The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 17, 2015

How millennials’ taste for cities can build a more inclusive generation

June 17, 2015

I am the perfect millennial cliché. After college, I moved to a diverse neighborhood in a big city for my so-called “creative class” job. That anecdote is cliché for a reason: many young people are choosing cities over suburbs, and they’re doing it at a time when cities are on our minds, with deep-seated social discord in Ferguson and Baltimore, bankruptcy in Detroit, and population and economic booms in San Francisco and Washington, DC.

And for every millennial cliché story in the news, there is one about the tension that follows privileged young people as they drive up rents and, potentially, drive out long-time residents.

Rolf Pendall, who directs Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy center, has been thinking about millennials and US population growth for years. He talked through those narratives at a Tuesday evening event with Emily Badger, a Washington Post reporter who writes (and thinks) extensively about the social and economic structure of cities.

 

As Pendall noted, the millennial generation (born between about 1980 and 1995) is the biggest ever (with 65 million people) and the most diverse ever (only about 63 percent white, non-Hispanic). And that diversity means that you can find lots of ways to measure and see inequality, he said.

The most obvious way harkens back to my cliché: "We’re using [‘millennial’] as if it’s a code word for a particular kind of millennial,” Badger said last night. When we say “millennial,” by and large we’re talking about privileged people with college degrees. But that ignores an important part of our big and diverse generation.

Another way to look at it is that among millennials there are contours of inequality similar to those of the baby boomer generation. Many privileged young people moving into city neighborhoods have enough purchasing power to drive up rents and change the nature of those communities. But millions of millennials already live there, grew up there, and have years of family and community ties.

What’s more, those neighborhoods often reflect the boomer-era’s policies of inequality: segregation, political and economic disinvestment, historically concentrated poverty. As people move in, will they bring needed investment and jobs to these communities, or will they remake those neighborhoods and push long-time residents out?

That’s a key question, and it’s why Badger avoids the word “gentrification” as much as she can. “It’s a problematic word because it’s very vague, and it has different connotations,” she said, and that means it’s not useful for thinking about what’s happening in urban neighborhoods. Gentrification could be a new Starbucks or a new grocery store in a place that has few amenities or job opportunities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When we use the g-word with a negative connotation, we really mean displacement: pushing long-time residents out. But, instead, if millennials bring investment, jobs, and amenities in an inclusive way to historically disinvested neighborhood, that’s a goal to strive for.

The policies we need in order to build inclusive cities

Pendall believes that goal is achievable. “This is where I get most excited about the potential for millennials to provide a source of capital for building … equity and inclusion into cities,” he said.  

And it’s critical to note that, contrary to the pervasive headlines, “gentrification” as we think about it is pretty rare: the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods that were poor 10 or 20 years ago are still poor today. That means there is potential—if we do it right—for today’s young people to make new, inclusive cities.

How? As Badger said, there are lots of city- and state-driven policies that work. Cities can give property-tax breaks to longtime residents so they can afford to stay in neighborhoods with rising property values. They can expand housing voucher programs to give all city residents housing choice, and they can simultaneously require landlords to accept those vouchers.

Further, Pendall noted that there will be millions of new renters in the next 15 years. We can start today to ensure equitable access to rental housing, but we should also simply build much more of it, which will keep rents lower and might encourage the type of urban density that many young people seek. And encouraging homeownership could stem growing wealth inequality and help renters at the top of the rental-income distribution move into ownership, opening more rental housing for others.

Those policies are all necessary but insufficient for building inclusive and equitable cities. But another vein of optimism is that cities can be great laboratories for policy innovation and experimentation. Once the goal of inclusion is clear, the policies Pendall and Badger described will serve as a great starting point. 

Photo by Adrienne Hapanowicz

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