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'Gentrification': One View on What It Means for Jamaica Plain

Speakers shared their views of the roots of gentrification.

Editor's note: Gentrification, or urban revitalization, is a vital topic in Jamaica Plain today. While neighborhoods have always been ever-changing, today there is increased scrutiny of what makes those neighborhoods change. This article does not pretend to cover the whole topic, but instead covers one meeting last week in Jamaica Plain that offered up one viewpoint. Jamaica Plain Patch will make every effort to provide balanced coverage of this topic.

Gentrification is a problem -- caused by capitalism -- that needs to be solved.

That is the view taken in a meeting held last week in Jamaica Plain, where several speakers shared their views on what causes gentrification and suggested ways to fix problems it can create.

The meeting was hosted by Jamaica Plain Forum, an activity of The First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, and was part of a series called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET), which focuses on "...[how] to ensure all of us live well in the “new economy.”

The speakers:

  • Prof. Michael Stone, UMass-Boston, who for more than 40 years has been involved in research, policy analysis, and advocacy on housing, living standards and participatory planning
  • Leslie Bos, board president of Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), an affordable housing and community development organization
  • Steve Meacham, tenant organizing director of, a grassroots community organization fighting evictions and foreclosures throughout Boston

“The term ‘gentrification’ first appeared in print in 1964 in a paper by British sociologist Ruth Glass," Stone said, opening the forum. "She used the term to characterize the process taking place in some working-class neighborhoods of London, where middle-class professionals were buying all properties and transforming them, as she put it, into ‘elegant, expensive residences,’ the market value of which were …. enormously inflated in comparison to what they previously were in the neighborhood. She continued ‘once this process of gentrification... starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the social character of the district is changed.’”

Stone now sees gentrification as a global phenomenon that involves:

  • Physical changes -- through transformation of old, deteriorated residential and non-residential structures into upscale residences
  • Economic changes -- in the form of rapid and large increases in rent and sale prices of houses, vacant structures and undeveloped land
  • Social changes -- in class structure, lifestyle, and commercial and civic amenities

All of which, he says, result in involuntary displacement of people who had been living there, often with painful social, economic and emotional consequences for those who are displaced. The displaced are, says Stone, often people of color and/or immigrants.

Why does gentrification happen? 

In Stone's view, the roots of gentrification are:

  • Wide and widening inequality of income and wealth
  •  Systematic, structural racism
  • Treating land and houses as speculative commodities
  • Over-promotion of, and over-dependence on, debt;
  • Public policy that exacerbates the other four tendencies

Stone says that gentrification as it’s playing out in Jamaica Plain is basically because of capitalism, which he says results in "uneven development: social, physical, spatial and temporal."

Stone outlined how Boston's finance and higher education industries have capitalized "quite successfully" on the growth of federal military and domestic spending. The city also became an international center of high-tech, research and medical services, all of which require high skill levels and are high-salaried.

Those industries also generated demand for low-skill, low-wage labor; immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia flowed in to meet the demand.

Stone says the Boston middle-class hollowed out while both the high-income and low-income labor force expanded. This "socially uneven" development was overlaid on "spatially uneven" development: transformation of Boston neighborhoods.

The post-WWII economy, says Stone, saw both metropolitan development and a suburban construction boom: housing, roads, shopping malls and industrial parks. This transformed landscape, or "spatial economy," he says, proved profitable to developers and financial institutions. This left central cities largely to the older, predominantly white working-class residents and new immigrants, as house prices and public services declined.

Then a widening gap emerged between actual profits from inner-city real estate and the potential profit if that urban real estate was redeveloped. Boston was among the first American cities to have a urban renaissance, and was one of the first where investors seized the opportunity to promote profitable urban redevelopment.

Gentrification got underway in Jamaica Plain, helped by the introduction of the Orange Line, in the late 1980s.

One solution: "speculation tax"

Stone quoted progressive urban planning expert Peter Marcuse as saying the opposite of gentrification should not be decay and abandon, but the democratization of housing.

Stone did not define that term, but he proposed getting land and housing out of the market and converting them to "various forms of permanent social ownership." He also wants to enact a "speculation tax" to deter people from buying real estate to make money.

Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation Board President Leslie Bos explained that one of the ways the fights gentrification is by developing affordable housing with deed restrictions. Below-market rents that low-income people can afford don’t cover the costs of buying, building and operating housing, so the nonprofit housing development organizations leverage public resources dedicated to housing, and restrict the deeds on these houses and condos in order to keep them affordable. JPNDC has developed 600 units of deed-restricted housing, of which 270 are units owned -- or have the potential to be owned -- by residents.

'Street-level resistance'
Tenant organizer Steve Meacham spoke of “... street-level resistance to gentrification,” and quoted a series from the Black Commentator that asserts that central cities are among the key battlegrounds between working-class people and those who would profit from buying and renovating in the city. 

The Black Commentator says this is a battle "...we can win, because we are there already and they have to take it [the properties] from us.”

“Implementing this vision is what City Life has been about for the last 30 years,” said Meacham.

"The goals of a stable working-class on one hand and the goals of unregulated capital on the other are completely incompatible. You...can’t have both,” Meacham said.

Deselby June 21, 2011 at 09:08 AM
Calm down, Dax. It was a comment on the one-sided ideological content of the lecture, not implying that State Security was forcing people to be there.
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:20 AM
Michael: Gentrification is a term made up by the left to describe one particular part of the age-old pattern of different populations moving in and out of neighborhoods. I think the left decided to do that because then they could declare that the middle class people who had moved into a neighborhood owed something to those older-term residents who were still in the neighborhood, or those who had gone. The debt could be paid by paying for the building lots of subsidized housing to take care of the poor and oppressed who were victims of this (natural) phenomenon. That's certainly what we're seeing here in Hyde Square, but I think it's a time-tested strategy of the left and has probably been used other places as well. Leslie Bos is middle class. She bought her house from a person with a Spanish surname. In the formula the left is using to describe what's happening here in this neighborhood, that means she's a gentrifier. If she thinks it's such a bad thing, then why did she do that in the first place? She does, of course, benefit from the left's campaign to "stop gentrification", because she works for the NDC, which builds subsidized housing. She'll have a job for longer if the NDC is able to convince the city that the scourge of gentrification can be ameliorated if they are given even more money to build even more subsidized housing in this neighborhood. Deed restrictions: (continued...)
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Deed restrictions: I think it's a bad idea to sell a house to someone at a subsidized price, if a deed restriction is added that says the house may not be sold at market rate for 20-50 years (a common range). I think this creates a problem for the economic health of a city. Subsidized houses use tax dollars to fund their construction. They are assessed and taxed at a lower rate than market-rate houses. So they generate less tax revenue than market-rate houses, even though the occupants of the subsidized houses consume the same amount of city services that the market-rate occupants do, and so have the same cost to the city. That's expensive for any city. While all societies can afford some charity for those less fortunate, no society can afford to give away more resources than it takes in, or it goes bankrupt. So I think building a lot of subsidized housing, and adding deed restrictions to the resale possibilities, is not a good fiscal strategy for the city. more....
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:46 AM
Deed restrictions continued: I suppose a solution to this problem would be to build less subsidized housing, and to let the market have a little more sway. If there is demand for low-cost housing, it will be built, by a private developer, who will use his own money, not tax dollars. And if the housing increases in value over the years, it will be sold for more money, and so will generate more taxes. The left is unlikely to ever agree to this, because their goal is to eliminate free market housing and replace it with government control. And of course in this case, the NDC will benefit from all steps that are taken in the direction away from a free market in housing, since it’s in the business of building subsidized housing. They never mention that they have an economic interest in this, of course.
Orion Kriegman June 29, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Missed the June 9th Gentrification forum? Now you can listen to the whole thing include Q&A on the JP New Economy Transition website: http://jptransition.org/educational-series-archive/ Enjoy! Orion

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