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Life After College: How Individual Housing Choices Affect Communities

Life after college is full of decisions: What neighborhood should I live in? How much can I afford to pay for rent? What will groceries cost me this week? Questions like these fill the days and minds of twenty-somethings everywhere. Everyone who wants to move to New York City hopes to find the perfect spacious apartment for $800 a month near an express train to Manhattan. The story is the same in Boston and many other urban centers across the country, with few affordable apartments near mass transit in established neighborhoods. For the individual, affordability and convenience are practical. But when multiplied across thousands of young urban implants searching for housing in ethnic, low-income neighborhoods, these logistical individual choices create the massively harmful urban phenomena of gentrification, and the subsequent displacement of low-income communities.

Here in Somerville, one of the best examples of gentrification lies in Davis Square. It may be hard to believe, but in the 70s, Davis Square was a blue-collar, working-class community with few restaurants and none of the commercial life apparent today. The essence of the neighborhood changed in the 80s when the state expanded the Red Line. This state investment sparked the revitalization of the neighborhood. People wanted to live near mass transit, so demand increased for housing and prices rose. The influx of people to the area generated a demand for commercial activity, which created the mix of restaurants, bars, and frozen yogurt chains that form Davis Square today.

On the surface, the recent history of Davis Square is one of community revitalization and economic growth. But there is another perspective to this story: Who benefits from gentrification and who is hurt by neighborhood change? In order to answer these questions, the process of gentrification must be understood. On one level, it is a process whereby communities experience new investment and increased economic activity as a result of an influx of relatively wealthier residents to a neighborhood. The economic growth this wealth brings is why gentrification and revitalization often appear to go hand in hand. This process is also linked to economic and cultural change because this new wealth is not created within the community, but brought from outside of it. This shift in where money and spending originates alters the commercial and residential landscape of a neighborhood. Of note, gentrification disproportionately affects both low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The issues of race and class are linked for many reasons—disparate wealth accumulation despite equal rights legislation, unequal educational opportunities, and widely varying employment prospects to name a few—but within this narrative the focus will remain on displacement for economic reasons.

Displacement is an integral component of gentrification and drives its subsequent demographic shifts. When a neighborhood becomes more desirable to outsiders—whether for  cheap housing, mass transit access, or some combination of the two—more people want to live there. The increased demand for housing causes rental prices for apartments and businesses to rise. Since the demand does not come from residents already living in the community, but from those outside of it, this price rise is often disconnected from the local labor market; people hoping to move into the neighborhood have more wealth available to purchase housing than those who already live there. Put together, these factors result in the displacement of low-income residents in these neighborhoods, leading to gentrification. Even if they are not forced out immediately as a result of increased housing prices, throughout the course of the turnover of housing stock (the year to year choices people make about where to live), they will choose to move because the rent has simply become too damn high.

When faced with the pressures of gentrification and displacement, it is clear how the decisions made by middle-class individuals impact the poor. Even if the goal behind these choices is to live in a diverse neighborhood, “middle-class people often do drive the poor out of neighborhoods.” Given this reality, does an ethical housing choice exist for the middle class? In short, no. Individual actions cannot be disconnected from societal change; the intent of affluent gentrifying forces does not matter. Each time a person of a higher income moves into a lower-income neighborhood in search of affordable living, there is an effect. Their demand for different goods and services than those that currently exist in the neighborhood creates change. This is the reason that a new coffee shop just opened on Boston Avenue with $4 slices of homemade bread. This is the reason Whole Foods replaced local family-owned supermarket chain Johnny’s Foodmaster in several Boston suburbs. Low-income residents are priced out of neighborhoods they have lived in for decades just as these changes turn it into a “nice” neighborhood. This displacement results in benefit to the gentrifiers, even as their actions negatively affect those who cannot afford access.

Because the societal forces of gentrification overwhelm individual choice, middle-class individuals cannot make an ethical choice in regards to housing—individual satisfaction or moral right will be compromised. Socio-economic structures ensure that a middle-class person can attempt to: 1) maximize their personal satisfaction by attaining affordable housing, contributing to gentrification and displacement, or 2) maximize their morality by removing themself from the gentrification trap and not buying affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods. Although they are stark, these choices exist on a spectrum, and it is one every student of privilege will face upon graduating.

On one end of the spectrum is the classic image of a gentrifier: someone who acquires affordable housing in a relatively low-income neighborhood, shops at Whole Foods, and spends all of the money he or she saves through having obtained affordable housing outside of the neighborhood in which they live. The other end of the spectrum is represented by someone who gives up the privilege of seeking housing in a low-income neighborhood and simply accepts paying more for housing as a cost of not existing within structures that create gentrification and displacement. The former happens frequently, while the latter hardly ever occurs. In between these extremes lies a large swath of gray, for instance someone who chooses to take advantage of affordable housing but attempts to shop locally to support the existing neighborhood they move into. Yet this same person could spend their nights and weekends in other neighborhoods in search of “hip” bars to go to and bands to see. These actions overall would still lead to gentrification because there are dollars lost that could have been spent in the community.

The process of gentrification is the result of compounding many individual actions. Every choice about where to live, how much rent to pay, and where to go grocery shopping has an effect on neighborhood change. Students of privilege entering a dynamic urban landscape can easily focus on individual issues at the expense of these broader societal questions. But, just like the intrepid settlers of the American West, who took advantage of affordable land during the time of Manifest Destiny, taking advantage of affordable housing today is a dishonest choice. Affordable housing does not reflect the harm done both to the community and to individuals who are priced out.

If individual actions create the conditions for neighborhood change and result in the displacement of low-income communities, then individual actions can also strengthen neighborhoods. Buy locally, live locally, and engage locally. Organize within the community to ensure affordable housing exists for all residents, not just those who come from outside of it. Keep asking: who benefits? At what cost? What role do my actions play in this process? These are big questions, and there are no easy answers. But ask them of yourself. Ask them of your friends. Figure out where you fit in the spectrum of gentrification and then decide how to act. Life after college is full of choices—let yours be one that helps create a community, rather than one that destroys it.

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