Thursday, May 07, 2009

Modeling Displacement via Gentrification

Ok, so the last time I blogged about this was two years ago, but I still think it's interesting and I still have the same questions. I think I've found a better way to illustrate what I mean. I've drawn up some drawings.

I'm going to run through a series of scenarios that could possibly describe what is happening in a gentrifying neighborhood. I don't know which (if any) of them describe what is happening in Over-The-Rhine. I don't know which (if any) of them describe what is happening anywhere. I am not an urban planner. I just want a more concrete way to look at a social justice issue.

Also, here I'm just talking about the issue of displacement, which seems to be one of the biggest stated downsides of gentrification. I'm not talking about other cultural effects on a neighborhood, or other kinds of problems that might occur. I'm just talking about how many people can fit in a neighborhood and who moves out when other people move in.

So, I've outlined two basic situations here. The numbers are completely made up. I don't know what the real numbers are in any neighborhood. I am actually skeptical that anyone knows the real numbers in these situations, and that is part of the point I'm making with this blog post. The numbers I've used here are just to illustrate some of the range of things that could in theory be happening.

We start with a square that represents an urban neighborhood. I've made this one 10 by 10 pixels so that the "capacity" of the neighborhood is 100. That makes it so everything works out as a percent. I recognize that a neighborhood isn't a fixed box and that it doesn't have a fixed capacity. And I understand that the quality of housing varies. Those details are not in this abstract model I'm building here.

In situation A, we suppose that there are 37 people living in the 100 person box. The current residents of the neighborhood are the blue squares. It is 37% occupied.

Now, let's say 16 people want to move into the neighborhood. These are the gentrifying urban-pioneers or whatever you want to call them. The question I am exploring is what happens to the people that already live in the neighborhood when the new people arrive?

Let's say most of the new people move into places that were already empty and 5 of them move into places where other people used to live. And let's say that those 5 previous residents all stay in the neighborhood. I think it would look like this:

Or what if all 5 of those previous residents just move out of the neighborhood? It would look like this:

What if the new people make all the rents go up, or make the neighborhood otherwise repellent or unlivable for the previous residents and a whole bunch of people move out. That would be something we would want to avoid. It might look like this:

The blue number to the right is the number of people that move out due to displacement caused by the gentrification. Assuming that this displacement is a social injustice, then that number is bad. We would rather keep that number small or zero.

Let's look at another situation - again with made up numbers. Let's say that there are 73 people living in the neighborhood. It is 73% occupied.

Now let's say 32 people want to move in. Again, there seem to be several ways this can work out, but right off the bat it should be obvious that not everyone is going to fit, because the neighborhood can only hold 100 people. This is an abstract neighborhood - it has a fixed capacity.

Let's say that everyone that can possibly fit tries to stay in the neighborhood. The smallest number of people that would have to move out is 5. The neighborhood is 100% full:

That doesn't seem the most likely though. Let's say like before that the people who leave their current places just move out of the neighborhood, but everyone else already there stays. Maybe 25 people move out. The neighborhood is 80% full:

What if we make it so that the number of original residents left in the neighborhood is exactly equal to the number of new residents? 41 people move out - over half of the original population. The neighborhood is 64% full:

Or maybe the neighborhood is so different now that most of the former residents move away, even leaving their own former homes empty. The neighborhood is only 54% full. That might look like this:

Remember, the blue number is bad. So, this last scenario is the worst of all.

My real frustration is that I don't know which of the above scenarios is actually happening in OTR. Which do you think is happening? Which does 3CDC think is happening? Which does OTRCH think is happening? Studies have been done in other cities that make actual, factual surveys of neighborhoods where gentrification is happening. Detailed block-by-block surveys and multi-decade record keeping would be necessary to make maps like the ones I made above reflective of the facts on the ground.

The decisions that are being made about OTR development rely in part on a narrative of what is happening in OTR - and everyone has a different way of reading the story. It seems to me that this is due in part to the fact that no maps like the ones I made above can be made accurately. Correct me if I'm wrong.

From the OTRCH website:
"In 1950 approximately 30,000 people resided there, with whites constituting 99 percent of that population. Recent data show about 7,600 total neighborhood residents, 80 percent of which are black. Of the current residents, 95 percent live below the official poverty level of $13,000 annually for a family of four. Of Over-the-Rhine's 7,500 apartment units, 3,000 are below housing code standards and approximately 300 buildings stand vacant."

7,600 / 30,000 = 25.3% That's even less dense than I modeled in my first scenario above. In theory a large district like OTR has room for plenty more people before residents start overflowing, but who knows.

I think the thing most people would want to see is something similar to the second graphic above. The neighborhood is mostly empty -> some people move in -> some other people may have to move, but everyone who was there stays within the neighborhood - no one moves out. The neighborhood is fuller and more diverse.