The Other Side of Gentrification: Health Effects of Displacement

Gentrification continues to be a hot topic in our quest to create livable cities. While much of the discussion focuses on homogenization, racial tensions, and property values, commonly overlooked are the health effects of dramatic neighborhood change, such as gentrification. What is happening to those who are being pushed out or marginalized within their original community? How does all of this change affect their health?

As forgotten neighborhoods are swarmed with new investment, many of the existing residents are pushed to the periphery of the city. The reasons for this are many; rising rents, property taxes and displacement of services that are relevant to their needs and budget. While this new investment may be positive for some, the benefits are all too often disproportionately enjoyed by those with more economic, social and political power. This leaves many burdens to those who are often marginalized in our society and may be more vulnerable to price swings in the local economy. The pros and cons of gentrification have been widely debated and discussed in the news, as we’ve seen recently with much discussion of how the trend of young hipsters are affecting cities and suburbs.

But what about the health effects on those who are displaced? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlight the health effects of gentrification. Built environment and social conditions in places where people live and interact with others have significant impacts on health and well-being. When neighborhoods change rapidly, pushing existing residents to the margins, disparities in health often widen. This becomes evident in health outcomes such as cancer rates, incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, as these marginalized residents are often priced out of neighborhoods with healthy housing, healthy food and healthy urban environments. In their new neighborhoods on the margins they are more likely to experience food deserts, less walkable streets, further distances to drive, and industrial pollutants near housing.

What may be one of the more profound causes of some of these disparities is what Mindy Fullilove, M.D. (2004) calls “social loss.” Long-time neighborhood residents commonly develop deep social ties and strong social support networks within the community. When the neighborhood and social connections therein are broken up, this “social loss” creates excess stress and psychological effects, which in turn have effects on physical systems that we rely on for resilience against disease and chronic conditions. Cultural institutions, culturally relevant businesses and a general feeling of having a place in the city to call home provide many social and health benefits beyond the face value that we often find in the gentrification debate.

What can we do about it? At times the wheels of gentrification seem to be moving too fast to enact any meaningful change. However, the CDC has some recommended action steps for communities, planners and public health professionals to prevent some of these adverse effects:

  1. Create affordable housing for all incomes
    • Develop mixed-income communities
    • Adopt inclusionary zoning policies
    • Identify incentives (e.g., tax breaks and credits) for planners, developers, and local governments to control displacement
  2. Approve policies to ensure continued affordability of housing units and the ability of residents to remain in their homes
    • Consider code enforcement policies that assist residents with home improvements
    • Consider implementing rent controls
    • Preserve federally subsidized housing programs
    • Consider location-efficient mortgages that provide competitive rates and low down payments to those who want to live in “location-efficient communities” that are convenient to resources and reduce the need to drive
  3. Increase individuals’ assets to reduce dependence on subsidized housing
    • Consider homeownership programs
    • Explore job creation strategies and programs
  4. Ensure that new housing-related investments benefit current residents
    • Review development proposals to determine whether the changes could cause displacement
  5. Involve the community
    • Allow the community to provide input into the design and redevelopment of their neighborhoods
    • Educate the community on their available options
    • Create organized bodies and partnerships that develop programs to mitigate gentrification

The last item on this list is probably the most important. Involving communities early on, as the signs of gentrification are first beginning to show, is a very crucial piece of the puzzle. Affected communities should feel empowered to prevent displacement and to have a say in how their neighborhood will change. Stabilizing the community economically through a variety of the methods mentioned here is an important step, as well as thinking outside of the box to incorporate alternative forms of home ownership or community ownership to preserve the institutions that are key to social well-being.

For more on gentrification and preventing adverse consequences, see: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/healthtopics/gentrification.htm

 

Fullilove, M. T. (2004). Root Shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it. New York: One World Books.