The Right to Stay: Gentrification-Induced Displacement

a sign that reads "Gentrification Zone, Poor people please leave quietly"
Gentrification Zone. Source: Matt Brown, Creative Commons

The Merriam-Webster definition of gentrification is – the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods through the influx of more middle class residents into that area. The process of gentrification is now a global phenomenon and is no longer confined to cities. Communities all over the world are experiencing mass societal development, often accompanied by restored housing, business investments, the formation of new infrastructure and public services such as coffee shops and park. “In most countries, evictions and expropriations are justified on the basis of some form of general interest of society – the so-called “public interest”  and this concept has often been abused to justify illegal or badly planned mass expulsions of people. The purpose of business investment in neighborhood revitalization is the production of social capital. Social capital is defined as “the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage.”  Successful social capital and economic opportunities strongly attract and dictate where families choose to reside. In terms of gentrification, social capital is an advertising tool to attract white and more affluent families into revitalized areas.

Various positive aspects of gentrification, such as community development and increased job opportunities, certainly exist. However, negative implications to gentrification, most notably displacement, complicate and in many cases outweigh the benefits. Gentrification-induced displacement (GID) describes how residents may be forced to leave their homes as a result of increased housing costs, housing demolition, evictions, and ownership conversion of rental units. During the progression of GID, increased housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to be rented by middle income households, thus gradually decreasing the quantity of low-income renters. Eventually, these neighborhoods become unaffordable to low income residents, and force these lower-income residents to secure living in a less expensive neighborhood; these neighbors likely suffer from issues such as underdevelopment and poverty.

Displacement impedes on the human rights of those forced from their home neighborhoods. The right to adequate housing is addressed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, specifically stating: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing…” GID is both a human rights violation and an environmental justice issue. From a global context, the process of gentrification discriminates and targets minorities and low-income populations society. Marginalized populations do not have the political and economic influence to defend their families and communities from displacement. GID compounds these issues of marginalization, thereby multiplying the effects of structural violence on these vulnerable populations. This post will explore the policy prompting GID in two locations: Harlem in New York City, USA and Prabhadevi in Mumbai, India.

NY Night. Source: Travis Leech, Creative Commons

Harlem, New York

Harlem has been at the forefront of American black culture. After World War I, factors such as poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow segregations laws in the American South, and the rise of industrial work opportunities in the North promoted the – the relocation of more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1916 through 1970. In the 1900’s, African-Americans constantly battled the oppression of discriminatory housing policies due to blatant racism. In 1937, under the Housing Act, the US federal government developed the Home Owners Loan Corporation; this and other similar agencies were determined unfit and presented a ‘financial risk’ for investment by insurance companies, loan associations, banks, and other financial services companies. In reality, these agencies were deliberately racialized and designed to benefit more white and affluent populations. As a result, neighborhoods were ranked and color-coded based off race, with the color red representing African American communities. This process, known as redlining, is a method utilized by banks, insurance companies, and other financial companies to deny loans to homeowners who lived in these neighborhoods. As a consequence, neighborhoods deemed unfit for loans were left undeveloped compared to ‘white’ neighborhoods.

After the great migration, racial tension and rising rents in segregated areas in the North, resulted in African-Americans forming their own communities within big cities, thereby fostering the progression of African-American culture. Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans, is the perfect example of the great migration. The relocation of low income African Americans into Harlem is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and during this period African American writers, musicians, and artists expressed their civil and human rights through their respective artistic media. However, towards the early 1980s, African-American culture and identity in Harlem began to and continues to face the threat of gentrification and subsequent displacement. In 1979, the areas in Harlem lying between 110th and 112th street and Fifth Avenue and Manhattan Avenue, located on the edge of Central Park, were designated for redevelopment by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.  By 1982, 450 housing units displaced by the infrastructural development in that area were relocated into five different units of Section 8 federal housing for low income families. This is just one example of the displacement of low-income minority groups in Harlem.  Since the 1900’s, New York City as a whole continues to experience the effects of GID. The effects of gentrification in Harlem are highlighted by  the demographic shift happening in the city since the beginning of the 1900’s. In the 1950’s, African-Americans accounted for 98% of Harlem’s population; however in 2015 (just 67 years later), this percentage decreased to 65%. The effect of white “return” to Harlem expedites the process of the displacement of low-income African Americans.

Policies Contributing to GID in Harlem

In Harlem, the disproportionate escalation of housing rental prices, influenced by state housing policies, contributes to displacement. In 1969, New York City established and designated a Rent Stabilization Law (RSL), a form of rent control, to all six or more unit buildings built before 1947. Rent stabilization sets maximum rates for annual rent increases during lease renewal. Every year, the NYC rent guideline board meets to determine the annual rent increase landlords can charge tenants. Currently almost half of the rental apartments in NYC, about 1 million units with 2.6 million people living in them, are stabilized. Still, “rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25% of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.” The intention of this law is to protect tenants from unreasonable rent spikes, however, amendments to the RSL legislation in 2003 created a loophole allowing renters to subvert stabilization. The amendment to RSL legalized preferential rate – “a rent which an owner agrees to charge that is lower than the legal regulated rent that the owner could lawfully collect.” In theory, this amendment is supposed relieve the pressure of rent on tenants, but on the contrary, it provides landlords an opportunity to exploit lower income tenants. Under preferential rent, Owners have the choice to terminate preferential rent and charge the tenant higher legal regulated rent upon renewal of the lease, forcing tenants to either pay more rent or relocate to cheaper housing.

Evening in the Slums, Mumbai. Source: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons.

Prabhadevi, Mumbai

In Prabhadevi, Mumbai, gentrification gained prominence after the decline of textile mills. Post-industrial / neoliberal policies resulted in the sale of mill lands for large amounts of money to private developers. Gradually, huge mill landmass in the main part of the city became a central region for gentrification as land transformed from mills, to malls, and eventually towers. From 2000 to 2001, the area around standard mills was surrounded by 4 slums in which thousands of families resided. After the mills closed, some of the population left the area in search of employment in the suburbs while other families stayed in the area. From 2004 to 2005, the mill lands in Prabhadevi, Mumbai were sold to private corporate builders and remaining agricultural land was redeveloped into high end commercial or residential buildings. Land value and infrastructure continue to develop in this area, and consequently by the end of year 2015, 3 out of 4 slums were converted into Slum rehabilitation (SRA) buildings. The revitalization of these slums into high-rise towers attracted more affluent populations. In 20 years, Prabhadevi underwent a revolution from a rural slum to the down-town and cosmopolitan landmark of the city. The rapid development of the city also contributed to the rent gap between residents. The high-rise towers developing in this area are leased exclusively to the upper-class and elite.

In terms of both Harlem and Prabhadevi, “when rental units become vacant in gentrifying neighborhoods, they are more likely to be leased by middle-income households. Only indirectly, by gradually shrinking the pool of low-rent housing, does the re-urbanization of the middle class appear to harm the interests of the poor.”

Policies Contributing to GID in Mumbai

India’s federal policies play an important role in GID through three mechanisms:

  • The process of gentrification in India, which began in 1998, was greatly expedited by federal housing policies. “India’s 1998 housing and habitat policy emphasized the role of the private sector, as the other partner to be encouraged for housing construction and investment in infrastructure facilities. This resulted into rapid growth in private investment in housing with the emergence of real estate developers mainly in metropolitan cities.”
  • India’s 2002-2007 Five-Year Plan initiated the ambitious urban renewal program, renamed in 2015, “Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation” (AMRUT). The AMRUT program administered the rejuvenation of slums, pollution, and urban poverty in over 65 cities.
  • India’s federal governments 2012-2017 five-year plan’s main goal is to create a ‘slum free India’ by enshrining public-private partnerships in slum rehousing. “This five-year model gives developers access to valuable slum land in exchange for an obligation to rehouse the displaced slum dwellers in a portion of the multistory flats built on the site- a process known as transfer of development rights (TDR).”

Conclusion

Harlem and Prabhadevi are just two examples of what’s happening every day, all over the globe. As countries and communities continue to develop, land is inevitably going to be utilized and transformed for the sake of public interest. Unfortunately, land is a finite resource, which is the reason why gentrification-induced displacement is a prominent concern and reality for millions of people. As countries and communities continue to progress, we need to start asking ourselves a very important question: is displacement inevitable?  If so, what policies are in place to protect displaced people from further marginalization? What policies are currently effective in stopping the GID and how can we implement those policies in different regions around the world? Future research and policies regarding displacement need to address these issues in order to find a feasible and sustainable solution for future displacement. As a global community, we can continue to educate and empower each other to protect our rights, homes, and families.

Public Health Equity in Humanitarian Crises

In 1950, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, was created to help  millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes during World War II. Since the creation of the UNHCR, the UN Agency for Refugees still remains the leading UN organization mandated to protect the basic needs and human rights of refugees. The unprecedented forced displacement of people, both internally and across borders, is one of the most persistent manifestations of humanitarian crises and conflict in the modern era. 65.5 million people around the world have been forced from their homes due to violence. Among the 65.6 million people, the UNHCR oversees more than 21 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Presently, the rights of refugees are protected by the UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees adopted in 1951, established from Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 14 of the UDHR recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum in other countries from persecution in their home country.

The long- and short-term effects of displacement on the masses of global refugees generate humanitarian crises for these persons. Humanitarian responses to crises focus on delivering equitable and quality public health interventions, an essential element of the larger operational framework of humanitarian aid. Public health encompasses a vast variety of components including: 1) reproductive health, 2) disease control, 3) maternal and child care, 4) psychosocial support, and lastly 5) sanitation. “Although the health needs during and after natural disasters and armed conflicts are similar, the differences arise from the political complexities of the latter, in which civilian populations serve as targets of war and human rights abuses aggravate health and protection needs” (Leaning, 2013). The main health consequences of armed conflicts are not conflict-related injuries and deaths. During humanitarian crises such as armed conflict, death is exacerbated by various direct and indirect factors, including common childhood illnesses such as diarrheal disease and severe malnutrition. The legitimate concerns of public health equity in the framework of refugees’ and internally displaced populations’ (IDPs) healthcare continues to be more complex and challenging.

Providing clean water to millions of people. Source: DFID, Creative Commons

Urban Refugees
Current global trends indicate a shift towards urban destinations for refugees and away from refugee camps. The UNHCR reports 60% of the global refugee population and 34 million IDP population live in urban environments. Urban environments provide social security for refugees. Unlike refugee camps, living in cities offers refugees the opportunity to live anonymously. Refugees residing in urban settings are not subjected to the limitations of a refugee status and camps. In urban settings, refugees have access to educational, advanced healthcare services, and employment opportunities which may not be available at refugee camps. Examples of this trend are Damascus, Syria and Amman, Jordan; both received more than 1 million refugees from Iraq alone. Furthermore, many refugees are not legally permitted to settle in urban centers, thus end up living in informal settlements and slums alongside the major urban areas. These informal settlements are typically outside the radar of government and humanitarian aid agencies, thus remaining unidentified and particularly at risk for human right violations.

Public health equity in humanitarian situations
From the public health perspective, it is much more difficult to keep track of people when they move to urban areas. This consequently makes healthcare delivery more difficult in terms of: 1) assuring refugees receive basic health care services, 2) coordinating patient referrals, 3) accessible and available health services and resources, and finally 4) managing the costs of health care services. UNHCR’s leading principles for public health assert health care services delivered to refugees by host countries should resemble and correspond with the services provided to citizens and residents in their country of origin. Minimum, yet essential, health care services must be maintained in all situations, including humanitarian disasters and mass forced migration. “This UNHCR guiding principle preserves a sense of fairness and equity between two contiguous groups of people who must, for a range of security and political reasons, be encouraged to live in this adjacency as harmoniously as possible for an indefinite period of time (Leaning, 2011).”

A coordinated system of health care delivery is more urgent in urban settings not associated with refugee camps or humanitarian relief. The urban displacement phenomenon has shifted the direction of care delivery systems to focus on establishing healthcare delivery systems supporting access to preventive health care services. Present systematic healthcare delivery issues requiring critical consideration include 1) the financing of health services, 2) access barriers to services due to unaddressed financial burdens, 3) cultural barriers, and lastly 4) and the integration of services for refugees within existing formal health systems.

Recently, UNHCR has begun to advocate for refugees to gain access to health insurance in their host country, especially in middle-income countries where healthcare systems already function for host populations. For example, in 2011, health insurance for Afghan refugees living in Iran was introduced. By June 2012, 347,000 refugees registered for health insurance. 40% of the Afghan refugees whom enrolled for health insurance were officially registered with the UNHCR. With health insurance, refugees have access to secondary and tertiary healthcare services for treatment of non-communicable diseases and other illnesses. Health insurance provides UNHCR registered refugees a second form of official documentation. Secondary healthcare services include consultant led-services with health care specialists. Tertiary care services include specialized consultative care delivered on referral from primary and secondary The Iranian government also benefits from providing health insurance to the country’s population by reducing the perennial risk of paying for the hospitalization of refugees. Refugee health insurance is successful in Iran because refugees have access to employment allowing some refugees the means to afford to pay premiums and co-payments. The UNHCR will support vulnerable persons if they cannot afford health insurance. Urban refugees need more representation and support services within the health sector.

Pēteris. Source: Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, Creative Commons.

Resource Allocation
Achieving public health equity in humanitarian crises is a complicated and challenging process. The majority of refugees do not live in refugee camps and their experiences as urban dwellers must be further investigated by academics and professionals alike. This trend holds for human societies in general; the world at large is experiencing rapid urbanization. In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cities and towns. Presently, urban population has increased to 54% and is expected to reach 60% by 2030. Even though urban refugees have the ability to live anonymously and earn wages, living in an urban setting undermines refugees’ access to affordable and high-quality basic health care services. Future policy decisions and international aid programs regarding urban refugees must continue to adapt to the shifting demographic profiles of refugees, IDPs and the effects of global urbanization. Ultimately, public health equity problems the humanitarian community is attempting to confront can be categorized under two categories: resource allocation and decision-making. As humanitarian crises stemming from armed conflict become more common, investing in sustainable policy solutions for resource allocation in the health sector for forced migrants will prevent the suffering of these individuals on the low end of the welfare continuum.