Is Tempe seeing a wave of gentrification?

Rapid development in Tempe's urban core shows symptoms typical of a gentrifying city

For cities such as Tempe that are undergoing population change, development and gentrification, tensions often result. The history of Tempe has already exhibited these tensions; for instance, the influx of “hippie” college students to Mill Avenue stoked resentment from the older population.

The city today faces problems often associated with gentrification, such as issues with policing, changes in neighborhood-level incomes, rent hikes and changing architecture and building heights. 

Changes that Tempe has undergone and is currently working through reflect previous stages of its evolution, such as the construction and improvement regimes of the Town Lake and the light rail. 

A major factor in understanding these changes is acknowledging the evolution that Arizona State University has undergone.

ASU is the largest employer in Tempe and has been for several years. Students from the University have historically been vital to the fortunes of many of the businesses on Mill Avenue and in the urban core area, in general. In addition, thousands of students who attend the Tempe campus either live on campus or rent in the outlying areas.

ASU-owned on and off campus student housing occupies much of the real estate in the urban core area, and housing for students living off-campus in Tempe does as well. 

Several high-rise apartment buildings in the vicinity of ASU charge high rents for their luxury branding. For instance, 922 Place, a high-rise on Apache, charges rents at about $1800 for a two-bedroom apartment ($899 per person), well above the current Tempe average of $1,236 per month for a two bedroom apartment, according to Rentcafe, a rental listings site.

The University provides additional support to similar such higher-rent apartment buildings in the vicinity of campus through its community ambassador program, providing resources that students who choose to live elsewhere do not receive.    

Many of those students live in the outlying single-family residential neighborhoods and apartments. When students struggle to find affordable housing through more reputable landlords, they may turn to some rentiers with unscrupulous business practices.

One example of this is the conduct of Tempe landlord Tim Wright, owner of Rentals Tempe, a Tempe-based real estate company that heavily markets to ASU students. As was reported by The State Press at the time, Wright was sued by dozens of former residents for withholding security deposits and refusing to make necessary repairs. Fifteen years later, in September, 2018, the Arizona Mirror reported that he is still continuing these renting practices.

The Tempe campus itself dominates the space of the urban core, visibly juxtaposing itself by a marked increase in building height as compared to the surrounding area — although this is changing as taller buildings are being added in the vicinity at a regular pace, such as The Local, a planned six-story building under construction on Ash Avenue and University Drive.

Planned ASU-led developments, including a 20-story senior living facility called Mirabella, will also tower over the adjacent Maple-Ash neighborhood. Omni Hotel, a hotel and conference center development planned for ASU property in the urban core, is likely to reach similar heights.

Most residential zoning in the urban core area is either single-family residential or somewhat shorter apartment buildings. High rises such as Mirabella, the W6 and University House are newer forms of development to the City of Tempe. 

These novel developments have prompted concern from residents in the nearby Maple-Ash neighborhood about historic preservation and the character of neighborhoods, as evidenced by public comments on the city’s Urban Core Masterplan.

"The existing single-family residential style of [Maple-Ash] needs to be protected," one resident said in the comments. "No more out-of-scale development.” 

Another comment read, “the historic neighborhoods need to be preserved and commercial development, condos and apartments need to be kept out.” 

Policing practices in Tempe have generated furor among many locals in the past and continue to do so today.



In August of 2013, Tempe Police department launched its controversial Safe and Sober program, the purpose of which was to police underage drinking by students in the areas outlying ASU during the first few weeks of the school year in an effort to reduce crime overall. Although Tempe Police Department claimed that this approach reduced crime, TPD assessments of the program showed no causal link between Tempe Police policing practices and crime rates. The program was officially discontinued in 2015, but it has persisted in a modified form with reduced police presence.

According to an August 15, 2015 article in the Phoenix New Times, residents in the downtown Tempe neighborhoods being patrolled complained that the program was racially biased. According to the New Times piece, “The neighborhood alliance Maple – Ash – Farmer – Wilson, named for four parallel streets at the heart of downtown Tempe, lobbied hard against Safe & Sober, saying it made the community feel like a ‘police state.’” 

The State Press also published an investigation into the fraying relationship between the police and the public as the result of the increased enforcement in 2014.

The City of Tempe has also been criticized for attempting to criminalize homelessness, as evidenced by the State Press Editorial Board, which, in 2015, published a video in which they criticized the city’s ban on homeless people sitting on sidewalks that block the public right-of-way, and instead called on the city to expand social services. The next year, Tempe amended the law in such a way that made it illegal to sit on the sidewalk during certain periods of the day, on penalty of an $100 fine.

Usage by some residents of the city’s 311 services has also been attacked by residents, such as Drew Sullivan (owner of Ash Avenue Comics), as an attempt to criminalize homelessness. In 2016, The State Press reported that the ability to anonymously and publicly report had led to residents using the app to target the homeless — which is not the app’s purpose — and their own neighbors.

In what ways are controversies over policing in Tempe related to the changes that are occurring through the processes of gentrification and development?

According to CNBC, Gentrification is associated with depletion of affordable housing stock and rising rent in poorer neighborhoods. Rising rents overall make this problem worse; the Arizona Republic reported that rents in the Phoenix metro area have “climbed about 20 percent since 2014”, and the Phoenix metro is the 9th most unaffordable for renters in the nation.

Lack of housing affordability can, in turn, be tied to growing homelessness; a UCLA study found a “strong correlation” between high median rents and homelessness, consonant with a wider body of research on the subject. 

In addition, Citylab has reported that in New York City increased use of 311 services was linked to gentrification. In a study, they found that, over the time period surveyed “[p]er capita 311 calls increased in all neighborhoods, but they rose at a 70 percent faster rate in the gentrifying ones.”

The Atlantic also reported an uptick policing enforcement in areas experiencing gentrification.

Many of the issues related to policing were centered around the Mill Avenue area (Downtown Tempe). In a previous article about the history of gentrification, State Press Magazine described the history behind current geographic patterns of gentrification and development, specifically patterns that centered around Mill Avenue, the light rail and Tempe Town Lake.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data on median household income by block group indicates that, in the span of 3 years, rapid changes have taken place in the economic makeup of the area directly northwest of ASU’s Tempe campus. Median household income changes for the city overall were slightly positive, but the changes in median household income greatly outpaced them.

Gross rents also increased in those areas over the same time frame.

While this report on gentrification in Tempe is far from comprehensive, this analysis suggests Tempe is currently experiencing changes in demographic makeup in certain areas of the city.

These changes include gentrification in the downtown area as indicated by an analysis of 2013-2016 income data, indicating a shift in income from the some parts of the urban core to the suburbs in South Tempe. 

In addition, the recent history of conflict over policing and homelessness in Tempe among residents resembles other urban areas that have, or are currently, undergoing gentrification. Only recently, anger erupted over a Tempe City Council decision to spend $250,000 to place armed guards at city parks. The move was immediately criticized, and local activist and former city council candidate Justin Stewart called it an effort to criminalize homelessness, although the city denies this charge.

With an ever-evolving urban core so closely tied to ASU, policing and development, the residents of Tempe are seeing their city in flux. With the continuous growth of the University and multiple major high rises slated for development, the forces of gentrification will be at work in Tempe into the distant future. 


Reach the reporter at bjcoope7@asu.edu and follow @bcoop_az on Twitter. 

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