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UCLA Symposium Examines Gentrification as a Public Health Issue

In News by Patrick Range McDonald

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deems gentrification a public health issue. Columbia University has been analyzing the health impacts of gentrification for years. Now UCLA is making the holistic connection.

“While gentrification can bring change and growth into a community,” organizers of the 22nd annual UCLA Health Care Symposium wrote in a statement, “it directly affects those most vulnerable through displacement, disruption of community ties, and decreased access to healthcare. Healthcare professionals and the community have a role in viewing gentrification as a public health issue that is inextricably tied to the lives who are served by the healthcare system.”

The symposium, titled “Gentrification and Health: Understanding and Healing the Wounds of Our Community,” was hosted by students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA on January 27. More than 200 people attended the event, which was held at the UCLA campus.

Featured speakers included Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a noted urban psychiatrist and professor at the New School; Dr. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor at the UCLA Department of Urban Planning; and Dr. Kartika Palar, assistant professor, Division of HIV, Infectious Disease and Global Medicine at the University of California – San Francisco.

Over the course of breakout sessions and speeches, the experts were unequivocal: gentrification clearly harms the health of lower- and middle-income residents in Los Angeles and cities around the globe. Dr. Mindy Fullilove, who described the symposium as a “signal day” for linking gentrification to health, urged policymakers and the public to see gentrification in a broader context.

“If we want to better manage health,” Fullilove said during her keynote speech, “we don’t need better hospitals. We need a better society.”

Dr. Kartika Palar, an expert on food insecurity, in which people don’t have regular access to healthy quantities of affordable, nutritious foods, said there are a “myriad of ways [that] food insecurity is linked to gentrification,” noting that “renters are at higher risk of food insecurity than homeowners.”

In a gentrifying neighborhood, for example, lower-income residents face constant rent increases. Too often, a large chunk of their paychecks go to rent, with little left over for quality meals. That sets off an unhealthy cycle, month after month, of poor diets, which can more easily lead to sickness and disease.

Yet Dr. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris said that “[urban] planners were not quick to understand the health impacts” of gentrification and displacement. The professor, who studied how transit-oriented development helped cause gentrification in certain L.A. neighborhoods, added that lower- and middle-income Angelenos are facing “significant stress” due to gentrification, triggering “adverse health impacts.”

During her research, Loukaitou-Sideris said she “definitely” found that transit-oriented development created a “loss of affordable housing.” She encouraged elected officials to institute land-use policies that “prevent” gentrification, rather than mitigate the damage after the fact.

Tenants rights groups and housing justice organizations have long demanded prevention measures from local and state politicians, including strengthening tenants’ protections, preserving existing affordable housing stock, and ending land-use policies that put developers’ profits over the needs of working people.

In L.A., elected officials continue to ignore those issues, not urgently addressing the city’s affordable-housing and homeless crises and approving luxury mega-projects that gentrify working-class neighborhoods.

In the big picture, Fullilove said, that kind of policymaking hurts us all.

“There’s one community,” she explained, “and we are all a part of it. If we’re trashing one part of the community, we are trashing ourselves.”

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Photo by Laurie Avocado/Creative Commons