Gentrification By The Numbers

Background Reading


© Angela Anderson-Cobb

© Angela Anderson-Cobb

Cities Are No Longer For The Poor

From the article on the actual cost of living in Detroit:

When my sister left Detroit and moved to Portland, she would call me sometimes when she tired of people’s escape-to-Detroit fantasies. “I hear,” she would say, deadpan, “that you can buy a house in Detroit for a thousand dollars.”

“That’s amazing!” I would squeal into the phone. “A thousand dollars? Imagine how easy life would be for me there!

“Yes,” she would say, “Athousand dollars.”

I was reminded of this when The Economist, of all places, laid out the financial reality of living in Detroit. Yes, the city is “one of the only cities in the rich world where it is possible for someone on a fairly modest income to buy a street,” the reporter wrote. However, “even for relatively well-off yuppies who are gradually gentrifying some parts of the city, cheap housing is only barely compensation for other costs.

For those of us who are not relatively well-off yuppies, living in Detroit is even harder. Sure, you can buy a house in Detroit for $1,000. Hell, you can buy a house for $500. It will not come with plumbing, electrical wiring, a furnace, or a roof. For those luxuries you have to pay more like $30,000. And you will have to pay that in cash, because getting a loan to buy a house in Detroit is not easy.

This is why a lot of people rent – as my sister did. For most of the time she lived in Detroit, her rent was about $200. But there were all kinds of extra costs built into it.

Here’s what else she had to pay for:

  • A car, because Detroit is bigger than Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan all put together, and because most jobs, including hers, were in the suburbs.
  • Detroit taxes, which were higher than the taxes in the suburbs.
  • Gas for the car, because Detroit is bigger than Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan all put together.
  • Fixing the car, especially the windows, which tend to get smashed.
  • Paying for parking tickets, since the city was so desperate for revenue that it would ticket you whether you were illegally parked or not.
  • Heating bills, which could be catastrophic, especially if a group house acquired a roommate who, say, left a space heater on all the time.

Around the same time that my sister was living in Detroit — 2002 — I moved to San Francisco. And I was surprised to realize that, while my rent was about three times what she was paying, our costs of living weren’t that different. I didn’t have to have a car. Because the minimum wage was higher in San Francisco, and there were more jobs to go around, I made more money — but somehow my taxes were still lower than they had been in Michigan. For the first time in my life, I could afford health insurance. College was so cheap compared to Michigan that I often wished that I’d had the sense and the nerve to move to California right out of high school.

For now, at least, the not-so-unaffordable San Francisco that I moved to has vanished. But the traits it once had — that combination of a dense, walkable urban area; a rental market that adept bargain-hunters could still penetrate; and access to tolerable public transit — live on in other cities. In the same way that baby boomers and Gen Xers adapted to declining incomes by becoming two-income households by default, millennials took the harshness of trying to get by on low wages and student loan payments and turned it into a faintly glamorous, DIY lifestyle of bicycles and Mason jars full of bean salads. But how long can that last? Once young people are priced out of the old industrial cities that are the last bastions of affordability — the Providences and Philadephias — what’s next?

My sister and I were not unusual in leaving Michigan. The state still loses about 40 percent of its college graduates every year — most of them to Chicago, the bizarro-world copy of Detroit that made many of the same mistakes but never tore out its public transit system. This summer, when I visited Detroit, Woodward Avenue was torn up for the first stages of a partial rebuild of the streetcar line that once ran up and down Woodward Avenue. The project was boosted — and partially subsidized — by Dan Gilbert, a dot-com billionaire with significant investments in real estate downtown.

This may be the future of Detroit: a redevelopment that will play out like the building of pre-interstate, early 20th-century Los Angeles, where transit projects were driven — and often subsidized by — developers who thought transit would boost real-estate values.

All of which is not to say that right now, in its current state, Detroit is a bad place to live. It’s great in many ways. It’s surprisingly bikeable. (One person explained this to me as a combination of Detroit drivers being very alert to the presence of any strange objects in the road ahead, and having more empathy than the average driver for a person without a car, since 26 percent of Detroiters don’t have one.) Housing is cheap. The music scene is second to none. I have met enough people living in two rooms of a mansion they bought at auction for a few thousand dollars, farming the vacant lots next door and across the street, using a composting toilet because someone stole the plumbing out of their house for scrap, to know that for the right person — gregarious, good at making friends with neighbors, financially secure enough to handle the curveballs that Detroit can throw you — the city is its own kind of paradise. It’s just not the bargain-basement utopia that dreamers in other cities imagine.

The Path To Homelessness for the Poor Is Gentrification

Despite slapping pretty conceptual names like ‘equity‘ on the duplication of infrastructure for cycling in poorer neighborhoods the result is still ‘gentrification‘. The article on the cities displaying the fastest gentrification are listed below. Keep in mind that the names you recognize are generally those with the most recent increases in ‘bike lanes‘. In a word the onset of ‘bike lanes‘ is sometimes a harbinger that:

  • your neighborhood schools are about to be closed
  • your church parking is no longer allowed ‘out front‘ because it is now converted to a ‘bike lane
Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

If you are a cyclist you probably see no problem with this approach. But imagine if the city decided to tear down brewpubs and install basketball courts instead. Suppose that you local swimming pools were removed in favor of men’s barber shops. In short imagine that you were being asked to adjust to a future reality at the expense of the one you currently enjoy. And to make it more egregious you had little say in the matter:

If you’re an urban dweller, you’ve likely decried the death of a beloved neighborhood dive bar or given the side-eye to a rash of condos while muttering about gentrification. But is your neighborhood really experiencing the g-word?

Probably not, according to recent studies, which find that gentrification is actually relatively rare in U.S. cities. Nonetheless, gentrification has serious implications for communities that bear the brunt of rising rents and community displacement.

So what cities are getting it the worst? A new report from Governing magazine takes a deep dive into the topic. The editors there looked for neighborhoods where, in 2000, median household incomes and home values were in the bottom 40th percentile of the city. The neighborhoods that have now been gentrified, they concluded, are the ones where home values and number of college-educated residents have increased at a rate that’s in the top third percentile of the city.

OK, now that’s been completely cleared up, where’s the gentrifying going on? Here’s a list of the worst offenders:

1. Portland, Ore. (53.1 percent of eligible neighborhoods gentrified)

2. Washington, D.C.  (51.9 percent)

3. Minneapolis, Minn. (50.6 percent)

4. Seattle, Wa.  (50 percent)

5. Atlanta, Ga. (46.2 percent)

6. Virginia Beach, Va. (42.1 percent)

7. Denver, Colo. (39.7 percent)

8. Austin, Texas (30 percent)

9. Sacramento, Calif. (29.8 percent)

10. New York, N.Y. (29.3 percent)

Governing has some great interactive maps. If you live in a major city, look for your neighborhood and let us know if Governing got your community right.


Groups like Slow Roll Detroit and its Chicago counterpart are proof that inner city residents in poorer neighborhoods do own bikes and do ride. But the ‘elites’ by themselves represent less than 1% of the total transportation landscape.

The number of people-of-color who regularly use bicycles as their primary form of transportation (at least here in Chicago) is a great deal less than those living in more affluent neighborhoods.

Just to demonstrate how lopsided the participation is all you have to do is look at the membership of groups like Slow Roll versus those specifically organized for the purpose of either ‘getting drunk‘ or ‘sampling craft beers‘: