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The G-word

Gentrification is improving neighborhoods in Mid City.

By Sara Bongiorni
The Economist magazine calls gentrification the dirtiest word in American cities.

Used to describe an influx of middle-class, often white newcomers to depressed, often minority neighborhoods, gentrification has been compared to mass violence, white supremacy and re-colonization. Some critics consider it hate speech. Others use it as a slur.

The idea that gentrification prices out the poor and destroys local culture is so commonplace that most people “accept it as a widespread fact of urban life,” Slate magazine observed in a 2015 piece. Merriam-Webster includes displacement of poorer residents in its definition of gentrification. The British sociologist who came up with the word in the early ‘60s to characterize changes in parts of London called it an “invasion” by the middle class “until all or most of the working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

Anyone who’s had a rental house or an apartment sold out from under them in a gentrifying neighborhood understands what displacement feels like. But such upheaval is rare. Less than 10% of neighborhoods in major U.S. cities gentrify, according to a 2015 Cleveland Fed study.

Mathew Laborde and Nick Miller have purchased eight properties in 128-lot McGrath Heights since late 2016.
Mathew Laborde and Nick Miller have purchased eight properties in 128-lot McGrath Heights since late 2016.

Most gentrification is clustered in a handful of tight real estate markets on the east and west coasts. Media coverage centers on anecdotes about who gets hurt. “As gentrification closes in, immigrants in Lincoln Heights find their American dream slipping away,” was the headline of an April 3, 2018, story in the Los Angeles Times.

A series of studies show a far murkier link between gentrification and displacement. A 2007 study by Columbia University researcher Lance Freeman found that poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods were 15% less likely to move than similar households in neighborhoods that were not gentrifying. Another study put the probability that a low-income household in a gentrifying neighborhood would be forced out by gentrification at just 1.3%.

A slack real estate market can create opportunities to buy or rehabilitate properties that rapidly shift the make-up of a neighborhood even when no one is driven out by rising rents. As Freeman noted in 2007, “a neighborhood could go from a 30% poverty population to a 12% poverty population in as few as 10 years without any displacement whatsoever.”

Conversely, research identifies benefits of gentrification to low-income households. Findings include improved earnings among residents with high-school diplomas, lower crime rates, improved school scores and greater racial and economic diversity. New business and real estate investment boost the tax base to pay for parks, streets and other government services, meaning improved quality of life for newcomers and long-time residents alike.

None of this has done much to cool the tenor of discussions of gentrification. Further complicating those conversations is that gentrification looks a lot like the revitalization of urban centers with people and investments that cities actively cultivate. As Governing magazine noted, “gentrification and urban renewal are essentially the same thing.”

Gentrification’s meaning is increasingly relevant to Baton Rouge. In its Mid City neighborhood east of downtown, millions of dollars in private and public investment are changing the look of the Government Street commercial corridor. Until now investor interest has centered on Government Street itself. Now small-parcel projects are altering residential streets in a pocket of Mid City where there had not been a new house built in decades.

Eight homes are under construction, completed or planned in McGrath Heights, an 8-block tract south of Government between St. Rose Avenue and South Eugene Street that is a mix of modest homes, run-down structures and blighted or empty lots.

Investor and buyer interest is suddenly keen. A three-bedroom house on McGrath Avenue sold in early September at the full asking price of $350,000. It was on the market about a week. The house was built on a lot where a burned-out smaller structure had been boarded up years before. The house next door is still empty. Vines threaten to engulf a triplex across the street that is vacant, too.

Around the block on Cork Street, a pair of new shotgun-style houses that would look at home on Magazine Street in New Orleans are for sale at an asking price of more than $200 per square foot. Two four-bedroom homes are under construction on St. Rose on land that had been vacant. A third large home will go up when those are completed.

What to call such change?

It can certainly, and neutrally, be called in-fill development, a concept the FuturEBR land-use plan identifies as an efficient use of existing infrastructure like lighting, roads and sewer. The plan encourages parcel-by-parcel building, noting in its August 2018 update that infill has the potential to revitalize neighborhoods by creating jobs and opportunities and “filling vacant ‘gaps’ in a streetscape.”

“Blighted properties and empty lots aren’t good for anybody in any neighborhood,” noted Haley Blackman, vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence.

There is much about the flurry of building in McGrath Heights that is suggestive of gentrification. Per-square-foot prices for commercial property along Government have roughly tripled over the past 24 months. Sleek coffee shop French Truck Coffee, purveyor of trendy avocado toast, is a short stroll away. The coming road-diet along Government will make the area more walkable, a key draw for Millennial buyers. A string of mixed-use projects is giving Mid City new energy.

Still, what’s going on in McGrath Heights is a gentler take on gentrification, if the term applies at all. (A caveat: The definition supplied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control provides probably the best fit in calling gentrification the transition of an area from low value to higher value.)

Mathew Laborde and Nick Miller have purchased eight properties in 128-lot McGrath Heights since late 2016. The work is a sideline effort for the young men, who both live a few blocks away. The pair is understandably wary of the term gentrification and say it doesn’t describe their work, which they hope will improve the quality of housing stock in the neighborhood and help everybody by bringing up values.

“We’re taking property that was not in commerce and bringing it back into commerce,” Miller said.

They rehabbed an empty house in the Garden District before turning their focus to McGrath Heights two years ago. Its homes were mostly small and often had porches or other details that appeal to buyers in older cities elsewhere. The more expensive Garden District, with its proven popularity, was next door.

Their effort to buy and improve properties is hands on. They knocked on the doors of every house in the neighborhood to introduce themselves. Laborde’s younger brother mows the lawns of empty houses and picks up trash each week. They know the names of neighbors who live next door to lots they’ve acquired.

“One of the things that drew us to the area was here were all these unused properties in a part of town that appeals to a lot of people,” Miller said.

They note that the mix of residences in McGrath Heights includes affordable-housing, another element of the area’s appeal.

“We’re embracing affordable housing and building in a way that we hope brings up values for everybody,” Laborde said. “What we want to do is make life in Baton Rouge even better.”

They are not interested in pushing out renters. The owner of a house that was rented at below-market rates approached them not long ago about a sale. They passed to avoid bumping the renter. They identified two other houses where owners were more than a decade behind in property taxes. Miller and Laborde had spent several thousand dollars in attorneys’ fees and could have legally purchased the properties but dropped their plans after learning that the owners lived in the houses.

“We haven’t displaced one person, which Nick and I think is the right way to do it,” said Laborde, a commercial real estate broker whose office, Elifin Realty, is located on Government a couple blocks from the lots they’ve purchased.

Gordon Mese, the owner of Garden District Nursery in Mid City and a one-time candidate for mayor, described the recent building in McGrath Heights as “gentrification with caveats.”

The caveats, per Mese: Nobody was displaced by any of the new homes. The neighborhood includes affordable housing that functions as a buffer if rents climb. He also pointed out that McGrath Heights borders a commercial corridor that was never wholly abandoned by longtime business owners as in other cities where white flight gutted the core. He points to businesses along Government like Calandro’s market and Heroman’s floral shop to illustrate the point.

Mese’s own family has run a business on a half-acre in McGrath Heights for 90 years. The nursery he opened 30 years ago on Government where his grandparents formerly ran a service-station in Mid City shows that investment in the area isn’t all new, he said.

“This has been a long process,” he said.

Mese also offered a way to interpret the residential projects in McGrath Heights that avoids the uncomfortable connotations of gentrification or confusion with terms like revitalization.

“It’s huge confidence in the neighborhood,” Mese said. •