Are parts of Virginia Beach gentrifying? City and residents say no, but expert says signs are there

“It seems like every week there is a house being torn down and a new complex being built. It’s fairly common down here,” said Ethan Connell, a resident in the South Beach area.

Gentrification is the process by which neighborhoods, often those that are poorer and rundown, are renovated to fit the tastes of the middle-class. It helps attract investors and often is tied to economic activity near those gentrified areas.

“You see a transformation in the neighborhoods. An upgrading,” said Faedah Totah, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Gentrification often is followed by increased property values, but also the displacement of poorer residents who can no longer afford their houses. Gentrifying also often pushes out racial and ethnic minorities.

Plans from Virginia Beach’s local government show a constant theme of neighborhoods being renewed and upgraded. The Envision Virginia Beach 2040 committee report, released in 2012, calls for removing blight and creating housing that is “aesthetically pleasing to the eye.”

The Department of Housing and Neighborhood Preservation’s five-year plan for 2015-2020 calls for well-maintained neighborhoods and a mission to remain “aggressive in our pursuit of ending deterioration of neighborhoods prior to them turning into blight.” The city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan of Action calls for “eliminating widespread neighborhood blight” and “the rehabilitation and revitalization of existing housing and neighborhoods.”

But Totah said these are ways to say "gentrify" without actually saying it.

“Cities don’t want to say gentrification outright. You use euphemism. ‘We want to revitalize the neighborhoods. We want to destroy blight’ That's the keyword for gentrification,” she said.

The city insists it's not gentrifying neighborhoods.

“I guess I haven’t seen a lot of (gentrification),” Archer said. “It’s creating a lot of affordable housing. We’re definitely not forcing out any residents.”

Not all citizens of areas like South Beach are excited about the new housing developments. Connell said he hopes some of the homes in his area would be saved. “Personally, I would like to see some of the older homes in my area being maintained.”

What some may call gentrification isn’t limited to the South Beach area; it’s also occurring nearby in the Oceana and Seatack neighborhoods. According to Governing, a magazine concerning state and local governments, two census tracts have been gentrified. College education in those areas increased as did the median home value. In the Oceana neighborhood, the index home price was $153,000 in 2012; in 2018, the index home price rose to $184,000.

In two of the census tracts that Governing calls gentrified — tract 442 and 440.01 — poor populations have declined. Comparing data from 2000 and 2016 shows that the number of people making less than $24,999 a year, the closest data set to the federal government’s $24,600 poverty level guidelines, has substantially decreased. This can be an indication of gentrification as poorer residents leave neighborhoods, but this data alone doesn't make it clear exactly why the population of those in poverty has decreased.

Race and ethnic data for these census tracts differs. In one tract, the black population declined, but in another it increased. Hispanic and Latino population statistics tell a similar story.

Not every Virginia Beach resident is convinced that what’s going on is gentrification. Michael Crane, a renovator and Virginia Beach resident who lived on 24th Street until recently, said it’s not gentrification because poor people are not systematically being pushed from the areas.

“I don’t think what's going on in the Oceanfront is gentrification," Crane said. "It’s a hard argument to make to charge thousands of dollars a month when a house is 60 years old.”

Instead, Crane said the new houses are how real estate agents can justify charging high amounts for homes based on property value.

Crane also said he's enthusiastic for developments, especially in places like the ViBe Creative District. “(Virginia Beach) is starting to make progressive changes to its image.”

The ViBe district, an arts scene, is near the historic Old Beach district, which is part of the South Beach area. The ViBe district works to attract businesses; loans and incentive programs have been set up by the Virginia General Assembly to drive that growth.

However, Totah said, the historical aspect and even the financial incentives program can be factors and evidence of gentrification in the area. Gentrification often happens in older and more historic parts of cities, she said, and tax credits and other financial incentives can be indicative of ways governments try to help facilitate gentrifying historic areas. That history doesn’t just help boost the ViBe Creative District, it also can help attract potential homeowners.

“The fact that it is a storied area is the reason people want to move in,” Connell said.

“The purpose is to capitalize on history," Totah said of gentrification. "It serves as an attraction.”

While gentrification can potentially displace the poor working class population and racial or ethnic minorities, it isn’t bad for everyone. It can benefit those looking for their first home and for investors, Totah said.

“Is it good? Is it bad? It depends where you stand."