Issue 4: Gentrification

Gentrification is a word on many lips these days. Webster’s dictionary dates the term to 1964: “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier usu. poorer residents.”

Is this happening in Rockland? Not exactly. Records at the assessors and code offices do not evidence an “influx”. There is no apparent rise in building permit applications. Total valuation is up less than 1% since 2013.

One trend is noted by John Root, Rockland’s code officer. A few years ago building permits were mostly for new construction out of town, on the Bog Road for example. Now that is rarer, and permits are increasingly for rehabilitation of houses in the city’s central residential areas. Rockland is increasingly being appreciated as a city – as a compact, walkable place to live.

It is being appreciated especially in summer, it seems. Thirty years ago Rockland summer rentals were unheard of, now they are the talk of the town. City records do not show which houses are occupied only in summer, but summer rentals these days are typically offered through Airbnb and other online listings. A local innkeeper, concerned about competition, went online to learn just how many people were advertising short-term rentals in Rockland. He found 71 houses being offered. This is clearly significant, but at less than 3% of  houses in Rockland cannot explain the trend, often blamed on gentrification, of rising rents in the city.

Rents in Rockland are definitely increasing, inexpensive rental housing has become scarce, and some poorer residents are indeed being pushed out of the city. It is not the case, however, that affluent people are displacing poorer people, but rather that our aging rental housing stock is deteriorating, and not being replaced.

A key factor appears to be Rockland’s building code, which requires older buildings to conform to modern standards. Much of Rockland’s rental housing stock is large old houses that were converted decades ago to multi-family housing, a process that is no longer permitted. These tenements are now considered “non-conforming.” The stairways, for example, are steeper than current standards, but replacing them with shallower ones requires expanding the stairwell, generally impractical.

City policy allows landlords to continue to lease the apartments, but not to sell the building without the expensive renovations. So the buildings are devalued, neglected, and eventually torn down. State and local regulations make new construction of low-rent apartment buildings too expensive to be profitable, so, except where it is heavily government subsidized, no new housing is being built. John Root agrees that the number of available apartments in Rockland is declining.

Some people think this is a good thing. The people who are living in the apartments are “not the sort of people we want in Rockland.” So while poorer residents are not being displaced by more affluent ones, they are being forced out of Rockland by the standards that more affluent residents demand. Perhaps it is a sort of gentrification after all.

This Wednesday’s Rockland Metro show, live on WRFR at 5 PM, will discuss Rockland’s changing demographics, what future we want, and what ordinances we think will help things go our way. To offer to join the on-air discussion, or to reserve a place at the dinner symposium that follows the show, email sugerhollowglass@earthlink.net