In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” to describe working-class London neighborhoods that were being changed by new residents who were much more affluent. “One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-class … until all or most of the working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” 
Since that time, the meaning of gentrification has broadened to include nearly any situation in which affluent people are residing and investing in a formerly run-down neighborhood. This is an unfortunate shift because it now lumps situations which are largely beneficial with a far smaller number of situations in which real problems result from the influx of people and money.
Even more worrisome is that in many circles, including much of the popular press, the term gentrification has become a pejorative -- laden with all sorts of negative connotations. To be accused of participating in gentrification is seemingly just a step or two better than being accused of being a racist. Director Spike Lee considers it to be little more than a neocolonialist land grab, or as he more colorfully puts it: “the motherf***ing Christopher Columbus Syndrome.” 
Most commentators are a bit more polite, but exaggerations and mischaracterizations still abound. I could easily cite stories from around the country, but two examples from my normally laid back hometown of Kansas City will suffice. In one local news story, a neighborhood activist equated gentrification with “ethnic cleansing.”  In a second example, the Kansas City Star ran an editorial titled “Stop the Denverization of Kansas City. Troost doesn’t need to be hipster friendly.”  Troost Avenue is the street that has historically been the dividing line between affluent neighborhoods that are predominantly white and more disadvantaged neighborhoods that are more heavily black. Apparently, the editors at The Star consider the integration caused by white people moving into a largely black neighborhood to be a bad thing. They specifically took issue with a project on Troost that rehabbed a former industrial bakery because the rent for a two-bedroom unit started at $1,100. Adding several dozen residences along with several storefronts and restaurants in a building that was vacant is presumably a terrible thing for the neighborhood because it might attract “hipsters” or other people who don’t match the characteristics of the current residents.
While the original usage of the term gentrification focused mainly on differences in economic status and social class, more recently elements of racial and generational differences have been added to the mix. In the United States in particular, incoming residents in gentrifying neighborhoods tend to be both whiter and younger.
To be fair, when a neighborhood gentrifies there can be negative consequences and it obviously can make people uncomfortable. I’m not going to ignore those negative consequences, but I will argue that there are typically far more positive effects that result from reinvestment in declining neighborhoods than negative ones, especially in Midwestern cities. I will also do my best to back my arguments with the latest research rather than rely on knee-jerk reactions from residents who are afraid of change.
The Problem of Change
Cities are constantly evolving. Nothing about a city is truly static but we lose sight of that truth because change often happens so slowly that a given neighborhood might appear to be static until something dramatic occurs. At the same time, human beings have a strong predisposition toward the status quo. We are adaptable -- but change takes work and unless we are motivated to incorporate change into our lives we prefer to have things stay the same.
This is particularly true of the neighborhoods in which we live. All of us want to feel comfortable and accepted in our neighborhoods, so many of us like living in an area where the other residents are like us and the residential units that others live in are more or less like ours. It is easier to understand and relate to your neighbors if you share a common racial, economic or ethnic background. At the very least, we like a neighborhood where the resident mix is stable because when the resident mix changes, it makes us uncomfortable. Will I know how to relate to my new neighbors? What if the new group expands rapidly and I become the outsider? Will my values and lifestyle be accepted by the new residents or will they expect me to change? The common reaction is to push back against the incoming group before any of these questions can be answered. It is an instinctive negative reaction even if the change might prove to be positive in the long run.
|The Westside neighborhood in Kansas City|
A related problem is that humans have a heavy bias toward the recent past, as opposed to the long-term view of history. The Tony award winning musical “In the Heights” is a bittersweet story of a latinx neighborhood in New York City that is undergoing gentrification. Old businesses are relocating because they are being out-bid for commercial space and the residents are torn between staying or moving on. The story-line follows the reaction to these changes by a variety of characters, but the common thread is that something valuable is being lost in the gentrification process. What the story doesn’t explain is that Washington Heights has a long history that includes not only a variety of urban forms but an even wider variety of resident populations. The early development of the Heights was fueled by Irish and Eastern European immigrants, followed by an influx of German Jews, and then immigrants from Greece, Cuba and Russia. Surely those transitions were every bit as bittersweet as the one portrayed by In the Heights.
My point is that neighborhood change is normal and we should be encouraging people to be accepting of that change. Deal with the problems but embrace the opportunities for making the future better than the past. What I find particularly disheartening about much of the rhetoric surrounding gentrification are the eerie similarities to the rationales used against blacks moving into white neighborhoods in the 60s, 70s and 80s. “Those people have different values than we do” or “We won’t be able to preserve the character of our neighborhood.” Those types of statements are simply code for “I just want to live with people who are like me.” As a society, we need to be better than that. Integration should be a goal for all neighborhoods, regardless of who the base population is at any given moment.
The Issue of Displacement
The issue that is frequently cited as the most significant problem with gentrification is the displacement of low-income or disadvantaged households. As a neighborhood gentrifies, the theory is that long-term residents are forced out of the neighborhood either indirectly through rising rents or directly by landlords who are seeking redevelopment opportunities aimed at attracting more affluent residents.
This type of displacement can have devastating effects on low-income households. First, such households may need to move further out to find replacement housing, generally making their commutes more difficult (or expensive) and often raising their cost of housing in the process. Second, displacement can disrupt the fragile institutional, community and social networks that disadvantaged households often rely upon to simply survive. A household with major health issues may have found nearby medical resources tailored to people with lower incomes. Or a household with a disabled person may have found neighbors or community groups willing to assist with transportation needs. Or a low income household may have found ways to get by through social connections to people who are willing to barter or discount their services (“I know a guy who will repair your AC for just the cost of parts.”) In any case, disrupting these networks through a forced move can push struggling households over the edge into complete dysfunction.
This type of displacement does occur and its effects are real. However, it occurs far less than you would think from listening to the general discussion of gentrification. Anecdotal horror stories spread quickly, but reality is far more nuanced. The problem appears to be most severe in the so-called “superstar” cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, or Seattle where housing prices are spiralling out of control. But even in these cities with rapidly growing economies, studies of displacement have produced surprising results.
Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia University, has done several studies that concluded that direct displacement of long-term, low-income residents by affluent in-migrants is relatively rare.  More common was the exclusion of potential low-income households that might otherwise have moved in except for the impact of rising rents. In his book “There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up,” Freeman found that resident’s views on gentrification were ambivalent. Many long-term residents liked the improved access to services and amenities that came with gentrification as long as that gentrification didn’t lead to their displacement. 
A 2016 study in Philadelphia compared the likelihood of a household moving in neighborhoods that were gentrifying versus those that were not. They focused on households with low credit scores (a proxy for low income), including both households with mortgages (homeowners) and without (renters). The authors concluded that:
“The results suggest that the low-score residents and low-score residents without mortgages in gentrifying neighborhoods are generally no more likely to move than similar residents in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.” 
A similar study in New York City using Medicaid data focused on possible displacement of low-income households with children. The authors of this study found that children in low-income households living in gentrifying neighborhoods were no more likely to move than similar children in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. This conclusion held true regardless of whether the families were living in subsidized or market-rate housing. Furthermore, they concluded that:
“Contrary to fears voiced by many, we find that the average low-income child who starts out in areas that later gentrify experiences a reduction in neighborhood poverty, mainly because the majority do not move as neighborhood income rises around them.” 
Finally, the reality of gentrification, particularly in the midwest, is that occupied residential units are often not even involved in the process. It is common for the majority of “gentrified housing” to come from obsolete industrial or commercial properties that are converted to trendy upscale housing. Thus, there can be no displacement of any sort. To return to The Star editorial that I referenced earlier, I fail to see how rehabbing a vacant industrial bakery which had zero residential units into a thriving development with more than 80 residential units can be a bad thing, regardless of rent levels.
The Positive Side of Gentrification
Although in theory gentrification could happen in all but the most wealthy neighborhoods, in practice it almost always occurs in neighborhoods that have shown significant decline or outright blight, often caused by decades of disinvestment. What is rarely discussed by those decrying gentrification is what the alternative would be. The unstated assumption seems to be that -- were it not for gentrification -- these neighborhoods would continue into the future unchanged. That is almost assuredly not the case. Neighborhoods that are in decline do not suddenly stabilize, they continue to decline until there is some form of substantial and on-going reinvestment (almost always in the form of either gentrification or a conversion to some completely different use) or until they reach the point where owners simply abandon their property. My point is that preventing a given neighborhood from gentrifying almost guarantees that it will continue down a path of ever worsening poverty and decay.
The reinvestment that is an essential part of gentrification is a badly needed economic boost. It provides a new lease on life to declining buildings and neighborhoods. It is not a recent aberration, it is a normal and largely beneficial part of the urban development cycle. What is relatively new is that recent gentrification has reversed a long-running abandonment of the urban core, particularly by whites, during the last decades of the 20th century. What is ironic is that many of the planners and urban activists that decried the abandonment of the urban core are the very same people who are now decrying its antidote.
In addition to the economic boost, I would argue that gentrification has the potential to provide a social benefit. Increasing the economic and racial integration of neighborhoods has been a long standing part of this country’s housing policy. As it turns out, gentrification is an effective way to increase neighborhood diversity. A recent article by Jason Barr cites a study of over 400 U.S. cities that concluded:
“The neighborhoods that have integrated through gentrification have remained racially integrated for longer periods of time than the conventional wisdom suggests. Many are seeing little change in their white population share in the decades following gentrification. Indeed, neighborhoods that became integrated through gentrification appeared to be more racially stable than those that integrated through households of color moving into predominantly white neighborhoods.” 
Racial and economic integration is always an uncomfortable process, but I am convinced that it has been and will continue to be beneficial for our society.
Finally, it is common for gentrifying neighborhoods to have an increase in the total number of residential units. Often the increase is substantial, due to vacant industrial or commercial sites being converted or redeveloped as mid-rise or high-rise apartment buildings or condominiums. These developments are often criticized for fueling rent increases throughout the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this is almost always a case of correlation being confused with causation. Rents may be rising for a variety of reasons, but it is rarely because of new housing complexes being constructed. Recent studies have concluded that increasing the housing supply -- even at luxury rent levels -- either has no effect on rent or leads to a reduction.  This is simple supply and demand economics at work.
Masking the Real Problem
Aside from the fact that it is often misguided, the more troubling consequence of the potshots being taken by journalists and pundits at affluent whites moving to gentrified neighborhoods is that it distracts from a far more serious and widespread problem. Leading urban researchers have repeatedly pointed out that the concentration of low income households in declining neighborhoods is a far larger and more destructive issue than gentrification.
A recent report titled “American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline” which studied the 50 largest metro areas in the country contains some sobering statistics:
“The most common form of neighborhood change, by far, is poverty concentration.”
“As of 2016, there was no metropolitan region in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than an economically declining neighborhood.”
“On net, far fewer low-income residents are affected by displacement than concentration. Since 2000, the low-income population of economically expanding areas has fallen by 464,000, while the low-income population of economically declining areas has grown by 5,369,000.” 
Despite the disheartening implications of these numbers, the popular press has been virtually silent on this issue, although that is starting to change among the more thoughtful urban scholars. In his book “The New Urban Crisis,” Richard Florida devotes an entire chapter to the subject of gentrification but ends the chapter talking about the much larger number of neighborhoods that it bypasses entirely and where racially concentrated poverty persists and continues to deepen. He comes to this conclusion:
“Rather than knee-jerk resistance to change or attacks on new urbanites, the more appropriate response is to assist those who are most vulnerable. It makes little sense to discourage investment in cities and urban neighborhoods, especially in places that desperately need it. Indeed, the real task of urban policy is not to try to stop the market forces that are leading to the economic revitalization of certain urban areas, but to improve the housing options, economic opportunities, and neighborhood conditions of those who are being left behind . . .” 
It is easy to feel sympathy for low-income households that struggle every day with a variety of issues, not the least of which is finding decent and affordable housing. It is almost as easy to feel some level of contempt for young, privileged whites who are often clueless about the ways in which their sense of entitlement affects those from different economic and racial groups. When it comes to solving urban problems, however, we shouldn’t settle for easy answers fueled by stereotypes, anecdotal stories and fear of change.
Systemic poverty and unequal access to economic opportunities -- magnified by social ills such as racism, violence and drug addiction -- have created divisions in our society that undercut our ability to move forward with any type of cooperative action. It is these problems that deserve our focus rather than the straw man of gentrification. In fact, gentrification might provide opportunities to address those larger, societal problems. Perhaps cities should look for ways to ensure that minority owned businesses share in the economic infusion that accompanies gentrification rather than chase it away. Or perhaps the increase in taxable value that results from gentrification should be tapped as a way to boost affordable housing so that displacement is minimized. I’m sure there are creative solutions that focus more on harnessing the momentum of gentrification to improve the lives of disadvantaged families, rather than clinging to a past that provides no solution at all.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
Ruth Glass; “London: Aspects of Change”; (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1964).
Joe Coscarelli; “Spike Lee’s Amazing Rant Against Gentrification: We Been Here!”; New York Magazine, February 25, 2014.
Imani Berry, Neika Capelton, Blue Cowdin, Bettye Ray, Dominic Zamora; “Pitting neighbors against neighbors: The impacts of gentrification in Kansas City’s Westside”; KSHB, January 2020; https://www.kshb.com/news/local-news/pitting-neighbors-against-neighbors-the-impacts-of-gentrification-in-kanas-citys-westside
The Kansas City Star Editorial Board; “Stop the Denverization of Kansas City. Troost doesn’t need to be hipster-friendly”; The Kansas City Star, November 2018; https://www.kansascity.com/article222202495.html
Lance Freeman; “Displacement or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods”; Urban Affairs Review 40, (no. 4) 2005.
Lance Freeman; “There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up”; (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2006).
Lei Ding, Jackelyn Hwang, Eileen Divringi; “Gentrification and residential mobility in Philadelphia”; Regional Science and Urban Economics; 2016; https://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/regeco/v61y2016icp38-51.html
Kacie Dragan, Ingrid Gould Ellen, Sherry Glied; “Does gentrification displace poor children and their families? New evidence from medicaid data in New York City”; Regional Science and Urban Economics; July 2020; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166046219302194
Jason Barr; “Is Gentrification Good or Bad?”; Building the Skyline; November 2019; https://buildingtheskyline.org/gentrification-1/.
Joe Cortwright; “Building more housing lowers rents for everyone”; City Observatory; December 2020; https://cityobservatory.org/building-more-housing-lowers-rents-for-everyone/
Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity; “American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline”; University of Minnesota Law School; April 2019; https://www.law.umn.edu/institute-metropolitan-opportunity/gentrification
Richard Florida; “The New Urban Crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class -- and what we can do about it”; (Basic Books, April 2017).