To kick off my web site, I’ll talk about my MPA capstone project. The subject was gentrification. The client was the City and County of Denver. I studied the north Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.
More details are in my paper, including references.
Also, please look at my Gentrification Presentation.
I used GIS software, and U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. I based my methods on a study by Lisa Bates of gentrification in Portland, OR. It was titled “Gentrification and Displacement Study: implementing an equitable inclusive development strategy in the context of gentrification”.
What is gentrification?
Lisa Bates defined gentrification as “the rise in property values, and the change in demographic and economic conditions in neighborhoods, when those changes are part of a shift from lower-income to higher-income households. These changes often are accompanied with changes in racial and ethnic makeup of a neighborhood’s residents and businesses.”
Start with an underprivileged neighborhood. The people may be minorities, or they may be poor, or they may not have as much education as others. Housing there is cheap. Then, something happens that makes developers want to build there. Affluent people see something that makes them want to live there. Developers snap up properties, and market rates climb. Landlords raise rents, because, well, they can. The neighborhood’s people are at risk of displacement. They may be forced to move because they can’t afford the rent or living expenses.
Gentrification, in some ways, is good, because a poor neighborhood transforms, and is no longer poor. However, when residents don’t share in the new wealth, they don’t go away. They move to other places, with bad schools, concentrated poverty, high crime, and few jobs. For local governments, that is a serious problem. The taxpayers will have to foot the bill for social services, law enforcement, and so on.
Developers usually do not want to help underprivileged residents. The gentrified neighborhood will look and feel nicer because of the new development. However, if lifting up the neighborhood doesn’t lift up the residents, the chronic problems of poverty will be pushed somewhere else.
I would rather see revitalization than gentrification. Revitalizing a community provides people with improvements to their incomes and quality of life. They don’t get pushed out as they would with gentrification.
The Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea
Globeville and Elyria Swansea are on the north side of Denver. Globeville is located at the intersection of I-25 and I-70, while Elyria-Swansea is directly east of Globeville, and also split by I-70.
Globeville and Elyria-Swansea were founded in the 19th century as towns for immigrant workers. The City and County of Denver then annexed them. Globeville was named after the Globe Smelter (later Asarco), where its residents worked. Eastern European immigrants were the first residents. Saint Joseph’s Polish Catholic Church still displays its original Polish language signs.
Today, the people of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are mostly Latino. They have less education and higher levels of poverty than other Denverites. The streets are poorly connected, because they’re split by the highways. Pollution plagues these neighborhoods. Most of it is ozone from the highways, but some comes from industrial operations: a pet food factory, power plant, oil refinery, and an asphalt roofing plant. The area was contaminated with toxins from the former Asarco Smelting site, a Superfund site. Asarco Smelting used to process lead, cadmium and other toxic materials. Cleanup efforts removed most of the toxic soil, but residents still worry.
These neighborhoods are “food deserts”, with no grocery stores. Residents feel unsafe walking these neighborhoods, even though crime is down. They also don’t get enough exercise, because the street lighting is inadequate, and many roads don’t have good sidewalks. They have to dodge truck and train traffic from the nearby industrial sites.
These two neighborhoods are ripe for gentrification. The reason is public developments stimulate economic growth. The National Western Center, home of the National Western Stock Show, will get a renovation that will replace most of its buildings, including the Colosseum. It will rehabilitate the South Platte River’s waterfront into recreational space.
RTD, Denver’s transit authority, is building commuter rail in the area. They will build four new stations in the neighborhoods. They will connect them with downtown Denver, Denver International Airport, and Boulder.
Finally, I-70 will be rebuilt. Today, it has an old 1960’s viaduct. The expansion will move the highway into a forty foot deep trench. It will get a four acre cover, with a park, near Swansea Elementary School.
How I did my gentrification study
Using Lisa Bates’s methods, I created a three part measurement. The first part measures vulnerability to gentrification. The second measures demographic changes consistent with gentrification. The last part measures property values and appreciation. Most of the data came from the US Census, and American Community Survey. Some data was gathered from HUD’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy data set.
The vulnerability measurement used ethnicity statistics (people of Latino origin), education, percentage of renters, and median income. Both neighborhoods are highly vulnerable to gentrification and displacement.
The demographic change metric measured changes in demographic measurements between 2000 and 2012. It uses a measure of white people, rather than Latino people, and measures people with bachelor’s degrees, rather than without. It also measures home ownership rates and incomes. It shows when affluent people move into a neighborhood. Neither of the two neighborhoods had much of this demographic change as of 2012.
The property value measurement used average property values of Denver neighborhoods in 1990, 2000, and 2012. The measurements were compared to Denver’s median rates. Neighborhoods with high appreciation rates may be gentrifying. Globeville and Elyria-Swansea did not have unusually high appreciation rates or property values. However, adjacent neighborhoods, including Five Points, did. This is a warning sign.
Results and caveats
The data shows that Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are highly vulnerable to gentrification. However, the data does not have evidence of gentrification-related demographic change or high appreciation.
Does that mean that Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are not gentrifying?
The GIS community has a concept called “ground truth”. When I do GIS work, I run software, make pretty maps, and get results. Then, I check my work, by going where I’m studying. I want to see if the results match reality.
Developers are already in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. They’re buying homes and building new apartments. Working class families are being forced to pack up and leave. Their landlords raised their rents or sold to developers. The ground truth does not match the results. Gentrification is already happening.
What happened? First, the data is three years old. It was the most recent data available, but not recent enough. My data shows Globeville and Elyria-Swansea in 2012. However, I found evidence that gentrification could take place in a few months. A lot can happen in three years.
Second, Bates’s method cannot account for public projects. Globeville and Elyria-Swansea have a bunch of these projects. RTD is building commuter rail. The National Western Center is being renovated. I-70 is being expanded. Public investments are linked to gentrification. People like living near light rail stations.
Research has a danger. The data doesn’t always say what I want. Instead, it told me what happened three years ago. It had blind spots. Ground truth tells another story.
What can cities do about gentrification? The most common answer, unfortunately, is nothing. Doing nothing is easy, and it seems cheap. There are problems with doing nothing. First, dealing with underprivileged people in this way is cruel. Second, the problem doesn’t go away when poor people are displaced. They go to areas with bad schools, no jobs, high crime, and concentrated poverty. The taxpayers will get the bill.
What are better solutions? Denver has taken steps, but not enough. One is to make developers build affordable housing. This is helpful, but developers won’t do this without a fight. Developers are powerful. They want to keep “undesirable” people out of areas where they invest. But affordable housing must be mixed with affluent developments to create opportunities for underprivileged people. It benefits the rich and poor alike.
Good zoning can slow displacement. It can give residents breathing room to adapt as their neighborhood revitalizes. Zoning can keep developers from buying and bulldozing large swaths of neighborhoods. It can also protect existing housing, small businesses, and minority communities. Zoning should protect historic landmarks and existing small businesses, to preserve the community’s character. But developers don’t like being told where they can and can’t build.
People must demand affordable housing and better zoning from their local governments. These solutions only happen when residents, activists, developers, governments, and other stakeholders get together, and work out solutions. This is how neighborhoods revitalize without displacing vulnerable residents. Too often, city planning excludes groups that need a voice. Often, planning processes don’t happen at all. People need to be loud and demand to be heard. The developers will…
Finally, the entire community needs a shared vision. Without a vision, developers steer growth in their direction. There lies gentrification and displacement. When the people come together and decide what they want their neighborhoods to look like, they get a community where they can thrive.
The science says neighborhoods can be revitalized, without displacement. However, that won’t happen if people don’t demand it. Positive growth requires work.