Outside of a university campus setting, there are two conflicting narratives surrounding gentrification and any attempt to address gentrification often devolves into a battle between those who believe one narrative and those who believe the other. As such, it’s important to understand these descriptions of gentrification in order to even begin mitigating its effects.
The first and most common way to understand gentrification is through what I call a quasi-historical lens. According to this theory, gentrification occurs when poor artists must, for financial reasons, move to poorer areas. When groups of these artists congregate, they raise the property values of the area by creating unique local businesses that attract more affluent customers. As the property values get higher and higher, many of the original residents are no longer able to afford to live there and get pushed out so that more affluent people can buy their houses. In this way, gentrification is an unfortunate eventuality in which no one is to blame.
While this narrative sounds logical and convincing, I call it quasi-historical because it leaves out a major issue: race. Race makes no appearance in this telling because it would complicate the simple, easily digestible story. To understand the importance of race in questions of gentrification, remember that the practice of redlining by white bankers made (and, in many places in the US, makes) owning homes much more difficult for black and brown people. Because homes often act as a family’s main financial asset, being barred from accessing that possibility makes it difficult to build familial wealth and often leads to black and brown families being concentrated in certain (read: poorer) neighborhoods. This history adds nuance to the previous narrative in that the story is now that affluent white people forced people of color into these poorer neighborhoods, then, when the white neighborhoods became too crowded, decided that white families deserved the land more.
Of course, banks would never outright confirm this, but a cursory look at their home loan policies make it abundantly clear that they would rather lend to a young, white couple than to an established black or brown family because as long as white people keep coming to and spending money in the area, the property values will inflate and so will the bank’s asset values.
The second narrative, one I can the “social” lens, is a bit different. For example, it puts less emphasis on how gentrification occurs in order to focus more on who it impacts. It states that gentrification is simply another way for affluent white people to disadvantage and exploit black and brown labor. Specifically, white people wait until people of color have already worked to make a neighborhood safer and more interesting by working with the city council or creating community initiatives, and then once (white) artists have deemed it worth living in, they move in and force out the original residents.
The most glaring difference between this narrative and the former is the object of blame: in the first narrative, gentrification is tragic but unstoppable while in the second one it is very clearly the affluent white people who shamelessly profit off of black and brown labor who are to blame. This distinction is important in that it gives people who work to end or reduce gentrification somewhere to start.
When the gentrifier is a university, the facts become even more muddied. After all, if a university wants to accept more students or house more on campus, what can they do other than move into their surrounding areas? While that question is fair enough, it misses the point. To explore this topic, the quasi-historical lens is not very useful, as instead of individual artists being (allegedly) forced to live somewhere, it’s an institution with no such constraints. Essentially, universities choose to gentrify which makes them culpable for the effects.
First, a quick overview of the facts: many affluent universities, such as the University of Chicago, Yale University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California (endowment funds of $7B, $25B, $9B, and $4.6B respectively), exist in or near poorer areas. Despite their physical locations, these universities chronically underserve students from the bottom fifth of the population (5.5%, 2.1%, 5.1% and 4.9% percent of students from the bottom 20% of the income distribution respectively). This unwillingness to give back to the community in the most fundamental way is troubling, as it suggests that the universities feel that poorer black and brown people are fine at running businesses that cater to students (laundromats, eateries, bars - any place where the owner would be dependent on the affluent students), but aren’t good enough to be students themselves.
One major point of contention in the university-as-gentrifier debate is the issue of housing and building use. On the one hand, universities should, theoretically at least, be encouraged to bring in more students and further their educational goals. On the other hand, the further universities spread into their respective areas, the less land is available to the original presidents. What both of these perspectives are missing is the fact that they aren’t mutually exclusive: universities can (at least in theory) spread without harming the surrounding communities. Specifically, they could follow some of these guidelines:
- Expand as little as possible, especially for dorm purposes.
- When expanding, find and then help fund a community project at the same time as the expansion.
- Create free programs that utilize the student body to help the community, such as having mandatory community service days per quarter (waivable if, for example, the student has too many other commitments such as a job or a sick relative).
- Deputize the policy institute (most schools have one) by creating a fellowship specifically for research that would help stem the tide of gentrification.
- Get creative: these universities purport to have some of the brightest minds in the nation, and creating policies and practices to fight gentrification is a perfect place for them to prove it.
These guidelines are not the be-all, end-all of reducing the effects of gentrification, nor should they be. They’re a start and, hopefully, a foundation for a long campaign against a force that many see as unstoppable.