When cities gentrify, large families often get squeezed

Gentrifying neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, and elsewhere are making life more difficult for poor, large families.

Developers raze old apartment buildings, and erect in their place luxury dwellings that long-time families cannot afford. Those families must then deal with displacement. Sometimes, they have to move to other neighborhoods that may be far from support services, schools, and jobs.

There are studies that say poverty is a bigger issue for these families than is gentrification, the latter of which is fairly rare. But when developers come in, large families who are displaced are even more challenged to find apartments that meet their needs. These are families with multiple children, or families which include members of multiple generations who have moved in to share resources. The Pew Research Center began charting the multi-generational trend six years ago, at the tail end of the Great Recession. Now, the Census counts some 60 million Americans who live in multi-generational homes. That’s double the number who did so in 1980.

And that’s not just people of the millennial generation who are failing to launch. The Census says 10 percent of all American children live in a home that includes at least one grandparent. (Included in that group are the Obama daughters, and their maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson, who moved into the White House to help the Obamas with the girls.)

The Obamas’ housing situation is most likely secure even after the election, but that is not the case for families who must move between public housing units. The federal government has strict residency rules for families who live in Section 8 housing. A family of four – depending on the gender and age of the residents – could require as many as four bedrooms, and apartments that large are rare.

Yet large poor families – multi-generational or not – are rarely a part of public policy discussions. Instead, cities tend to focus on building smaller units like studios or smaller. In New York, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan for multiple “micro-units” that include living spaces of just a few hundred square feet.

Housing advocates spoke up and said the plans didn’t include enough space for large families.

That’s the case nationwide. In most cities, city-financed housing are smaller units – two-bedroom apartments are the outlier.

Governing magazine recently compiled data from 25 larger cities and found that most towns lack affordable homes that offer more than two bedrooms. Cities with the largest need for affordable homes for families included San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York.

A March study from NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy echoed much of the same. Between 2006 and 2014, among 11 metro areas studied, seven became significantly less affordable to the typical. The same study said that in every metro areas, households were getting larger.

So where do these large families go? Sometimes, they go to the local homeless shelters, and space there, too, is limited. In D.C., where developers are gentrifying neighborhoods in the northeast part of the capital, housing advocates have filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination because of “familial status,” or having a child under the age of 18 in the household. In one neighborhood, multi-generational families face breaking up households and finding smaller housing units.

Federal law says it’s illegal to refuse to rent to a family with children. The courts will have to decide if not offering sufficient housing to large families in the first place is discriminatory, as well.

Campbell is a journalist, author and distinguished lecturer in journalism at the University of New Haven. She is the author of Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl and the upcoming Searching for The American Dream in Frog Hollow. Her work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, The New Haven Register and The Guardian. Follow her @campbellsl


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