NO PITTSBURGHER LEFT BEHIND – GENTRIFICATION VERSUS THE VULNERABLE

Daly Trimble | Editor In-Chief

When I hear the word “gentrification,” the first thing that pops into my mind is “cat café.”  When I think about Amazon planting itself in Pittsburgh, I imagine the additional bike lanes, the vegan bistros, the trendy stores, and the new-money tech geeks that will inevitably follow.  So much free Wi-Fi.  But when I go to work at the homeless shelter, I wake up.  

Gentrification isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  New wealth can bring new opportunity for a neighborhood.  The problem arises when resulting changes and policy push people out of neighborhoods.  Displaced residents don’t just vanish. Financially cornered or subjected to a surprise eviction, they have to pack up their lives and move.  Where do they go? Modern gentrification is sending low-income populations to the outer rings of urban centers, something especially problematic in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh’s outer rings take an hour to reach by bus, lack the social services that were firmly established in the urban centers, and don’t have living-wage employment locally.  The job opportunities still exist and may grow in the gentrified neighborhoods, but the population who could fill those positions can no longer afford to live in the area.

Here’s the kicker, though: as cities across the United States experience the tech boom, gentrification is occurring so rapidly that it actively contributes to the homeless population.  Many individuals occupying overnight shelters and living out of cars are employed – as janitors, cooks, stadium workers, and more. Forced out by the unaffordable housing surrounding jobs they need and unable to keep up with the cost of commuting, thousands of Americans are forced into the precarious situation of working homelessness. While this is especially well documented in Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh seems to face the same inequity.  Operation Safety Net, an emergency weather shelter for men located in the downtown area, has regular attendees who are gainfully employed.  They stayed overnight, worked, and returned every evening through the shelter’s winter season. Operation Safety Net is supposed to be a crisis facility, but every night is a crisis when the rent is sky-high.    

However, it would be wrong to reduce the impact of gentrification to a purely economic one.  In addition to all the financial inequity that gentrification exploits and creates, communities can be destroyed in the process.  Root shock is a long-documented penalty endured by gentrified populations.  It’s a sense of traumatic disorientation and loss that comes from having one’s life completely uprooted, and it negatively impacts the health and stability of everyone involved.  Entire neighborhoods forced to make sudden and unexpected diasporas fall apart, and they lose vital social capital as a result. That community’s social fabric, a resource critical to all but especially important to vulnerable populations like the elderly, single mothers, and the handicapped, has dissolved.

Lacking both formal and informal networks of protection, those already struggling in low-income or otherwise vulnerable communities are cast adrift.  Their absence isn’t directly noted but is found in other ways.  Hostile architecture and the stringent anti-loitering laws are regularly incorporated into renovated public spaces to drive away the homeless.  Rent rates start to crawl upwards even for properties miles from the city. The cat café, once a superfluous luxury, becomes a respectable enterprise.  And the vulnerable slowly disappear, replaced by those with multiple degrees, able bodies, and tastes to cater to.

Very few communities have economically improved without gentrification, if any at all.  What can be done? If Amazon lands in Pittsburgh, the lower-income must be protected from poverty.  This includes a legal mandate that every new housing development reserves a percentage for lower income residencies.  It demands that policymakers remember families and marginalized individuals when they create projects intended to stimulate wealth in town.  It means placing housing-first policy before punishment if the homeless count starts to grow. Lastly, it calls for us to value the newcomers and the old timers equally regardless of either population’s utility.  Cities transform all the time, but working for equitable change would make Pittsburgh truly revolutionary.