Considering denser zoning and gentrification

Prof. John Infranca presents on housing at Stanford/Harvard/Yale Junior Faculty Forum

While the exact definition of gentrification is difficult to pin down, a few oft-cited elements include hip new restaurants, funky coffee shops, refurbished apartments, climbing housing costs, and the eventual displacement of lower-income people.

In late July, Professor John Infranca, who writes regularly about housing, land use law, and related topics, received one of the nation’s top honors for junior faculty members, an invitation to the Stanford/Harvard/Yale Junior Faculty Forum.

Infranca was one of just 16 faculty members across the country who presented their research at the forum. His paper, “Differentiating Exclusionary Tendencies,” is forthcoming this fall in the Florida Law Review.

The paper grew out of his research into West Coast states that are actively considering or have already implemented measures requiring local governments to allow denser development in certain areas. In Oregon, a recent state law requires cities with more than 10,000 people to allow duplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes—a concept called upzoning. In California, there's a movement to upzone across the state.

Such state upzoning measures—some of which prohibit exclusively single-family zoning and others that would permit denser multi-family housing near transit–are controversial.

Here in the Bay State, neighborhood activists in working-class communities as well as some wealthy residents of towns like Weston and Newton are fighting to limit the creation of new housing stock, Infranca says. The latter often point to their fear of new traffic, allege that schools and town services will be overburdened, and bring a longstanding tradition of NIMBYism (not-in-my-backyard).The NIMBY mindset was amplified by President Trump on July 29 at a rally in West Texas, where he said, “People fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home. There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.”

Anti-gentrification activists are also against new housing development, says Infranca. They argue that a new, more upscale housing supply will increase housing prices, alter neighborhood demographics, and displace current residents. While that version of gentrification may be solidified in popular culture, Infranca says that research points to a different conclusion: that gentrification is largely caused not by new supply, but by demand.

People who can’t afford to live in the South End of Boston or Jamaica Plain, for example, are going to move into less expensive neighborhoods in Roxbury and Hyde Park, whether developers build new housing or not, he contends. If no new housing stock is available, there’s more competition for existing units, housing prices rise even more rapidly, and there’s even more displacement.

Infranca points to a study by Lance Freeman, a Columbia University affordable housing and urban planning expert, which shows that people in gentrifying neighborhoods don’t leave their apartments any more often than people in persistently poor neighborhoods.

Low income individuals, regardless of their neighborhood, tend to move a lot, Infranca says. “Their lives tend to be precarious. Existing research suggests that the trend of moving out is no higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. What's different is who moves in when people move out, and in gentrifying neighborhoods it tends to be more affluent, oftentimes white residents moving in. So if all that is true, new housing supply, by itself, is not going to lead to higher levels of displacement.” Instead that new housing supply should help mitigate increases in housing prices.

After summarizing recent research on these issues, Infranca examines whether, amid the broader effort out West to limit local resistance to new development, there is a justification for giving poorer neighborhoods a greater degree of control over new development—more than we might want to give to the Newtons and the Westons and other more affluent communities.

There are a few critical reasons to consider doing that, he argues. One is the historical injustices faced by these neighborhoods: redlining, various forms of discrimination and disinvestment. There are also going to be more renters and fewer home-owners in low-income communities. For a lower-income person, the time commitment and costs of finding a new rental will be harder to bear than for a higher-income person moving from one affluent town to another. Infranca also points to Suffolk’s recent housing discrimination study, which shows that as a black prospective renter in Greater Boston, you will likely be shown fewer apartments and offered fewer amenities than a similarly situated white person, making it all that much harder to quickly find a suitable rental in another neighborhood.

Finally, if you live in a neighborhood that’s part of a big city, like a Roxbury, or parts of Dorchester, or East Boston, you have less power over the local government than the residents of Weston have, he says. “Weston is its own small community of a little over 10,000 people or so. Whereas, if you're a neighborhood in the city of Boston, your ability to control what the city's policies are is really constrained, because you've got all the other neighborhoods and all the other people in the population that might have interests that vary from yours.”

Infranca ultimately concludes that treating certain neighborhoods differently than others makes sense as a way to target a narrow subset of gentrification concerns, including the claims of long-term residents to a stake in their neighborhoods. Public participation is a popular buzzword, he argues, but generally doesn’t add up to much for poorer communities. So rather than pushing for more public meetings, he suggests granting long-term residents of poor communities, both renters and owners, a financial interest in development.

In his proposal, such residents would be given a form of transferable development rights, which developers could purchase and transfer to their building site, allowing them to build higher density developments. This mechanism, Infranca argues, would “allow long-term residents to derive some benefit from new development and strengthen their voice.”

Boston has some parallels with other cities, like San Francisco, that have limited new development even as their hot job markets continue to attract well-paid and middle income people from other states, he says. “That combination has resulted in massive housing price increases and evictions. The status quo of too much demand and too little new housing supply is not going to work, and we’ve seen it play out. It’s clear we need to figure out some creative approaches.” Infranca’s paper, a draft of which can be downloaded here, suggests a mechanism for both expanding housing supply and better distributing the financial benefits of that new development.