by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)


This is the bane of urban development, right? Old housing stock, built for yesterday’s working class, is spiffed up and priced far out of reach of today’s regular folk. High end shops replace hardware stores, bric-a-brac recyclers and appliance repair centers; a tide of designer coffee flushes out the cheap, refillable kind. Who can afford to live there?

But wait! Those refurbished old houses are beautiful. It’s a pleasure to peruse delicate artisanal fabrics and custom-designed furniture. The food is fresher, healthier and tastier. And what’s the alternative—to put a blanket over everything old and keep out all improvements? Is gentrification even a problem?

It is. It’s wrong if whole neighborhoods are uprooted, unable to afford housing and services available to them for generations, and the dynamism of city life is crippled if only those who have already made it can make their home there.

Regulations that restrict the development of new housing have rightly come under attack. Encouraging infilling and greater density benefits the environment and keeps housing costs down, but that only moderates the impact of gentrification. The luxury apartments that replace old single family houses are still beyond the means of most of us.

My hypothesis is that the basis of gentrification as an urban problem, rather than a type of broad-based development that benefits everyone, is extreme inequality of income. Gentrified neighborhoods are those outfitted for the upper echelon to spend their money on, and prices are geared to what the traffic will bear. The rest of us can’t afford it.

Imagine that income were distributed much more equally in this country. Maybe a few people would be rich, but there wouldn’t be enough of them to fill up whole cities. And the gap between the better and lesser off wouldn’t be so large as to preclude mixed neighborhoods. As overall incomes rose over time, so would the quality of housing, shopping options and services.

If I’m right, the solution to gentrification isn’t a prohibition on investments that upgrade urban life, but serious measures to reduce economic inequality itself. The test is whether countries without the great divide between the rich and the rest are as subject to gentrification as the US.