How to prevent gentrification and displacement in the fight against climate change


Written by

Miriam Zuk, Ph.D.

Where you live makes a big difference in your access to public transit, and to opportunities. Right now, all over the state, we’re seeing displacement and gentrification; lower-income people are being pushed out of their neighborhoods and away from that access. Though this is particularly salient in the San Francisco Bay Area market, it can be felt in regions all across the state.

Studying the impacts of transit investments

When the California Legislature passed SB375 in 2008 to help implement the Global Warming Solutions Act, who ever thought residential displacement would become such a hot topic for tackling climate change—especially when the bottom dropped out of the housing market? But now, as Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) updates are under way, the pressure is on again. Advocates are working hard to ensure that as regions fight climate change, they are also addressing—and not worsening—inequities.
The Air Resources Board responded to concerns about displacement and gentrification in the first round of SCS planning by requesting research proposals. Our team of researchers from UC Berkeley and UCLA was selected to study how transit investments can impact neighborhood change, and displacement of low-income communities. We were also supported by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to develop assessment tools specifically for the Bay Area. Our goals were to understand past patterns and help guide future policy making.

What did we find?

Certain patterns are emerging for the Bay Area that we have begun to share on our Urban Displacement Project website. These may be relevant to other regions as well.

1) Access to rail transit is related to rising housing prices that are pushing out low- and middle-income households. This does not mean that we should stop investing in transit. Rather, protections and investments need to be in place from the start to ensure that Transit Oriented Developments are for everyone. They should increase, rather than decrease, neighborhood diversity. In the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has tried to incentivize affordable housing policies and production in its allocation of funding. And Los Angeles is discounting surplus Metro land for affordable TODs. These and other efforts have the potential to significantly impact the mix of housing choices in transit neighborhoods.

2) Displacement of low-income people is happening in middle- and higher-income neighborhoods as well. Despite the focus on gentrification in poor neighborhoods, low-income households are being pushed out of all types of neighborhoods, including more affluent ones. The situation for low-income families is particularly precarious in affluent areas, because once they leave, they likely have no other options in the entire city, or even county. These cities and counties desperately need policies and investments to both stabilize existing households, and create more types of housing for residents and workers.

3) People need information relevant to their communities: this data can help. We’ve heard from mayors, City council members, planning staff, and advocates trying to wrap their heads around the changes happening in their communities. The data and maps we’ve posted on our website for the Bay Area are meant to meet this need. Communities are already using this information to inform policies, advocacy campaigns and more. Our goal is to continually add to and update this site with more recent information and with useful tools to help link the diagnosis of the problem to solutions.

What does this mean for Sustainable Communities Strategies, in the Bay Area and beyond?

For our Bay Area research, we set out to see if the risk of displacement differs between places with and without Priority Development Areas (PDAs). PDAs are the building blocks of the Bay Area’s SCS, Plan Bay Area: they are where the region plans to concentrate growth and investment. Some advocates were concerned that these areas could see significant housing pressures on low-income people and communities of concern.
To understand this better, we assessed the displacement risks of neighborhoods that overlapped with PDAs. What we found was that neighborhoods with PDAs were more likely to be lower-income tracts that were either at risk of, or already undergoing, gentrification and displacement. In contrast, neighborhoods without PDAs were more likely to be higher-income areas with signs of stability and exclusion. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the region shouldn’t identify particular areas for growth and investment. It does mean, however, that anti-displacement strategies should be a key part of planning for that growth.

The regional planning agencies, MTC and ABAG, have begun to incorporate these findings in their discussions of Plan Bay Area. We’re already beginning to see a more informed discussion about the relationship between regional planning and the displacement of low-income communities.

More tools to come, and hopefully better policy

  • In the spring of 2016, we will develop some simple tools to help MPOs (metropolitan planning organizations) assess the risk of displacement, using available data.
  • For the Bay Area and Los Angeles, our research will contribute to more advanced land use and transportation modeling that will capture more of what we know about neighborhood dynamics.
  • We will be publishing policy case studies and tools that will help people identify the best policy tools for their jurisdictions.
  • Finally, we’ll be looking at travel patterns to untangle the relationship between TODs, displacement, affordable housing, and VMT to better support climate change decisions at the intersection of housing and transportation planning

We hope that this work will help regions to plan for climate-friendly development that can be done in a thoughtful and equitable way.  This will help families of all income levels stay in their communities to enjoy the benefits of new transit lines, new development, and new opportunities.