By John Ramspott
Situation: As a life-long resident of metro Atlanta, I am concerned about the effects of gentrification in the city of Atlanta. Many neighborhoods have been gentrified, meaning that the amount of affordable housing is decreasing, and many people are being displaced from their homes. One of these people includes my aunt, who was unable to renew the lease on her apartment due to her rent being raised dramatically. I assume my audience will be somewhat familiar with gentrification itself. With this speech, I hope to inform my Writing and Rhetoric class on the issue and convince them that gentrification should be stopped.
Good afternoon, my fellow classmates! I have only had the pleasure of being in your section for a little under half a semester, but in this short time, I greatly enjoyed getting to know all of you Posse Scholars in an academic setting. It is crazy to think that our first semester of college has already passed us by and that we are only five months away from becoming sophomores. It seems like just yesterday that I was meeting some of you during Welcome Weekend or the Feed Your Faith event on South Quad. I assume by this point all of you have settled into your dorms to some degree. You have made friends with people on your floor or in your section, have had a couple of conversations with your rector or RAs, established a routine with your roommate, and perhaps have even attended a mass or two. We can agree that our dorms provide us with some form of community, regardless of whether you choose to attend every hall event or use your dorm only as a place to sleep. We were placed in these dorms by random, but strangely develop this innate allegiance and sense of community that would be hard to compromise. However, imagine if our residential system did not work this way. Imagine a system where you had to select your dorm based on what you could afford. At first, there is a wide price range of dorms, ranging from the high-end Flaherty and Baumer Halls to the old but inexpensive Cavanaugh and Fisher Halls. Over time, however, the school starts to renovate all of the inexpensive dorms and hike up their prices, therefore leaving no affordable options for students of lower incomes. These students are now forced to move off-campus and seek affordable housing elsewhere. Although this scenario is very unrealistic, it depicts a very real phenomenon called gentrification, which is something that has come to affect me and my family. Recently, my aunt was unable to renew the lease on her apartment due to surging rent costs from new housing developments in the Atlanta area. Because of this, she decided to move in with my family for the time being. Before my aunt's situation, I never really understood what gentrification was and how it affected the people that were being displaced. Since my specific neighborhood was not affected, I kept an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Many of you may feel the same way, but it is important to be informed on the issue, as your city may be up next and your household could change in an instant. Gentrification is a very multifaceted topic, so, unfortunately, I will not be able to discuss all the issues related to it. Nevertheless, I hope to leave you with a better understanding of what gentrification is and why you should agree that it should cease.
A Brief Definition and Context
Before going into why gentrification should stop, I would like to first define what gentrification is and give some context as to how big of a problem it is. Gentrification is a very connotative word but can generally be defined as the process of renovating a run-down district, usually paired with an influx of more affluent residents. It normally brings an increase in property values, more investments in businesses and infrastructure, and more economic opportunity overall (Grant). Unfortunately, these benefits are enjoyed mainly by the new residents. Long-time residents with lower incomes and small businesses are often unable to afford the increasing rents and taxes associated with the gentrification (Valoy). Because of this, these residents and businesses are displaced and face numerous challenges. In the United States, gentrification has rapidly accelerated over the past few decades. In the 1990s, only 9 percent of low-income neighborhoods were gentrified, compared to 20 percent since the 2000s. Around 464,000 people with low incomes have had to leave gentrifying neighborhoods in our nation's largest cities (Thatch). Gentrification mainly affects big cities such as Washington D.C., New York City, Atlanta and even your very own, New Orleans. Looking into my city specifically, Atlanta has been on the rise for gentrification issues, as it has the fifth-highest rate of gentrification in the country. Since 2000, the average rent has increased by 28 percent. Also, according to a 2018 report by the real estate marketplace HotPads, the rent in Atlanta is rising three times faster than the national average (Lartey). These statistics show that gentrification is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed with great concern.
Economic Impacts of Gentrification
As gentrification is a means of economic improvement, it has many associated economic impacts. Looking at the surface, gentrification brings new housing developments, new boutiques and eateries, higher wages, and more job opportunities. Both sides can agree on this. However, there is debate over who is actually enjoying these benefits. According to the organization POV who released the critically acclaimed documentary, Flag Wars, about gentrification, some previous residents may acquire jobs in construction or the service sector, but most of the benefits are being enjoyed predominantly by the new residents (Grant). Due to rising rents, mortgages, property taxes, and decreased job security, many residents can no longer afford their housing and have to leave their communities. This also means they can no longer contribute to the local economy. In some cases, it is not rare to see landlords "bully" their lower income renters into moving out of apartments by either refusing to renew their leases or failing to maintain their apartments (Valoy). In addition, many local businesses have to close due to rising rents and lost clientele. You, like me, would probably think that the influx of wealthy residents would bring much profit to the existing businesses. However, new residents are not shopping at these older, small businesses, but at the new larger corporations or upscale developments that they feel more "comfortable" with (Valoy). In the capitalistic society that we live in, it is easy to be socially irresponsible and make decisions that are only concerned with how much of a profit can be turned. It is also easy to be selfish and narrow-minded when you are more privileged and have amassed much wealth for yourself. This sentiment was expressed profoundly by the journalist Sarah Kendzior, who states, "Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics." However, as students at the University of Notre Dame who are here to be educated in the mind and heart, it is important that we recognize the consequences of our actions and how they impact others in the short and long term. Therefore, we must consider if the positive economic impacts of gentrification are worth it if they are at the expense of people who have to be uprooted from their households and livelihoods.
Health Impacts of Gentrification
Along with the disparity in economic benefit, gentrification results in negative health consequences for the displaced. After having to leave their homes, many of the displaced struggle to provide for themselves or their families, often facing obstacles like food insecurity. In many cases, people face substantial periods of hunger or have to rely on a cheap diet that lacks proper nourishment (Whittle 154). They may also have to face poorer living conditions, which results in higher exposure to harmful substances like lead paint and mold in their residences. Along with malnourishment, the displaced are reported to have higher rates of infant mortality, higher incidences of cancer, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, and a shorter life expectancy ("Health"). It is also reported that children displaced from gentrified areas have a higher rate of anxiety and depression. Specifically, children displaced from gentrified areas have a 22 percent higher rate of anxiety and depression than children who were not displaced (Dragan 1431). This is most likely due to the heavy stress of household instability. If hearing these statistics makes you feel heartbroken, imagine being diagnosed with one of these illnesses. These are diagnoses that can be prevented, through the termination of gentrification.
Societal Impacts of Gentrification
Along with having adverse health impacts, gentrification disproportionately affects people of color. Many of the low-income neighborhoods are also heavily populated by minorities. This is largely due to the lingering effects of racial discrimination and injustice in this country. One profound example of this is the redlining policy of the mid-20th century. This policy, created by the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, made it impossible for black people to receive loans for homeownership by marking or "redlining" predominantly black neighborhoods as "hazardous" to loan to (Lockwood). It caused black neighborhoods to be highly underdeveloped and made it harder for blacks to gain wealth over time. This is shown by a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which stated, "3 out of 4 neighborhoods that were on redlined government maps 80 years ago continue to struggle economically" (Jan). Although much progress has been made with equality and inclusion, minorities are still suffering from the aftermath of harmful policies of the past, and gentrification isn't exactly helping them succeed. It would, in fact, set them even further back in society. As most of us here are people of color, I am sure we would not want our people to be relegated to an even lower level in society.
Also, when minorities are pushed out of their communities due to gentrification, the communities become less diverse, which is very unfavorable in our current society. Diversity has a host of benefits in both the general community and in the workplace. For example, diverse schools help children gain a better understanding of the world, teaching values like acceptance and empathy from a young age. Similarly, diverse workplaces foster creativity and productivity, which in turn leads to higher profits and greater overall success for the companies (O'Boyle). Therefore, it would be in the community's best interest to not gentrify to allow the community to reap the great benefits of diversity.
In addition to looking at what a wealth of diversity can bring, it is also important to examine what a lack of diversity can bring. A lack of diversity in a community creates homogeneity that could allow intolerant and close-minded attitudes to fester and pervade throughout. These kinds of attitudes are why minorities are seen as criminals, and why they are often wrongfully arrested, beaten, or killed at much higher rates than their white counterparts. When gentrification occurs, there is a definite increase in this criminalization. There is a theory that this is because the new wealthier residents, mainly whites, often view activity that was previously considered normal as "suspicious" and therefore are more likely to get the police involved or take action themselves (Fayyad). An extreme example of this theory lies in a popular event that many of you may be familiar with—the death of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, who was suspicious of an unarmed Martin for simply just walking around the neighborhood where his father lived. Looking deeper into this Floridian community, called The Retreat at Twin Lakes, I found that it was predominantly white and had "very few black teens" (Fears et. al). I also found that Zimmerman, who lived in the community for 3 years at the time of the shooting, had not treated other black people in the community kindly and had falsely accused some of them of crimes like theft (Fears et al.). This example demonstrates how communities with a lack of diversity can lead to more criminalization of minorities. If the Retreat at Twin Lakes had more diversity, it is likely that there would be more friendly interaction between the different racial groups, and that minorities would not be seen as criminals but fellow members of the community. Furthermore, if communities didn't face gentrification, minority residents of the community would not have to face unfounded criminalization based on the color of their skin.
Proponents of gentrification may argue that gentrification does not largely displace long-time residents from their communities. However, statistics from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition show that between 2000 and 2013, over 135,000 residents were displaced from their homes in 230 gentrifying cities across the United States (Wiltse-Ahmad). Some may also argue that gentrification does diversify communities, in both the racial and socioeconomic sense. While I acknowledge that this can happen in certain areas, in many areas, the people driven out are minorities. In fact, 82 percent of people being displaced are African American (Wiltse-Ahmad). If minorities are being driven out and wealthy white people are moving in, is there really diversification happening?
Call to Action
After hearing all of these details, I hope you all are thinking deeply about how gentrification has or could affect your community. It is not something that is easy to process, as it is a very multifaceted topic. There are several factors in each of your lives that could influence you to advocate for or against it. However, what I hope you take away from my speech is that gentrification is very real and there are people's lives at play. It is important that we as Notre Dame students, and more importantly, as humans, act with empathy for others. As the founder of our university Reverend Edward Sorin so powerfully stated, "This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country" ("About"). This mission is similar to the one of the Posse Foundation, which promotes leadership and becoming an "active agent of change" (Cripps). I urge you all to look into your communities to see how gentrification could be severely harming people in your community. Ask yourselves, are all the shiny new developments worth it if they are at the expense of people's livelihoods, health, and safety? If you become passionate about protecting the well-being of people at risk of displacement in your community or another's, I highly suggest writing to your local representatives about the issue. Thank you all for listening to my speech and I hope you have a wonderful holiday break!