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‘Gentrification’ Is Not the Real Problem

Close-up of a yellow sign hand painted with the words "Danger/Gentrification/Zone"
Photo by Flickr user Eric Allix Rogers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gentrification has become a functionally useless term.

I don’t know when exactly I reached my breaking point on this issue, though I have been gradually phasing it out over four-plus years of studying neighborhood change. My guess is that it came somewhere between a ridiculous 2019 Jacobin article that claimed that graphic novels “are comic books, but gentrified,” or the turn in this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests when I started watching white people my age parade through Brooklyn screaming “fire, fire, gentrifier.” Whether they arrived here by birth or migration was impossible to tell, but at any rate it would have been impossible for them not to have ridden here on the ongoing “gentrification” wave that originated in the 1980s. If only we millennials had the ability to own our glass houses like so many NIMBY boomers did.

This is all to say that we have a major problem with how we talk about gentrification in this country, a fact true for people all across the political spectrum. First, because the conversation continually repackages a set of debunked theories as reality, and second, because it obscures a set of real crises that need fixing, namely, neighborhood-level inequality, the disappearance of affordable housing, and wages that have lagged behind the rising cost of shelter.

Let’s start by separating gentrification theory from reality. I’ll begin with the common narrative of gentrification, in which wealthy white people and developers move into poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, directly displacing residents with the erection of new, fabulous apartments. This theory was introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s by geographer Neil Smith, but again it was a theory for explaining a new demographic pattern of people moving back to the city from suburbs—a hypothesis unconfirmed, something to be tested. Study after study that has tested it since, the best among them coming from scholars like Lance Freeman and Ingrid Gould Ellen (also, the Federal Reserve) find the theory insufficient.

[RELATED ARTICLE: What Does ‘Gentrification’ Really Mean?]

Beginning with displacement, in a 2005 study covering over 31,000 households from 1980 to 2000, Freeman found that “mobility out of gentrifying neighborhoods is not necessarily dramatically different from mobility out of other neighborhoods.”

A little over a decade later, Ellen also found no significant differences in mobility among low-income residents who lived in gentrifying neighborhoods when tracking over 35,000 New York City children enrolled in Medicaid and who lived in market-rate apartments from 2009 to 2015.

Lastly, Quentin Brummet and Davin Reed, writing in 2019 for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, found “moderate,” 4-6 percentage-point increases in mobility rates among less advantaged residents of gentrifying neighborhoods from 2000-2014 (the baseline mobility rate among all renters in the study was 70-80 percent), using a sample population of over 170,000 adults and children and a definition of gentrification based on educational attainment. Rather optimistically, their study also suggested that people who did move from gentrifying neighborhoods seldom ended up in worse-off locations, and that gentrification “creates some important benefits for original resident adults and children and few observable harms.” I’ll offer more on the half-truthfulness of this statement later on.

Next I’ll tackle race, where data along the Black-white fault line of urban segregation runs almost exactly counter to Smith’s theory: It has been the rare exception, and not the rule, to find white people moving into majority-Black neighborhoods. A 2014 mixed-methods study by Jackelyn Hwang and Robert Sampson found that Chicago neighborhoods with Black populations of greater than 40 percent experienced significantly lower rates of gentrification. (They also found that substantial Hispanic populations in neighborhoods that were less than 40 percent Black adversely affected gentrification’s likelihood, too.) In 2015 Lance Freeman and Tiancheng Cai observed that white “invasion” into Census tracts with Black populations of 50 percent or more has been a relatively infrequent phenomenon going back to 1980, though they also observed a slight recent uptick in its occurrence: Per their analysis of thousands of Census tracts across the country, 5.49 percent of tracts that were at least 90 percent Black and 10.44 percent of tracts that were at least 50 percent Black experienced an influx of white residents from 2000 to 2010, compared to 0.39 percent and 4.71 percent, respectively, from 1990-2000.

These results corroborate Stacey Sutton’s findings in a 2020 paper focused on New York City, a place that she acknowledges as exceptional for the tightness of its housing market. Her paper suggested that in 2010, for the first time, the average gentrifying neighborhood in New York City was not majority white but instead 52 percent Black and Latino. The next question that logically follows is whether this signals potential racial transition, or the substitution of White neighborhoods in the place of formerly Black ones, in gentrifying areas. So far, research indicates that in New York City—an outlier when it comes to whites moving into Black neighborhoods—stable integration has been a much more likely result. (Of course, New York also has some of the most robust affordable housing programs in the country, meaning that a free market does not guarantee these outcomes alone.) 

Finally, a lack of new construction—not an excess of it—in places like New York and San Francisco drives up housing prices. A 2019 review of the research on supply-side skepticism offers a thorough refutation of many of points held up by anti-development advocates. As Vicki Been, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Katherine O’Regan write, “new construction is crucial for keeping housing affordable, even in markets where much of the new construction is itself high-end housing that most people can’t afford.” Most evidence suggesting differently, they continue, is anecdotal rather than causal, and frequently fails to take in account decades of backlog in the construction of new housing supply: A new building will not immediately lower prices if a city is already thousands of housing units behind projected demand. A paper published last month tried to finally put a number on the effect that new construction has on local housing prices using data from 11 major cities that included Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. The researchers found that new market-rate buildings in low-income neighborhoods decrease local rents by 5-7 percent.

The adamant refusal to readjust gentrification theory to accommodate these studies only furthers the disconnect between those who use the term and the issues they mean to highlight and solve. In her 2010 book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, for instance, sociologist Sharon Zukin claimed that “in the early years of the twenty-first century, New York City lost its soul,” relinquishing to gentrification “the expectation that neighbors and buildings that are here today will be here tomorrow.” A brief glance at Census and American Community Survey data would have put the claim to rest, since at least from 1990 to 2015 New York City housing units have gotten older, and residents’ median length of tenure longer (meaning the number of years they’ve been in their current dwelling unit has increased) in all five boroughs. In 2020, a paper in the high-ranking academic journal Urban Studies criticized statistical analyses that showed limited displacement because their “progress in identifying [displacement’s] extent has been remarkably slow,” meaning, as I take it, that we ought to reverse the scientific method. Which is to say, rather than forming a hypothesis, rigorously testing it, and adjusting it in light of studies’ results in order to better understand problems motivating the analysis, such claims suggest we ought to make results conform to a pre-determined outcome. A 2009 paper from the journal City basically argued a similar point, casting the “methodological sophistication and nuanced reasoning” of studies like Freeman’s and Ellen’s as the stuff of shills.

A fair critique exists in that such studies are time-lagged (which they should be if we are trying to understand a causal relationship between gentrification and displacement with good data), that they still indicate rising costs of shelter, and that we could well reach a tipping point that would usurp such studies’ conclusions about neighborhood change. The need for ongoing study, however, does not nullify those studies’ observations or absolve gentrification theory of the need for rigorous empirical engagement. Nor does it legitimate the conclusions of theoreticians in regard to what we ought to do about neighborhood change and housing costs now.

Make no mistake, you will not see me in the streets cheerleading the latest luxury apartment building, angry though I am with the current state of gentrification debates. Sparse evidence of short-term gentrification-induced displacement does not erase the problems of dwindling affordable housing, neighborhood inequality, and people struggling to make ends meet. Neither does it prove, as Brummet and Reed’s study and others seem to assume, that the migration of middle- and upper-income residents to different city neighborhoods causally benefits poor, nonwhite, or long-time residents overall. Instead, the research urges us to refocus our energies, and, also, our discussion: away from stopping gentrification, to solving broader issues regarding the need for affordable housing and the reduction of inequality. We have to obviate the false competition for limited, valuable space that current conflicts over gentrification take for granted. We need to shift from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance.

Let’s talk about the broader issues that discussion of gentrification obscures instead. Here’s why: Gentrification, or the influx of wealthy and upper-middle-class residents into formerly working-class neighborhoods (as I’ll use the term abstractly here though it has no exact definition), affects a select group of neighborhoods. A dominant number of neighborhoods across the country face decline. Neighborhood-level inequality, on the other hand, affects all neighborhoods. You have probably heard it mentioned in some form of parlor talk: someone moves to one neighborhood for its better schools; someone else moves from another neighborhood due to its high-crime and limited public transport. These neighborhood-level inequalities are real, they are systemic, and they are stubbornly and durably spatial. Living in an under-resourced neighborhood affects one’s life outcomes in fields from health to education to family stability, and even in this age of gentrification, as sociologists Robert J. Sampson and Jackelyn Hwang have found, people are not moving to historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

No, what’s happening in Chicago, and Baltimore, and many other cities for that matter, is something far more insidious than what the word “gentrification” accurately portrays: Working- and middle-class people of all races are fleeing disadvantaged urban areas or paying more for their housing as wealthier residents trickle back into a select group of desirable, higher-opportunity neighborhoods. This stresses housing supply and disproportionately increases housing costs in those select few neighborhoods, making it so that people living in disadvantaged areas—many of whom are poor and/or people of color—then stand a diminishing shot at accessing them. Working- and middle-class homeowners who happened to live in those neighborhoods before their influxes reap windfalls if they have the ability to stay put; renters, already typically disadvantaged by comparison, face the choice of leaving or paying an unsustainable percentage of their income toward housing to remain. The attraction to these neighborhoods siphons away investment and interest from other parts of the city, concentrating resources. Thus, for people who happen to own homes outside gentrifying or gentrified areas, and especially in cities’ Black middle neighborhoods, their home equity often lags behind the growth of other neighborhoods’ or falls.

The result: Cities’ most vulnerable residents face heightened disinvestment in neighborhoods that become harder and harder to leave. Middle neighborhoods exist in an uneasy state of precarity. And those neighborhoods that do draw investment pull farther and farther away in terms of their costs, amenities, resources, and accessibility. Gentrification, or wealthier people moving into and driving up costs in particular urban neighborhoods, is a symptom of the array of problems related to urban inequality. Not the problem that people using the term want to name.

For further proof of my point, the most pressing and widespread form of displacement, eviction, is an epidemic plaguing the entirety of the country. Eviction rates, according to a paper authored by Matthew Desmond and Carl Gershenson, are not higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Further, while skyrocketing housing prices completely untethered from new construction or building upgrades have mostly occurred in a few select areas of the country, median rents have risen in nearly every state since 2001 while median renter income has stagnated in comparison. Yes, people are feeling “pushed out” of the places where they live, especially if those places are one of urbanist Richard Florida’s “superstar” cities, and they feel desperate to hold onto whatever they can while squeezed by the pressures of an increasing unequal society. The solution to that anxiety, however, is not to tear at each other’s throats, screaming “gentrifier!” or blaming “gentrification.” The fix is to aggressively and accurately study the problems we are trying to name when we draw on the imprecise language of gentrification, and to propose solutions that actually and directly address those problems’ systemic roots. For starters: an increased housing supply, the elimination of exclusionary zoning, and an expanded voucher program that would allow people to better afford their current shelter and/or the chance—if they want to—to move to places they judge to have better opportunity. And, speaking of opportunity, we cannot accept a status quo in which a select few neighborhoods hoard all the avenues to opportunity that make places desirable. Especially when those neighborhoods tend to be whiter and wealthier than most. (On place-based opportunity hoarding, see Sheryll Cashin’s work).

Naming a problem does not solve a problem, and while theories are good at identifying major issues and their potential solutions, they become an obstruction to progress when they don’t shift according to new information. That’s why I am moving away from using the word “gentrification.” We have far better ways of describing the problems we’re trying to refer to, and what we ought to do about them, when drawing on this over-used and ill-defined term.