neighbor might accuse him of “Columbus-ing” the neighborhood.

Edgewood-Krog before

Atlanta Gentrification: Edgewood Ave. at Krog St. in 2007 and in 2015 (featuring the construction of the luxury Alexan on Krog).

Edgewood-Krog after

On the other hand, gentrification has benefits that, if managed with some foresight and compassion, could be enjoyed by new and old residents alike. The positive changes could be a force for eliminating many roadblocks to economic upward mobility – ex: increased density leading to higher tax revenue, which could be applied to better public transit, better schools, higher quality housing stock, and decreased reliance on backdoor revenue collection (i.e. citations) that disproportionately affects low income residents. Neighborhoods could also experience a reduction in crime, not just because of increased funding for law enforcement, but because of pedestrian friendly zones that increase resident visibility. These changes can help break the poverty cycle, but only if residents aren’t displaced or disadvantaged by rising home prices, rents, and a non-inclusive atmosphere in the process.

95% of new housing in Atlanta built between 2012 and 2014 were luxury units, while the city simultaneously lost 5,000 affordable units

So that leads to the million dollar question: what can be done to ensure the benefits of gentrification are equitable, while at the same time letting free market principles do their thing? Atlanta’s burgeoning tech scene is poised to attract even more intellectual and entrepreneurial capital to the city, and as a generation of professionals with less interest in commuting from the suburbs rush to fill quirky in town neighborhoods, the issue of gentrification is not likely to disappear any time soon. Developers are seeing dollar signs at every vacant lot and blighted building, and properties in neighborhoods that abut the wildly popular Beltline are dramatically increasing in price.

755 North render
Artist’s rendering of 675 N. Highland, courtesy of Curbed Atlanta

The effects of Beltline gentrification have already been firmly established in the Old Fourth Ward, so what lies on the horizon when the Beltline development gets fully underway on the West Side? The soon-to-come boom could help some of the city’s most disadvantaged and economically blighted neighborhoods receive an infusion of funds to increase quality of life. Or, vulnerable residents could suffer due to the development of new endeavors such as the Bellwood Quarry park project. Affordable housing policies such as rent stabilization, income caps, and restraints on property tax increases would be a good start to encourage smart and equitable development.  Support for grassroots projects such as 787 Windsor in Mechanicsville, which utilizes creative re-development to improve quality of life for existing residents, could be an alternative means of preventing displacement by encouraging neighborhood empowerment.

787 Windsor
Development without Displacement at 787 Windsor

The issue of density is also one that is bound to be contentious. One way to increase the tax base without replacing low income residents with higher income ones is to increase population density – aka the dreaded high-rise condo complexes. The resulting change to the cityscape does and will receive its fair share of bellyaching from those decrying the loss of city character – enter my dismayed friend at San Francisco Coffee. Atlanta seems to retain a more small-town feel in some neighborhoods than do the outer suburbs of the Metro area. Can new condo buildings like 675 N. Highland, or the proposed 360,000 square foot overhaul of the Beltline Kroger happily co-exist with the existing charm?  Beyond mere aesthetics, will this trend toward luxury (95% of new housing in Atlanta built between 2012 and 2014 were luxury units, while the city simultaneously lost 5,000 affordable units) crush affordability in a city that by some projections, is predicted to add one million additional residents?

A city that once bore the nickname “The City Too Busy to Hate” as a tribute to inclusivity and industry, is now saddled with the unfortunate distinction of having the worst income inequality in the country. As income inequality is inextricably tied to economic and social justice, Atlanta has its work cut out if it wants to retain the diverse makeup of its residents.

 

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