By Jordan Greer
Gentrification has been contentious since British sociologist Ruth Rich coined the word in the 1960s. Rich used the term to describe the process of wealthy citizens, landlords, and developers moving into British working class neighborhoods and renovating the area. This process of redevelopment, she argued, drove up the costs of housing and resulted in the displacement of the original residents. Some argue that Tallahassee is experiencing a similar phenomenon.
As Florida State University continues to grow its enrollment, the demand for student housing steadily increases. Nearby Frenchtown residents have cited concerns over pressures to gentrify the area. Analyzing differing viewpoints on the subject can provide context to the debate over gentrification in Frenchtown and help devise appropriate policies for addressing citizen concerns.
Researchers debate whether gentrification benefits or disadvantages cities and low-income residents. Some academics claim that gentrification increases property values, displaces local residents, threatens the cultural character of communities, results in increased income inequality, and promulgates class conflict. Sociologist Yamakata Zukin claims that gentrification fails to raise the median-family income of economically vulnerable residents.
Others academics counter that gentrification is a politically laden term that simply refers to the process of economic transition and prosperity that occurs in neighborhoods where capital is invested. Economist Jacob Vidgor argues that gentrification provides job opportunities to low-income residents and leads to higher quality public services due to an increase in the local tax base. Columbia University urban-planning professor Lance Freeman and economist Frank Braconi found in their study of seven gentrified neighborhoods in New York City that housing turnover rates were 19 percent higher in poor, non-gentrified areas than in gentrified areas, concluding that gentrification may not necessarily displace residents.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative notes that gentrification occurs in large part due to economic opportunities available in urban areas. Market demands and zoning restrictions create “supply-side pressures” to revitalize blighted areas. Middle and upper-class citizens are attracted to urban areas because of job opportunities in the city and a desire to avoid long commutes. Limited and costly housing in “established areas” of the city incentivizes demand for developers to revitalize — and therefore gentrify — lower-income neighborhoods. City zoning laws artificially restrict the supply of housing due to regulations imposed on the height of structures, limitations on housing density, and regulations on the sizes of apartment units.
In an interview for this article, Curtis Taylor, Tallahassee Urban League Housing Development Coordinator, states that residents of Frenchtown feel the city is crowding them out by allowing student housing to replace parts of their neighborhood. He claims that residents perceive gentrification as a threat to the future existence and vibrant culture of their community.
Today, residents of a much smaller and much less economically vibrant community are all too aware of the challenges the neighborhood faces as a new wave of development threatens to eat away at the traditional fabric of the neighborhood. They have watched over the years as the physical footprint of the community shrank as the city made way for more students.
The needs of students, however, are also important to consider. Increased competition for housing can result in higher rents for students. Oftentimes, affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods is the only viable options for students. Some students may prefer to live in detached houses near campus. Furthermore, students are a crucial part of the city’s economy. Spending by FSU students both on and off campus amounted to over $1 billion in 2016. FSU students also generated around 14 percent of sales tax revenue in Leon County in 2016.
The issue of gentrification in Frenchtown is a complex one, as it deals with the conflicting interests of residents and students. Approaching gentrification from a nuanced perspective is an important step towards addressing increased demands for student housing in a manner that respects the needs and wishes of local residents.