How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

The term gentrification, as many urbanphiles know, was coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the influx of professionals into working-class areas of London. It is less well known that the backlash to gentrification in the United States began just a decade later.

In the mid-1970s, while the back-to-the-city spirit was still young, an early anti-gentrification counter-movement emerged. National organizations issued position papers; a Senate committee held hearings; HUD even came up with an official policy statement outlining limited interventions. And then, poof! HUD’s efforts all disappeared, until just a few years ago.

Even though they have been largely forgotten, the struggles with gentrification during the 1970s form a chapter in the history of urban transformation that has much to teach us. It has much to teach us because it has been forgotten. If policy leaders had taken some of the suggestions back then to heart, urban areas would be much better equipped to prevent the wholesale disruption we are seeing in superstar cities today.

It began in October 1973 with the Arab Oil Embargo, which made gas prices a national obsession. More expensive commutes, double-digit mortgage rates, and the growth of two-income households made city living more attractive to middle-income professionals. One survey in the mid-1970s by the Urban Land Institute found that three-quarters of large cities were experiencing “revitalization.”

Even Carla Hills, President Gerald Ford’s housing secretary, recognized the phenomenon. “Already some children of the generation that fled to the suburbs are returning to the cities,” she said at the 43rd Annual United States Conference of Mayors in Boston in July 1975. “Areas that were once heading for abandonment are now being restored by families no longer willing to bear the costs and inconveniences of suburban life.”

As gentrification caught on, a few prescient beings saw that there might be some ugly side effects. Chief among them was Conrad Weiler, a Temple University professor who became head of the Alliance for Neighborhood Government, an organization that lobbied on behalf of neighborhood associations. “It has been such an exhausting and overwhelming struggle to reverse the trend of urban decline,” Weiler told a Senate committee in 1977, “that we never dreamed that our success might generate even worse problems.”

A key ally, National Urban Coalition President M. Carl Holman, chimed in, “We’re all for constructive change. But we also believe that it should be possible to stabilize, conserve, and revitalize urban neighborhoods without dispossessing or dispersing all of the residents already in place.” At another hearing a few months later, a New York City housing activist named Robert Schur asserted that private reinvestment was wreaking as much havoc on African American communities as urban renewal had two decades earlier. “Short-term leaseholds are not renewed, statutory tenancies are terminated, and the poor, the minorities, and the elderly are forced to move,” he said.

These Cassandras faced several obstacles. Public interest groups had been battling redlining—the practice of banks refusing to make loans in non-white and inner-city neighborhoods—and saw reinvestment as an unimpeachable good. And then there were plenty of policy makers who simply pooh-poohed the idea that gentrification could become so big as to threaten the stability of urban neighborhoods. Federal aid to cities had died out during President Richard Nixon’s second term; leveraging the private sector was about the only option for local economic development officials.

Still, Weiler and his allies won several victories. In the late 1970s, he produced the first-ever full-length report on “reinvestment displacement” in the U.S. Skeptical that mayors, hungry for tax revenues, would do anything to protect the poor from being pushed out of their homes, Weiler argued that alleviating displacement was a federal responsibility. He prescribed rent control, community land trusts, home ownership programs—all of which, paradoxically, still appear on lists of “solutions to displacement” being published 40 years later. Above all, Weiler wanted government to begin keeping track of displacement, anticipating and addressing it before it got too late. “The time to act is now,” he wrote in the report that was finally published in 1978.

That same year, the National Urban Coalition released the results of the first national survey on displacement, based on responses from leaders in 65 neighborhoods across the country. The survey found that “rehabilitation” significantly reduced the number of blue-collar workers, minorities, and elderly residents in a community. “People who are dislocated from improving neighborhoods do not vanish into thin air,” the report stated. “Those who are poor take their poverty with them when they move. An improving neighborhood in one part of a metropolitan area will probably mean declining neighborhoods elsewhere.”

The survey had obvious defects, principally that it was based on the impressions of city officials and community leaders rather than hard data. But it made the point that displacement, just like gentrification, was not restricted to a few northeastern cities, and that government, in Holman’s words, had failed to heed “the needs, the frustration, and anger” of the displaced.

Some of that frustration and anger was already surfacing in the African American media. Baltimore’s black paper, The Afro-American, called gentrification “The Re-invasion.” An editorial declared, “White families . . . know this city is a good place to live and know the name of the game is to move us out and themselves back in.”

In September 1978, Ebony magazine quoted the head of a Philadelphia affordable housing organization who called gentrification “a conspiracy” to reverse the city’s growth from white to black. “This is the story of our life since slavery,” the director, Shirley Dennis, said. Titled “How Whites Are Taking Back Black Neighborhoods,” the article highlighted the huge demographic shift that occurred when Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown became restored: In 1940, it was 90 percent black; by 1978, it was less than 5 percent.

“The descendants of former slaves and slave masters are exchanging residences in downtown Savannah,” the author wrote—even though Savannah is often considered the paragon of equitable historic preservation.

Yet mainstream civil rights organizations, with a largely middle-class membership, were keeping their distance from the displacement debate. They had made integrating the suburbs their number one priority and were therefore trying to move minorities to the suburbs, not keep them in the city.

Weiler offered different counsel: Blacks should buy property in their neighborhoods and hold onto it. Once whites moved back into those inner-city neighborhoods, he argued, those African American homeowners would see their wealth rise substantially. “Sometimes the suburbs just become a false symbol that all problems have been solved,” he once said. “As energy becomes more expensive, it might be more wise to hold onto energy efficient inner-city housing.”

But Weiler also recognized how untrustworthy he must have seemed in the eyes of his intended audience. He was, after all, a white man telling blacks to stay in ghettos. Nonetheless, Weiler continued to raise red flags about reinvestment in any forum that would have him: at a National Urban League conference in Chicago in November 1977, numerous church meetings, even a conference held by the Back to the City organization in Hartford in October 1978 that had been founded, essentially, to encourage gentrification.

Two words best explain why these efforts died out: Ronald Reagan. The 40th president eviscerated HUD and his appointees reversed the federal policies being shaped to curb displacement. Even mainstream urban problems struggled to get attention, let alone emerging concerns like gentrification. Weiler became discouraged; he turned his energy toward family and academics. Like-minded organizations dissolved or changed their focus.

Today, debate still rages over just how damaging gentrification is. But it is hard to say that urban transformation has not accelerated since the 1970s, and that it won’t continue to accelerate. Cities like New York and San Francisco are now spending up to half a million dollars per apartment for affordable housing. Those units would have been much cheaper to build or preserve back then, largely because land prices were much lower. A combination of denial, doubt, and self-interest kept public officials from acting sooner.

Today, in cities where gentrification is just emerging, such as Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, there are still good deals to be had. Private speculators know that and are buying up parcels. If the public sector wishes to compete with them in the future, it needs to start investing as well. As Conrad Weiler wrote 40 years ago: “The time to act is now.”

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, by Matthew L. Schuerman, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by Matthew L. Schuerman. All
rights reserved.

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