Gentrification in a pandemic: How coronavirus is transforming American cities

By Charlie Fletcher


For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic has upended daily life, even putting our livelihoods at risk.

Millions of Americans are facing continued job loss and/or underemployment in the wake of social distancing, resulting in widespread housing instability, especially among renters of colour.

And in many traditionally Black neighbourhoods, gentrification has only served to further compound the economic repercussions of Covid-19. 

The concept of gentrification dates back to 1960s London, and it has seen its share of controversy over the years. On the surface, gentrification appears to be a solid idea, with the ultimate goal of urban renewal.

Yet that purported growth and rejuvenation often comes at the expense of a neighbourhood’s long-time residents, notably low-income individuals and people of colour. Gentrification and resident displacement, unfortunately, tend to go hand-in-hand. 

There are ways to combat gentrification, and various communities have done so.

In 2019, the fight against gentrification in South Los Angeles even made it to Congress, with support from celebrities including the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.

In nearby Oakland, so-called “opportunity zones” were established pre-Covid-19 to help keep Black and immigrant-owned businesses afloat in the rapidly gentrifying area surrounding International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare.

Despite this, efforts have effectively come to a standstill as a result of the pandemic.

Entrepreneurs and residents of colour are disproportionately affected, and more changes are expected as Covid-19 and gentrification both continue to spread.

Gentrification across America

While gentrification has become the norm in several major American cities in recent years, a mid-2020 study found the bulk of US gentrification occurs in just 20 cities.

San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, and Denver rank among the nation’s most gentrified, where housing and income equality are rampant.

At the core of the problem is the fact that wages are relatively stagnant in these metro areas, and rent costs continue to increase in gentrified neighbourhoods. 

Between 2000 and 2015, the median rent in the San Francisco Bay Area rose 30%. That increase resulted in a 21% decrease in low-income households of colour, according to a report co-authored by the University of California, Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project and the California Housing Partnership.

Racial segregation and poverty rates also increased during that timeframe, and gentrification is a likely culprit. 

Increased poverty rates often have a notable effect on public health, with long-term poverty linked to various health problems.

Poverty can also drastically impact one’s credit over the long term, especially for those who are unable to pay their bills due to health problems or job loss related to Covid-19.

Low-income residents in gentrified areas may be forced to relocate to find affordable housing. Others may opt to move in with a roommate or family member to offset housing costs. 

And make no mistake: Renting an apartment with bad credit can be difficult in the best of times, but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

Until the economic fallout of coronavirus has subsided, landlords will be less likely to take the risk of renting to someone with a poor credit score.

The business of gentrification

Resident displacement is just the beginning of gentrification, which affects business owners as well as neighbourhood residents.

Although more research is needed, legal experts believe small business owners may be displaced in the process of urban renewal.

Those displaced small businesses are then replaced by large chains, and much of a neighbourhood’s culture and charm is lost in the process. 

In Harlem, Black business owners were already struggling to stay afloat before coronavirus hit.

According to a CNN Business report, a local economic development group saw its share of Black business owners drop to 65% in early 2020, down from a reported 80% in 2011.

Many of those small businesses owe months of rent they can’t pay due to customer and revenue loss under coronavirus restrictions.

Recent data indicates the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), created in response to Covid-19, overwhelmingly hurt minority-owned businesses rather than helping them.

Small business owners who applied for PPP loans were found to face more hurdles than larger, wealthier companies, as well as existing customers of lending institutions. 

Moving past Covid-19 and gentrification

PPP funds were part of the larger CARES Act intended to help business owners cover utility, rent, and payroll costs.

Theoretically, countless minimum-wage workers would still receive a paycheck even if their place of employment stayed shut due to coronavirus restrictions.

Other countries have proposed similar solutions to alleviate the economic burden of Covid-19, including the idea of providing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to every citizen.

Worker income is especially relevant in conversations about gentrification and healthy communities, as unemployment is a pervasive social issue.

Long-term unemployment can have a devastating impact on communities, and may serve as a hindrance to future job opportunities.

In terms of individual health, chronic or long-term unemployment has been shown to intensify negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.

Unemployment is also a catalyst for increased displacement, as long-term city residents may move to another city in search of job opportunities.

As people from all walks of life continue to adapt to a world that includes COVID-19, the reality of gentrification must be considered.

What will America’s gentrified cities look like when most or all local businesses are shuttered, and long-term residents displaced?


Featured Image: Anastasiia Chepinska @ Unsplash

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