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Nobody's treating gentrification like the public health problem that it is

Nobody's treating gentrification like the public health problem that it is

Picture of Erin Schumaker
[Photo by Julian Tysoe via Flickr.]

Among sociologists, gentrification is often defined as the influx of investment and middle-class people into previously low-income neighborhoods, which prompts cultural, social and political transformation, and increased housing values.

While gentrification is usually written about and studied as a housing, economic and cultural phenomenon that results in higher rents and the displacement of long-time residents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also . 

There are quantifiable public health problems ― such as childhood asthma, lead poisoning and mental health strain ― that can be linked to displacement and gentrification, and I plan use those health problems as a framework to argue that gentrification and health are intrinsically linked.

“Everyone agrees that housing is an important determinant of health, but that’s very hard to measure because it’s overly correlated with other aspects of poverty,” said Thomas Waters, a housing policy analyst at Community Service Society, an organization that advocates for affordable housing in New York City.

I plan to use city housing, health and rent data to create my own index to quantify that link in New York City over time. 

Gentrification takes different forms around the country 

Gentrification takes on different forms in different cities. For example, in New York City, which has notoriously high-priced housing, residents would likely face different health challenges than residents in neighboring Jersey City.

I plan to investigate the link between gentrification and health in New York City, where I live, and nationally, including highlighting progressive steps cities have taken to reduce gentrification-related problems and ensure affordable and safe housing, which can in turn improve health outcomes.

Waters, the policy analyst, noted that healthy housing policies need to address dual concerns: residents need protection from rising rents, and they also need to be able to leave substandard housing conditions when necessary. 

On the one hand, gentrification can trigger rising rents that threaten long-term residents’ ability to stay in their homes and neighborhoods.

On the other hand, rising rents can make it hard to leave. “If your apartment is infested with mold or it’s not adequately heated or there are vermin, moving is something you need to do for your health,” Waters said.

“But in a market like we have in New York now, poor people can’t move.” 

What Donald Trump and Ben Carson mean for housing health 

I also plan to explore how drastic budget cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson will trickle down and influence health and housing policy on the local level.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget called for a  to HUD and eliminated funding entirely for several programs that invest in low-income neighborhoods.

“President Trump’s budget proposes to reverse the longstanding federal commitment to  and support low-income communities’ efforts to grow and prosper,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research group, wrote in May.

On a local level, New York City housing experts feel both discouraged and encouraged by the political climate. On one hand, lack of federal funding will likely make it even harder for low-income people to access affordable housing in safe communities — which could have devastating health outcomes for those who are barely able to afford housing now. 

On the other hand, attacks on human and civil rights at the federal level could help galvanize residents to protect their neighbors’ rights on the local level, which they might not have felt compelled to do in a more apathetic political climate.

“When tenants have more rights they have more ability to solve their problems,” Waters said. “For poor people who can’t solve their problems with income, having some rights is the next best thing.”

[Photo by Julian Tysoe via .]

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