The end of gentrification

Geography students need to study cities, not least because so much of what they need to know about the world will occur in urban areas. One crucial urban feature (in Ireland and in numerous other countries) is gentrification. Gentrification is a process of displacement in which relatively high-income newcomers arrive into urban neighbourhoods, which forces out residents on (often fixed) low incomes. Think of a somewhat run-down or neglected neighbourhood that begins to be renovated, where houses and apartments are bought cheap, re-fitted, and then ‘flipped’ onto a buyer; a neighbourhood where the average person was once working class but is now decidedly more middle class.

Might gentrification now be over with the emergence of the financial crisis, the so-called ‘credit crunch’, that has affected Ireland and other credit-hungry countries? Credit has all but dried up; that is, if someone wanted to buy a house to then go and flip it, s/he will struggle to borrow the money (of course, some people are cash-rich and can just go ahead and do that, but they are definitely the minority). The prospects for property markets (a crucial aspect, if gentrification is going to occur) are not positive. Neighbourhoods that were up until quite recently on the gentrification horizon now look like they might avoid the process. In New York, for example, and as geographer Loretta Less discusses (Environment & Planning A, 2009, volume 41, issue 7), some gentrification observers have drawn up a cool map which shows just how the gentrifying landscape might begin to change.

Lees says it is too early to call the end of gentrification. The flow of money through the city can return to those neighbourhoods where property prices are low and potential rental values high, even if it’s difficult to borrow from a bank. But as she also notes, the current recession does leave some space to “put some alternatives to gentrification on the table” – that is, let’s have a right good debate about what the geography of the city should look like. Maybe, for example, cities can have new housing policies that de-commodify housing; maybe people on low-incomes, rather than just property developers, can be given rights and powers to shape their housing conditions. Maybe, Lees says, cities can “build more and better public and low-rent housing in opportunity areas” – that is, place housing “next to high-performing schools, sustainable employment, good transport links, childcare, and institutions that facilitate civic activity.”

Ireland is in a unique place relative to the more general gentrification story. So much of what has gone on in Ireland in the last few years of the Celtic Tiger was property-fuelled: building for building’s sake, building for the builders entering the country to work on building sites, building to leverage the building on a newer, bigger, more fanciful building. Gentrification was definitely part of that story; think here of the changing shape and character of Ranelagh or Smithfield. And now that many of the madhat property schemes lie in ruins, it’s entirely possible that attention will turn in an even more concerted manner to those neighbourhoods where rent gaps will again tempt banks to lend to the flippers and gentrifiers. Maybe it’s ‘gentrification: phase two’ for the Irish city.

But what also definitely matters here is that it looks like a lot of land and (semi- or fully-developed) property in and around Irish cities will soon come under the effective ownership of the Irish citizen, albeit via Nama. Could Nama be more than just an “insolvency vehicle”? Could it be a vehicle for helping to re-do the Irish city? Or is Nama’s ‘terms of reference’ and modus operandi just another obstacle in the way of creating a better Ireland? Just what role will Nama play in having the sort of argument Lees calls for? And what form will the changing Irish city take in the next few years and exactly what will be the nature of involvement for people caught up in that process?

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