We all know what gentrification is. But what about the decade-old term “gentefication” that got its start in the Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. The mashup (what young people call portmanteau) refers to Latinos with more money returning to the older neighborhoods their parents couldn’t wait to get away from. Armed with money, they attempt to gentrify from within. “Gente” (hen-tay) is Spanish for “people,” in this case the forward movement of an ethnic neighborhood spurred by investments from within the same culture to preserve rather than strip away.
And while it sounds like a better alternative to white-washing areas (Uptown), it’s not without its own controversy. Newly middle-class entrepreneurs (yes, minorities have hipsters too) are a concern to existing working-class residents who fear being priced out of their communities … regardless of the ethnicity of the renovator. Wealth-based suspicion is a societal hallmark, particularly with gentrification.
It’s also possible that gentefication isn’t a permanent fix, but a midpoint to actual gentrification whereby cultural preservation is ultimately overtaken by the caricature of full-on wealth-washing. Ethnic roots are preserved as a sideshow or selling point to attract new residents clamoring for plasticity and safety. Think New York’s Times Square before Disney moved in.
The Latino Center for Leadership Development and SMU held a policy forum on Gentefication at Fair Park on Jan. 30 to a sold out crowd to discuss these issues. The speakers included Mike Koprowski from Opportunity Dallas and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros who is now a principal with investment bank Siebert, Cisneros, Shank & Company.
Listening to the speakers, I came to realize there are some main components to gentrification – economic, ethnic, and the often unspoken, age. Economic is always the big bad guy, but the other two bring more depth to the conversation. During the discussion, both financial and ethnic displacement were highlighted.
Most gentrification conversations revolve around the financial aspects of poorer people being shuffled out of their neighborhoods because wealthier folks move in. That wealth surge raises property taxes which often triggers owners to move away. For renters, increased taxes and demand combine to price them out as well. That certainly rings true in Texas, where a lack of a state income tax results in higher property taxes. We all know rents are up and that most homeowners have seen our assessed values rise a third in the past few years. But what about owning or renting in a gentrifying area where property values might double or triple?
Cultural Gentrification: A Limited Look Back
Ethnic and cultural ramifications are increasingly brought into the conversation as lower-income areas tend towards minorities. Little Mexico used to be a Latino neighborhood on what today are parts of Uptown and Victory Park. A combination of factors saw the area decline from its 1960s heyday before developers, often aided by the city, scooped up the land.
But it’s important to note that Little Mexico wasn’t always Mexican. In the late 1800s the area was first settled by Polish-Jewish immigrants before attracting Mexicans in the 1910s, fleeing the Mexican Revolution. “Little Mexico” wasn’t coined until 1919.
Near Fair Park, the South Blvd. area was built by prominent Jews before turning black. Its current renaissance is being driven by the black equivalent of gentefication, with no real testament to the Jewish business leaders who founded the area beyond footnoted curiosity.
This cultural identity movement seems concerned only with the more recent culture, looking back no further. Surely if cultural richness and tapestry were the goal, the picture would be more encompassing.
Remembering only so far seems almost gimmicky, the passage of time frozen.
Neighborhood Renewal Is Another Name For Age Gentrification
Age is an unspoken factor in nearly all gentrification discussions. While it doesn’t always cross ethnic boundaries, it is another vector for neighborhood change that sees residents literally moving-on instead of selling up. Pick a neighborhood and watch as children grow and parents age. Some downsize and move away, but all too often, they stay in their “forever home” until forever is no more. New owners are often considerably younger … often the age of the prior owner when they moved in. Youth brings vibrancy, change, and often a fatter bank account to pay for it all.
Gentrification Is Nothing New
And let’s be clear, gentrification is hardly new, but our desire to mark and celebrate the past is … but seemingly only the recent past. I’m not sure if that is good or bad. In the moment it feels good to recall those who came immediately before. But in the larger scheme of things, beyond understanding the ebb and flow of populations, are these spatial and cultural demarcations any more than a curiosity for future generations?
What I can say is that gentrification has never had a cure. This is in part because it’s a natural process. I recently watched a show tracing the ownership of a 175-year-old townhouse in Scotland. What began as a single-family home for the upper classes had bounced up and down through racial changes and the decades until in the 1970s, at its nadir as apartments, it could be purchased for half of what it cost in the 1840s. It’s since been gentrified back to a prominent single-family home.
The “new” aspect of gentrification seems to be a concern for where the displaced go. As Dallas matures and its cone of affordability shrinks, placing value and importance in maintaining a population diverse in income and race is a fresh and welcome change.
The Need For (Less) Speed
I saw the most value with one of the recurring themes of the discussion: speed. Left unchecked, gentrification can occur rapidly as residents are priced out and bought out. Municipalities need to take the lead here (which many do poorly, if at all). Some have frozen property taxes for existing residents in gentrifying areas to minimize the personal financial hardship of gentrification. Others identify areas of gentrification and try to get in front of it with various programs and options for existing residents.
For example, in gentrifying areas, property values increase. A well-designed program could target various loans to spur property owners with newfound equity towards renovating versus abandoning properties to developers. Sure, this assumes payments would be manageable, but with unemployment rates significantly lower, even for minorities (always the last boat to rise), it’s worth a look. And I don’t just mean homeowners, but business owners as well.
This is where the concept of gentefication comes into play to help slow gentrification. A family-owned restaurant in a hot area may afford to renovate their business to capture the monies of new residents and visitors while not abandoning their loyal customer base.
Much the same way a homeowner might qualify for a HELOC to repair their home to remain in the area in the long-term.
There’s another reason to keep original residents in their properties. Appreciation. Many a gentrified area was subjected to redlining, which crippled values for decades when mortgages weren’t written by banks. Keeping residents in their homes and businesses during gentrification can quickly catch them up with equity lost to redlining. Shifting wealth to these owners gives them options. Say a $100,000 home in Southern Dallas doubles or triples due to gentrification. That owner now has a lot more options on where to live than possible without gentrification. The trick is to hold on as long as possible.
Another California study mentioned in the discussion said that for every dollar in Caucasian wealth, minorities essentially had a penny. The shifting of wealth at the heart of gentrification can help address this inequality and offer a positive outcome to gentrification.
At the end of the day, gentrification will happen darn near everywhere at some point (although maybe not in your lifetime). The trick for municipalities is to manage the change to enable those being priced out of the area to enjoy property appreciation, ultimately providing better options for staying or leaving. It’s no surprise that one presenter quoted a California survey showing two-thirds of black and Hispanic respondents have a negative view of gentrification.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email email@example.com.