Denver, Featured, Politics, Urban Renewal

Carroll: Gentrification not to blame for Denver’s urban woes

When in doubt, blame gentrification.

That seems to be the reflex among some who hunt for the source of urban problems that are difficult to explain. The latest example: linking gentrification to a rise in violent crime.

This was the case made by an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University in The Denver Post’s analysis of the rise in homicides and assaults in Denver in the past five years.

“Denver is seeing growth and with growth you see other factors that are unintended consequences,” Professor Andrea Borrego said. “Numbers are up but we need to think about how Denver is changing.”

Gentrification can create tension, she told the Post, which can lead to — you know — violence.

Actually, gentrification is more likely to reduce crime than boost it, although the evidence nationally is mixed.

“Separating cause from effect is notoriously difficult when it comes to gentrification and neighborhood amenities, including public safety,” noted three MIT professors in a 2017 paper. Their own study flatly concluded, however, that “gentrification lowered Cambridge, MA crime in aggregate.”

Gentrification — the process by which chronically depressed or blighted neighborhoods are transformed into thriving communities attracting new investment and residents — has such a bad reputation these days that no politician would be caught dead singing its praises. Social justice critics complain that gentrification forces out lower-income residents and squeezes existing businesses with higher rents. The stigma is so potent that when a coffee shop in Five Points praised gentrification in 2017, its very survival appeared at stake in the nasty backlash.

The actual reality of gentrification is complex, but the positives clearly seem to outweigh the negatives. Indeed, a research paper published last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia titled “The Effects of Gentrification on the Well-Being and Opportunity of Original Resident Adults and Children” found that overall, “gentrification creates some important benefits for original resident adults and children and few observable harms.”

True, “gentrification modestly increases out-migration, though movers are not made observably worse off and neighborhood change is driven primarily by changes to in-migration. At the same time, many original resident adults stay and benefit from declining poverty exposure and rising house values.”

As the authors point out, there is a large literature showing “that exposure to higher-income neighborhoods has important benefits for low-income residents, such as . . . increasing the long-term educational attainment and earnings of children.”

Denver was among 100 cities included in this study and ranked fifth among the “most gentrifying central cities” during the 2000-2014 period examined (the top four: Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle and Atlanta).

Nor was this paper by any means the first to report such findings. An early such study, appearing in 2005 in Urban Affairs Review, found “displacement and higher mobility play minor if any roles as forces of change in gentrifying neighborhoods.” That’s in part because chronically poor neighborhoods often have significant mobility rates already, at least among renters.

To be sure, as gentrification occurs those moving into a neighborhood often have higher incomes than those who used to move there. But it’s not usually a matter of simply pushing existing residents out.

There are exceptions, naturally, and they make good fodder for critics. But in recent years the bigger problem for low-income residents facing rent hikes in gentrifying neighborhoods — which I suspect these studies underestimate — is that rents have been rising everywhere else in these cities, too, as housing construction lags job growth. Nor is that likely to change so long as opponents of density and opponents of suburban expansion (which they derisively call sprawl) continue to stifle new housing.

Politicians who know better than to praise gentrification haven’t abandoned the goal of revitalizing economically lagging areas. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman pledged during his campaign last year to work toward “a revitalized Colfax Avenue that is a safe place to live, has a reputation for its restaurants and entertainment, and attracts both artistic and entrepreneurial talent.” Don’t tell anyone, but that sounds like a recipe for gentrification. But fear not: Aurora will do it “in a way that is considerate to its existing small business owners and residents.”

Denver is also pushing plans to upgrade its side of the East Colfax corridor, having designated an urban renewal district last year between Monaco and Yosemite. And it too is exploring ways to cushion current businesses and residents from impending development. Ideas include property tax relief and additional incentives for affordable housing.

Candi CdeBaca, the most vociferous critic of gentrification on the Denver council and one of only two members who voted against the Colfax urban renewal district, has said that “gentrification is neither natural nor inevitable.” But the ebb and flow of city neighborhoods is indeed a natural phenomenon, often occurring without any government prodding.

That’s why we should try to understand it without resorting to sweeping cliches, or straining to blame it for every conceivable urban ill.

Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared.

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