The Perverse Politics of Gentrification

A young boy walks to school in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C.

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Annie Gowen and Ted Mellnik had an interesting piece in the Washington Post about how the level of tree canopy tracks neighborhood income levels surprisingly well in D.C. But what’s really interesting is this anecdote about a woman who doesn’t want improved tree amenities on her block:

Doris Gudger of Anacostia is among those who see little to like about lots of trees. When city crews showed up one recent day and planted some in front of her rowhouse in Southeast Washington, she wanted them gone.

The pollen would aggravate her allergies, she said. The leaves would be a pain to rake. The shade would draw drug dealers. And, she feared, soon would follow affluent gentrifiers and higher taxes, pushing out older residents like herself.

The points about the allergies are what they are, but the issue about gentrifiers should give us all pause. In supply-constrained regions of the country, we’ve essentially adopted bad public services as a de facto affordable housing policy. People worry that streetscape improvements are going to set off a cycle where more affluent people come in and costs go up. And what’s true of tree boxes could be said of rail transit or upgraded buses or even the real basics like better schools or less crime.

Some of this may reflect a misunderstanding. If Gudger is worried about taxes, then she’s presumably a homeowner worried about an increase in property values that would actually be pretty lucrative for her. But something like 57 percent of D.C. residents are renters, and it’s almost certainly more than that in poorer communities. And those renters are correct to think that improvements in neighborhood-level public services and amenities will in many cases be against their interests. That’s a very unhealthy political dynamic. Disagreement is a natural part of democracy, but disagreement about the desirability of things getting better is a symptom of a larger policy failure. After long decades of urban decline, cities that are once again growing need to think about creating housing abundance not just niche programs for the poorest of the poor. A better city that more people want to live in needs to sound like a good proposition—like it means more jobs and a broader tax base than can support more services—rather than an engine of displacement.