Oft-Quoted Studies Saying Gentrification Doesn’t Cause Displacement Are “Glaringly Stale”

Word "stale" spray-painted on side of train car.
Photo by CadaverTeeth via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s become common to argue that research undermines claims that gentrification leads to displacement. See, for example, November 2015 remarks by New York City housing official Vicki Been, in which she said, “Most of the more recent and more rigorous studies of gentrification find that, actually, poor residents and poor households—especially renters—do not move out of gentrifying neighborhoods at unusually high rates.” Or note mainstream press essays like “Does gentrification really displace New Yorkers?” in Crain’s New York Business this past August.

After all, who can argue with research? But at least two of the academic papers that are often quoted to make this point rely on glaringly stale data. Looked at in contemporary context, these studies, rather than dismiss the existence of displacement, actually suggest support for it, especially in New York City.

Gentrification and Displacement: New York City in the 1990s by Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi was published in 2004 by the Journal of the American Planning Association and was among the research relied on by Been. It analyzes seven neighborhoods that were considered to have gentrified from 1991 to 1999: Chelsea, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope, and Williamsburg.

Freeman, of Columbia University, and Braconi, of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, found that poor people in those neighborhoods were displaced less than those in neighborhoods that weren’t gentrifying. They suggested that this was likely because these residents sought to take advantage of area improvements and were willing to sacrifice to do so. The eventual change in demographics in those neighborhoods, the authors posited, stemmed from typical residential succession, as better-off newcomers replaced the poor, rather than displacement of pre-existing residents.

Or, as City Limits‘ Jarrett Murphy summarized, “the issue isn’t displacement of the poor, but replacement.”

The Freeman/Braconi paper “has been roiling the debate ever since,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker last year, and “came close to debunking the very idea of gentrification.”

However, skepticism soon surfaced within the community development field. In the July 2005 Shelterforce article, “Gentrification and Resistance in New York City,” Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly point out that not only were such “subtle and ambiguous” studies distorted in pro-gentrification pieces, quantitative analysis had its limits, and was belied by their own fieldwork.

“The unfortunate paradox is that studies showing low mobility rates among the poor are being used to vindicate gentrification and to dismantle precisely those policies that help to cushion its worst impacts,” they wrote. 
And yet, the headlines continued. A 2010 NextCity article cited a defense of gentrification in New York Magazine that relied on Freeman. A 2015 Slate article, titled “The Myth of Gentrification,” also cited the Freeman/Braconi article, as did a Washington Post Wonkblog piece that year.

But few have looked under the hood. In the 1990s, Freeman and Braconi reported, the average rent burden for poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods was 61 percent of their income, while those outside the neighborhoods paid 52 percent.

Those are incredibly high figures. Remember, “affordable housing” is defined as costing 30 percent of household income.

Indeed, the authors referred to the 52 percent figure as “still problematic,” and at a panel discussion in 2006, Freeman called the 61 percent figure “astronomical.” (The transcript says 62 percent.)

Over the 8 years studied, ending in 1999, average monthly rents for unregulated units in gentrifying neighborhoods rose from just below $500 to slightly above $700. Given the boom in market-rate rents since then, that’s at least two generations past, probably more, in New York rental housing history. Does anyone think that poor people could just keep writing bigger rent checks to take advantage of cleaner streets and better schools?

Within gentrified neighborhoods, poor families faced an average rent increase, over 8 years, of 25.1 percent, according to Freeman and Braconi. Since then, surely, costs have gone up. “Since 1990, incomes have stagnated while the costs of housing—both rental housing and home sales prices—have skyrocketed,” stated Mark Willis, a NYU Furman Center Senior Policy Fellow when co-authoring a 2016 report on affordable home buying in New York.

The accelerated cost burden suggests a tipping point for poor households, after which greater financial sacrifice or doubling up with relatives becomes untenable. Ten years ago, I queried Freeman: did he think ever-increasing rents would provoke more displacement?

He responded, “I think there probably is some tipping point, although I’m not sure what it is.” Fair enough: he hadn’t been able to analyze more recent data.

But since we know how rents have dramatically outpaced incomes, that tipping point, at least in New York City, has often been reached—and surpassed. (Check out Neil deMause’s City Limits coverage of displacement in Brooklyn’s Bushwick, for example.)

A follow-up paper, written by Freeman himself and with a national focus, was published in 2005 by Urban Affairs Review: “Displacement Or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods.” As the Washington Post put it in 2015, this study “concluded that a poor family in a gentrifying neighborhood had a 1.3 percent chance of being displaced.” CNN in 2015 cited it in “How Gentrification May Benefit the Poor.”

Are those conclusions still valid, given that Freeman analyzed neighborhoods starting more than two decades ago, from 1986 to 1999? The neighborhoods were in the central parts of cities, and featured a relatively low median income, an older housing stock, an increase in housing prices, and a disproportionate increase in educated residents.

In gentrifying tracts, rent rose barely 20 percent adjusting for inflation, from a base of $411 between 1980 to 1990, and actually declined in the following decade. The median rent in 2000, adjusted for inflation (presumably back to 1980), was reported at $450.

Any New Yorker can tell you: in recent years, market-rate rents in gentrifying neighborhoods have vastly outpaced inflation or, for that matter, the rise in regulated rents. That’s one reason why investors often derided as representing “predatory equity” develop business plans to move units out of rent regulation. And it’s why journalist Paul Moses, who attended the same panel discussion with Freeman cited above, observed in Commonweal in 2015 that “poor people paying exorbitant rents” would eventually have to move.

Even in his 2005 paper, Freeman cautioned against making too much of his research. “The results presented here might tempt one to conclude that the lack of widespread displacement means that concerns about the disappearance of affordable housing are overblown. But the fact that lower socioeconomic status households are no longer moving into these neighborhoods implies a diminishing of housing opportunities for some.”

In 2008 testimony to the National Commission on Housing and Fair Opportunity, he warned that rising housing prices meant that, over time, “gentrifying neighborhoods will either lose their poor and often minority residents or poorer residents will be forced to pay undue portions of their income for housing,” a trend that he said should drive more equitable policies.

That still focuses on replacement-driven gentrification. And yet, in a June 2016 essay for the Washington Post, Freeman said “gentrification causes widespread displacement” was a myth, and cited his own research as well as a more recent study from Philadelphia.

Yes, the conclusions in his papers deserve deference when applied to the time period studied, especially given the authors’ cautions. Today, however, their utility suffers, for New York and likely other cities. “New York City in the 1990s” is hardly the same as New York City in the present day. Given the lag between data collection and publication, gentrification studies—whatever their conclusion—deserve a careful look to see if the statistics still ring true.

9 COMMENTS

  1. The struggle I have often had with the arguments regarding gentrification and displacement is how we define gentrification in itself. The word has been thrown around by journalists, bloggers, activists, experts, and even the broader public, but I suspect that what comes to mind for each of these groups is still different even decades later. Some use the term to describe what is being discussed in this piece, while others refer only to “signals” such as third-wave coffee shops or an influx of white, educated residents. When we speak specifically about displacement, we should be able to define what exactly the cause is that we are discussing. If it is rent increases due to market pressures, let’s be specific about that. We should be careful about the paintbrushes we use to paint such complex issues.
    Furthermore, I am concerned about continuing to use the 30% threshold as a definer of affordability. For families at the lowest end of the income spectrum, 30 percent may be too high a portion of their income to spend on housing; but, for more moderate-income families, spending up to 40-45 percent on housing may not be as burdensome as we think if the family doesn’t require vehicle ownership and, thus, spends little on transportation.
    There are other data complexities that are challenging to dis-aggregate, which is why studying gentrification and displacement is so complicated. Could a neighborhood’s median rent increase because it experienced a net increase in rental units at higher prices or did all units actually increase in asking rents? When we see an increase in white residents in a neighborhood, did the number of minority residents actually decrease or did the neighborhood simply add more people? For that matter, did the people who left the neighborhood do so because of displacement or were other factors at play? Just as the studies cited in this piece are flawed, the counterargument may be flawed as well.

    In conclusion, it’s not that the data alone is stale, but how we define gentrification and displacement. It’s time to find a better way to study these concepts.

  2. I share Chris’s concerns on making generalized statements or analysis around gentrification. From my perspective, the greater concern is using any data before the financial meltdown of 2007 as any measure of current practice. The foreclosure crisis continues to ripple in our neighborhoods and citing data from the early or mid-2000s simply fails to account for the past ten years of a housing and economic hardship in our communities. in Rhode Island, the housing recovery has been uneven and yes, we are seeing gentrification in some neighborhoods. The very same neighborhoods that saw widespread foreclosures and evictions of residents. The same neighborhoods that lost neighborhood businesses to the lack of bank lending and local support of our commercial corridors. Some our rebuilding from within with resident engagement and support of partners from government, philanthropy and CDCs. Some are rebuilding by outside forces pushing long-term residents, homeowners and businesses out because our Cities are recovering. Gentrification is complex a concept. Make no mistake the impact we see and we are facing is very real on our people.

  3. If you dive even deeper into the details of Freeman’s method you will see more flaws in the study. He used the NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey data, in particular the question that asks residents who moved within the past 5 years, what was the reason for their move? He qualified certain responses as evidence for displacement, such as ‘eviction’ or ‘moved in search of less expensive rent.’ Seems like a good way to measure displacement until you realize this only captures residents who were displaced yet able to remain within the 5 boroughs. Anecdotally we know that many who are displaced are moving down south, to PA, and other out-of-city and out-of-state locations. Additionally those who doubled up with family or friends, and those who fell into homelessness were not quantified by this method.

    We know that the shelter population is at an all-time high, and there is research suggesting the primary factor driving people to shelters is a lack of affordable housing. But a key research question remains unanswered; to what extent are people being displaced outside of NYC? If we could figure out a way to answer that question, the true extent of displacement will be revealed.

    I agree that the way displacement fits into the gentrification discussion, and the concept of gentrification generally, is problematic. I think it is important to focus the conversation on the multitude of economic factors driving the housing crisis and look to support proven models that secure long-term and permanently affordable housing; rent-regulation, public housing, limited-equity housing cooperatives and community land trusts.

  4. It only stands to reason that the poor are displaced to some extent by rising housing values in high cost cities like New York, DC, etc. However, I think lower costs cities like Baltimore (where I live,) Milwaukee, St. Louis, Memphis, Detroit, etc. face a different set of challenges. In those cities, low cost neighborhoods have lots of renters paying less than the amount required to properly maintain their housing. These renters are gradually getting displaced by abandonment/rehabilitation as their homes become unlivable. In fact, I have had neighbors tell me that they had to move out of now abandoned nearby houses when the roofs caved in.

    In these neighborhoods, “gentrification” means that someone is taking a rental house at the end of its useful rental life and spending $50 to $100 a square foot to get it ready to sell to a homeowner. While it is true that a better off (but hardly well off) family is replacing an extremely poor family, the alternative is often replacing the poor family with nobody. A few people (including my friend below) feel that housing abandonment is preferable to “gentrification,” but I don’t expect policy makers will ever go in that direction.

    My friend is afraid that she will be “gentrifying” her future neighborhood when she buys a $35,000 house to live in. That makes no sense to me. Somebody has got to live in that house, and eventual abandonment is not an unlikely alternate possibility.

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