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Money & Ethics

Is Gentrification a Plus for the Neighbors?

Gentrification is often used unfairly to describe what should be viewed as a normal and positive stage in the life cycle of cities.

Q: My husband and I recently bought a restored single-family townhouse, which had formerly been divided into three rental units, in a once-blighted neighborhood. We hope to stay in the area for many years and raise a family here. At a neighborhood meeting, we were dismayed to hear activists railing against “gentrifiers” who are causing longtime renters to be evicted from their homes. My husband asked me to keep my mouth shut, but I feel we are being unfairly maligned and should offer a different point of view. What do you think?

I agree that gentrification is often used unfairly to describe what should be viewed simply as a normal and positive stage in the life cycle of cities, with neighborhoods rising, declining and being reborn over many years.

Yes, gentrification can cause hardship in some cases. If an elderly homeowner wants to stay put but can’t pay the rising property taxes, she might have to sell her home or take out a reverse mortgage against her equity. And, yes, low-income tenants have to find other housing they can afford when their building is sold and restored to house a single family like yours. But many large cities have strong tenants’ rights laws, so the odds are good that the former renters of your new home were treated fairly by whoever restored it.

Gentrification is associated with rising property values, which boost tax revenue for schools, parks and other social services. In many changing neighborhoods, the sellers are elderly, longtime homeowners who get higher prices for their unrestored homes than they ever dreamed possible -- or their heirs benefit from the sale after the owners’ death. The buyers are often young adults of various races and ethnic backgrounds who bring vitality and civic commitment to the neighborhood.

Don’t expect to convert antagonistic activists to your point of view, but do try to find a low-key, courteous way to make some of these points at the appropriate time. And just be a good neighbor to everyone.

Send your own money-and-ethics question to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger.