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What we talk about when we talk about gentrification

The worst problems are in the neighborhoods that aren’t gentrifying.

The Artist Studio Affordability Project capped a day of protest in front of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015 with a tongue-in-cheek installation of indoor furniture and signs decrying the displacement incurred by gentrification.
Andy Katz/LightRocket via Getty Images

“Was anyone really asking for a gentrified Gone Girl?” reads a one-line, half-star review of Promising Young Woman.

“Graphic Novels Are Comic Books, But Gentrified” one headline to a Jacobin article proclaims.

Gentrification appends so many words these days — “graffiti,” “rock music,” “font,” “thrifting” — that it bears scant similarity to its original definition. In 1964, sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification. As Steven Thomson explained for Curbed, Glass was describing a “class phenomenon … by adapting the British-ism ‘gentry’” to describe the process of “middle class liberal arts intelligentsia” moving into her primarily working-class London neighborhood.

The term flew across the Atlantic and made its home in the United States, where similar trends would begin making their way through cities over the last few decades of the 20th century. Google Books data shows the term “gentrification” didn’t really take off in the US until the late ’90s and has been steadily growing in use ever since.

There isn’t an agreed-upon empirical definition of gentrification among scholars, which makes it difficult to talk about it with any certainty. But talk we do: From Indianapolis to Austin, on a presidential debate stage and on a panel on bike lanes, and of course, on Twitter. Any time we talk about housing, the g-word inevitably pops up.

A chart showing the rise of the term “gentrification” in books scanned by Google, spiking in the year 2000 and after. Google Books

Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.

White, wealthy neighborhoods that have refused class and racial integration have successfully avoided much scrutiny as gentrification has taken center stage in urban political fights. On the other hand, predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods often don’t gentrify due to disinvestment and centuries of racist and classist policies.

And yet, gentrification captures our imagination, providing the visual juxtaposition of inequality. While stagnant, segregated neighborhoods are an accepted backdrop of American life, fast-changing, diverse neighborhoods and the culture clash that accompanies gentrification are the battlefield where all the disagreements come to the forefront.

Gentrification as the juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots

In his 2019 paper “Hoboken Is Burning: Yuppies, Arson, and Displacement in the Postindustrial City,” Princeton historian Dylan Gottlieb documented the violent displacement Puerto Rican residents faced between 1978 and 1983 as the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, gentrified. As thousands of young professionals flooded into Hoboken, the potential sale or rent price for converted units rose precipitously, and “property owners faced powerful incentives to displace low-income tenants.”

As a result, “nearly five hundred fires ripped through tenements and rooming houses in the square-mile city,” Gottlieb writes. “Most [displaced residents] never returned to Hoboken. Nearly every fire, investigators determined, had been the result of arson.” In sum, 55 people died and over 8,000 were made homeless.

Today, this sort of violent displacement is not what most people mean when they talk about gentrification. But what, exactly, they’re talking about is less clear, and the muddled debate often produces muddled policy goals.

A recent New York Times article features a Black Brooklyn homeowner who went to talk to a new white neighbor and was mistaken as a panhandler: “I went over to strike conversation and before I could finish a sentence, he told me that he didn’t have any money,” the man told the Times. Stories like this of Black homeowners watching their neighborhoods change around them abound, often with the earlier residents experiencing culture shock as the new entrants treat them or longstanding cultural markers with disdain.

In a Twitter thread about the article, educator and historian Erica Buddington recounted how when a package was mistakenly delivered to her new neighbor’s house and she went to retrieve it, the neighbor immediately assumed she was a salesperson and shut the door in her face.

Beyond these frustrating and racist microaggressions is the concern about displacement and harms that might befall those who stay. A 2020 study by then-University of Florida sociologist Brenden Beck showed that “on average, calls to the police increased after a neighborhood’s middle-class population grew.” While Beck did not find that those calls translated into more stops or low-level arrests, he did find that “police made more order-maintenance and proactive arrests following real estate market growth.”

Yet while gentrifying neighborhoods create those types of interactions between neighbors or heavier “order maintenance” policing, the gentrification isn’t the root issue. Segregating neighborhoods does not get rid of these sentiments or the harms they cause: it simply hides them. In a wealthy, white enclave like the Upper East Side, there aren’t somehow fewer people who assume any Black person on their street is begging for money than there are in gentrifying neighborhoods. In fact, there are likely more. Gentrifying neighborhoods pull back the veil and allow for these worlds to collide, displaying the vast differences in income, access to education, and government protection and investment.

All of the problems people worry about when they invoke gentrification — displacement, police action against people of color, lack of investment, predatory landlords — are also present in segregated neighborhoods, often even more so.

As George Washington University professor Suleiman Osman wrote in his 2011 book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: “Stories abounded of renters [in Brooklyn] being pressured by landlords to leave revitalizing areas. But non-revitalizing blocks with high rates of abandonment and demolition saw rates of displacement that were just as high.”

What is gentrification?

Defining gentrification is hard, even for the experts.

The Urban Displacement Project, a research and policy group at the University of California Berkeley, defines it as:

a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood — by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in — as well as demographic change — not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.

While this covers the conceptual ideas, determining which neighborhoods are gentrifying has been difficult for researchers. Not for lack of trying: MIT urban studies PhD candidate Benjamin Preis and his study co-authors compared four different models of gentrification and displacement risk and found “striking differences between the models.” For instance, one weighted “access to public transit” as a gentrification risk factor while the others didn’t, and another didn’t include data on racial composition.

The researchers applied all of the models to Boston and found that there are “only seven [census] tracts that all four models agreed were either gentrifying or at risk of gentrification or displacement.”

“[The models] disagree on the front end, they disagree on what we call gentrification, and then not surprisingly, they really disagree on the back end to actually map out what those neighborhoods are,” Preis told Vox. “You end up with radical disagreement. One method identified nearly 120 tracts facing displacement pressure and another had just 39.”

As Columbia University researcher Brett McMillan explains in the publication Shelterforce, while people often assume that gentrification happens predominantly in overwhelmingly Black or brown neighborhoods, that is not actually the case. He details research finding “Chicago neighborhoods with Black populations of greater than 40 percent experienced significantly lower rates of gentrification” and “white ‘invasion’ into census tracts with Black populations of 50 percent or more has been a relatively infrequent phenomenon.”

The other big issue with defining gentrification is attempting to quantify physical displacement. Widely viewed as the most pernicious byproduct of gentrification, the evidence that gentrification causes physical displacement is a mixed bag.

Displacement is another phenomenon that is difficult to define. The reasons people move are not cataloged in any database, and poor Americans are notably transient due to financial insecurity. Additionally, defining “forced” displacement is difficult — if someone can afford a one-bedroom apartment in their community but not a larger home, are they being displaced if they have a kid and move to a more affordable neighborhood? People move for a variety of reasons: In 2015, FiveThirtyEight calculated that the average American moved more than 11 times in their lives, indicating that there are very few “longtime residents” of anywhere.

Importantly, research by preeminent eviction scholar Matthew Desmond “found no evidence that renters residing in gentrifying or in racially- and economically-integrated neighborhoods had a higher likelihood of eviction.” But perhaps increasing rents can cause displacement without evictions. (The way to avoid that would be to keep rents low by building more housing and preserving existing affordable housing, but more on that later.)

While the arson in Hoboken was a clear-cut case of forced displacement, measuring the insidious ways that financially insecure Americans could be nudged out of their neighborhoods is extremely difficult.

The research literature in this space is mixed. Some researchers have found that “rather than rapid displacement, gentrification was associated with slower residential turnover among [disadvantaged] households.” Other research, however, found that “between 8,300 and 11,600 households per year were displaced in New York City between 1989 and 2002 ... between 6.6 and 9.9 percent of all local moves among renter households.”

Overall, the research literature leans toward the view that gentrifying neighborhoods can lead to displacement, but they don’t have to. Gentrification can bring with it the promise of integration and sorely needed investment that can increase residents’ quality of life — but only if disadvantaged residents are set up to take part in the benefits of increased investment.

Most urban dwellers live in poor neighborhoods that stay poor, or in higher-income neighborhoods doing their damnedest to stay that way

The cry of “fire, fire, gentrifier” spread through city neighborhoods last year during some of the racial justice protests. The battle lines in these neighborhoods are not clear but the anger directed at the yuppies brunching on the sidewalks was palpable. The group that conspicuously gets to avoid this conflict? Wealthy (often white) urban and suburban homeowners who have long refused to allow either integration or even yuppies to live in their segregated neighborhoods.

While there are very real harms that accompany gentrification, it’s important not to lose the forest for the trees.

Gentrifying neighborhoods are “very tiny pieces of the story,” says UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning Karen Chapple, who leads the school’s Urban Displacement Project (UDP), which has worked to map gentrification in several US cities.

When Chapple was doing her first map of the Bay Area in 2005, she says, “about 10 percent of the neighborhoods were gentrifying but about 40 percent were just getting poorer over time. And it wasn’t the story that anybody wanted to hear. ... Systemic poverty and racism is so hard ... and [gentrification] is also much more visible.”

Looking at UDP’s work in Southern California, they find that in San Diego County only “7 percent of tracts experienced risk of or ongoing gentrification/displacement.” In Chicago, they find that only 18 percent of low-income households “live in low-income neighborhoods at risk of, or already experiencing gentrification and/or displacement.”

What’s happening in the rest of the neighborhoods? Segregation and/or concentrated poverty, which have been constant companions to disadvantaged communities.

In Denver, Colorado, they find that only “17 percent of neighborhoods were at risk of gentrification,” and “45 percent of Denver’s moderate-to-high-income neighborhoods demonstrated risk of or ongoing exclusion of lower-income households.”

Racial and income segregation locks low-income people in a trap of concentrated poverty. The best schools are relegated to the highest-income neighborhoods, good jobs often exist in either exclusive or gentrifying neighborhoods, and businesses are less willing to take root in an area of concentrated poverty because there are fewer customers. All of this is a vicious cycle that traps low-income Americans. It also hinders their ability to foster growth on their own because financial insecurity makes people transient and lacking in time and energy to build community.

Meanwhile, homeowners in well-off neighborhoods have cemented systems of local control through rules like exclusionary zoning to keep their neighborhoods prohibitively expensive for lower-income Americans, including many Black and brown Americans.

Zoning laws are the rules and regulations that decide what types of homes can be built where. While this can sound innocuous, exclusionary zoning is anything but. These rules have a dark history in the United States as a tool of racial and economic segregation, used explicitly to keep certain races, religions, and nationalities out of certain neighborhoods. And while the explicit racism has been wiped from the legal text, the effect of many of these rules remains the same: keeping affordable housing and the people who need it away from the wealthiest Americans.

City by city, the message is clear: Segregation and concentrated poverty are the true blights of urban life, despite our fascination with gentrification.

Local zoning rules often keep affordable housing and the people who need it away from the wealthiest Americans.

How to ethically create integrated neighborhoods

Gentrification does carry with it real harms, but there are ways to reduce those and to provide a pathway for integrated, equitable cities.

Integration is not a panacea, but research shows that following gentrification, “children benefit from increased exposure to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and some are more likely to attend and complete college.” Further, gentrification can allow existing homeowners in a community to benefit from the rising property values, as long as anti-displacement policies exist to ensure property tax payments don’t price people out.

There are a few other policies the US could pursue to mitigate the harms that accrue to disadvantaged communities.

First, the economic literature is clear that increased housing production reduces rents. It also ensures that new entrants don’t bid up the price of existing homes but rather turn to new construction for their housing needs. The evidence that does exist showing that modern-day gentrification leads to displacement links that displacement to rising rents. Reducing that pressure is paramount to stopping unwanted displacement. In Hoboken, New Jersey, during the violent evictions and arsons, the vacancy rate fell below 1 percent by the start of the 1980s. This supply crunch contributes to the incentive for property owners to push out lower-income tenants.

Second, tenant protection policies could help forestall some evictions. A right to counsel in housing proceedings, for example, would rebalance power between low-income tenants and property owners seeking to evict due to potential profits from selling or converting the property for higher-income use. It’s also important for cities to work to preserve existing affordable housing, especially as new housing gets built.

Third, rezoning of wealthy white segregated neighborhoods could slow the speed at which gentrifying neighborhoods change, and help tackle segregation. Slowing gentrification can ensure that local officials can respond to protect existing residents while also allowing the benefits of the phenomenon to accrue.

These types of interventions can provide a roadmap for how to ethically integrate urban neighborhoods.

None of this is to undermine the very real cultural conflict that gentrification brings. Even if you’re able to stay in your neighborhood and your home, watching store after store pop up that doesn’t serve your community or isn’t available to you at your income level can be deeply alienating. It’s no wonder that people who have faced centuries of disinvestment grow angry as public and private money flows into their neighborhoods only after high-income, college-educated people choose to move there. Even if those people are not wholly responsible for the inequality, the blatant injustice is hard to ignore.

Taken all together, it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while the unseen culprits (segregated enclaves) are able to avoid controversy: Gentrification is the most visual manifestation of inequality in urban life.

“Gentrification is a cultural sphere to work out feelings of resentment around inequality. ... Those feelings aren’t to be discounted,” Gottlieb argues. “This is a manifestation of a long-running sense of ‘I am not welcomed in the city, I don’t have a right to the city.’ Sometimes those feelings can be worked out in the cultural terrain of gentrification, even indeed if the people moving in aren’t the proximate cause for them leaving.”

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