Sarah Fox


Gentrification is a term often used, much maligned, and difficult to define. A few general principles can nonetheless be distilled regarding the concept. First, gentrification is spurred by rising desirability of an area for housing or commercial purposes. Second, this rising desirability, following basic supply-and-demand principles, leads to higher property values and rents in an uncontrolled market. Third, gentrification leads to a shift in the demographics of a neighborhood. This shift can change not only the socioeconomic and racial composition of the area but also the community's character, as residential and commercial options begin to reflect the preferences of the new arrivals to the neighborhood. Much has been written and discussed about the nature of gentrification and its impacts on communities. Less has appeared in the legal literature focusing on one specific catalyst for gentrification-improvements to the environment.

Environmental gentrification is a term used by social scientists to refer to the process by which environmental cleanups, or other improvements to environmental health, spur the cycle of gentrification. Where land or waterways have been contaminated, cleanup of those resources often leads to renewed interest in the surrounding areas by developers and more affluent tenants and homebuyers. This is particularly the case in urban areas where the quantity of usable land is limited. In such areas, environmental contamination may have long contributed to depressing property values below what the market would otherwise support; removal of that contamination may make these neighborhoods instant targets for new residential entrants and new development. In the same way, recovery of natural resources and open land may make the surrounding communities immediately desirable. When that happens, communities that have long been subject to the ill effects of environmental contamination may gain relief only to face pressures on other fronts, including rising rents and property taxes.

While environmental law has much to say about facilitating environmental improvements, it has had few entry points to date for addressing the impacts of environmental gentrification. These impacts include reduced affordability, displacement, and corresponding loss of community, all of which may undermine the ability of environmental laws to achieve environmental justice goals. Moreover, these impacts also have the potential to reverse efforts toward urban sustainability. Thus, environmental law may work at cross-purposes with itself: while traditional environmental laws encourage environmental cleanups, their failure to respond to the broader issue of affordable housing means that urban areas may be far from sustainable in a larger sense. This Article examines the divide that often exists between environmental law and affordable housing and explains why the problem of environmental gentrification is one for environmental law to solve. Finally, it suggests some legal tools to consider when confronting this phenomenon.