Beyond Gentrification: Roundtable of Experts

Theresa Singleton – Housing Assistance Council

Harold Simon: Gentrification is usually considered an urban issue. Does it affect rural communities? What are some
strategies to combat it?

Theresa Singleton: Rural areas experience gentrification; however, it differs in important ways from the gentrification that occurs in urban communities. While urban gentrification typically affects a specific neighborhood, rural gentrification affects a whole town or county. Further, while urban gentrification typically involves issues of both race and class — two issues that are often conflated — in rural areas, gentrification is primarily an issue of class. Wealthy whites have migrated to amenity-rich rural enclaves to avail themselves of the natural beauty and resources these rural communities have to offer. In doing so, the influx of new people and new money changes the character of these areas and affects the native population in important ways. Many have referred to these changes as conflicts between “cowboys and cappuccinos.”

The central difference between rural and urban gentrification is that rural residents seem not to be displaced in the same way that urban neighborhood residents are, though there is a need for more analysis of these issues. In general, rural residents are less likely to move than their urban counterparts; nearly 59 percent of the nonmetro population lives in the same houses they did in 1995. However, those nonmetro residents who moved between 1995 and 2000 were more likely than urban movers to relocate to different counties. As noted above, rural gentrification tends to affect entire counties. Consequently, residents who are pressured by gentrification and the dynamics that typically occur (e.g., rising housing costs) would be forced to leave the county to escape these pressures.

Simon: Can you speak a little more about organizing rural communities? How do you balance consensus versus confrontation and how do you get the maximum buy-in, especially from diverse interests?

Singleton: Again, organizing around gentrification has been much different in rural areas than in urban. Much of the interest in and activism against rural gentrification has come from the farming and agricultural community. There has been a loss of more than 250 million acres of agricultural land in this country since the 1950s. Further, a significant portion of prime agricultural land is currently in the path of development. Farmers have found common cause with rural residents who have seen their home prices and rents increase exponentially with increased growth and development. To combat these issues, rural residents have sometimes supported limited growth strategies to reduce the costs of development. More than 13 states have passed legislation that in some way limits or directs growth and development. Local areas have utilized planning tools such as zoning and housing caps, which may offer at least some protection for rural residents against gentrification and its potentially harmful impacts.

Rural gentrification has been a contentious issue in many rural areas, as these communities often have competing interests of wanting to preserve rural character and needing the economic stimulus that new people and businesses can bring. In order to address these issues, rural areas have been encouraged to engage in early community planning to determine the type and scale of growth the areas can handle. Planning can give a community an understanding of its needs and resources and serve to build coalitions among groups that may not consider themselves to have like concerns. Further, a community can gain insight as to the appropriate level of growth to accommodate the interests of native residents and newcomers.

Simon: Sprawl contributes to disinvestment in inner cities. What does it do to rural communities?

Singleton: Sprawl tends to impact rural areas differently than urban areas. Urban sprawl has been one, if not the, major contributor to rural population growth over the last decades. From 1990 to 2000, the nonmetro population grew by 10 percent. In the western states, such as Colorado, Arizona and Utah, rural areas have experienced population increases of 30 percent or more during this same time period. As people and businesses have moved from the urban center, many have bypassed the suburbs and relocated to rural communities. This geographic shift has multiple impacts on rural areas and residents. For some rural areas, the in-migration of new residents may be hailed, as it may mean more jobs for local residents and subsequently, an increased tax base for a struggling community.

Urban sprawl, and the resulting growth, may also bring an increased pressure on rural community resources, including roads, schools and other public works. New residents will require more, and often new, services from local governments that are typically unprepared or unable to meet these growing needs. Increased growth also places additional pressures on land and housing. As rural communities have become more attractive to developers and potential residents, agricultural land and green spaces have been lost to encroaching subdivisions. The consumption of agricultural lands is another important component of the loss of rural character that defines rural gentrification. The movement of people from urban to rural areas also creates pressures on local housing markets. Competition over limited housing and limited land leads to increased costs, which can be burdensome for many rural residents, as more than 25 percent of all nonmetro households are cost burdened, paying 30 percent or more of their household income for housing costs.

Simon: Is it possible to create urban/rural collaboratives? Where have they occurred? How do they operate?

Singleton: While rural and urban communities may have some conflicting interests with regard to urban sprawl (i.e., competition for industry and jobs), there has been collaboration between the two to address the impacts of sprawl and the results of gentrification. Under the banner of “smart growth,” many states and local communities have tried to preserve rural character by limiting the amount or type of growth and development that can occur in these regions. States and counties across the nation have adopted no-growth zones and lot size requirements to limit urban sprawl and the rural gentrification that results. There is some question, however, as to how these policies may affect economic development efforts and the development of affordable housing for low income rural residents. For example, developers of low income housing in rural areas often cannot meet the large lot requirements or pay the impact fees that may be used to limit growth in rural areas. Consequently, affordable housing needs that exist in rural areas may go unmet. Smart growth and other efforts to preserve the character of rural communities must balance the often competing needs of the residents and the land.

Theresa Singleton manages research for the Housing Assistance Council. She holds a PhD. in political science. Her current areas of interest include the connections between housing and health, ethnic and racial diversity in rural areas, and organizational capacity.

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