What Does “Gentrification” Really Mean?

The word "gentrification" has become a widespread and highly debated term. We’ve found that there are (at least) four broad kinds of things that people mean when they say they are concerned about “gentrification."

The term “gentrification” was coined in the 1960s by Ruth Glass, a German-British sociologist. She used it to describe the phenomenon of middle-class people buying up homes in working-class neighborhoods of London, resulting in the displacement of the original households and “a change in the social character” of the neighborhood.


Our Most Popular Articles About the Gentrification Conversation:

Since then, the word has become a widespread and highly debated term. The things the word often describes feel important to community development organizations and tenant organizers who are trying to deal with loss of affordability and displacement in areas that were once disinvested from. Others have become frustrated with the narrative that gentrification is happening everywhere and is the only cause of housing affordability problems—after all, most of the country is not gentrifying.

Equitable development” has emerged as a phrase to describe alternative approaches to development and neighborhood investment that account for the needs of all places and prioritize the stability of whole communities.

Researchers have defined “gentrification” in multiple ways in order to try to measure it, raising a host of judgment calls that can lead to large differences in conclusions. What characteristics define a place that could be considered subject to—but not yet experiencing—gentrification? And then what kinds and degree of change constitute gentrification? Do existing residents need to be forced out by rising housing prices to count, and do they benefit or struggle if they stay? Is racial change a part of it?

People often mean things that are broader than researchers do when they use the word “gentrification.” As described in the video above, we’ve found that there are (at least) four broad kinds of things that people mean when they say they are concerned about “gentrification”:

  1. Housing costs rise rapidly in a particular place that was once not wealthy, such that longtime residents must leave because they can no longer afford the rising rents and property taxes.
  2. Housing costs rise rapidly in a particular place such that even if direct displacement isn’t widespread, the incomes of those moving in are higher than the incomes of those moving out, changing the neighborhood over time.
  3. A place that was largely a community of color—particularly an area to which people of color were once restricted—experiences an influx of more affluent and often, though not always, more white residents. This can cause “cultural displacement”—the loss of culturally relevant or welcoming institutions and retail—and “political displacement”— changing power dynamics (e.g., an increase in 911 calls for trivial matters, a change in voting blocs, and whiter leadership in groups like PTAs).
  4. A place that has experienced disinvestment receives investment that is more aimed at attracting and serving new, more affluent people than at serving existing residents, who feel like the new development is neither for nor about them.

Often these things overlap in time and space, but they do not always. Some of them are less common than widely assumed, others more, and yet others might not be captured in standard measurements. In fact, many people have suggested that we stop using the term “gentrification” because it is both loaded and imprecise.

At Shelterforce we understand that all of these definitions are real problems in differing contexts that we need to talk about, but also that it’s hard to come to solutions when we’re not precise about which meaning is being applied. Therefore going forward (we’re not changing past coverage), we’ll be trying to push ourselves and our writers to be more specific about what we mean whenever we reach for the word.

However gentrification may be described, the dynamics of rapid neighborhood change, displacement, and the negative effects of a housing system focused on profit are very real. Here are some solutions and strategies:

If you want to delve more into the questions around research and definitions, here are a few places to start:

For the latest on gentrification trends and solutions—as well as other affordable housing and community development news—sign up for free to receive Shelterforce Weekly.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Gentrification is code for a community’s inability to participate & shape the manner THEIR community is undergoing economic, social, & cultural change. These are market forces public officials heavily subsidize in the name of “economic development”, which incorrectly means business development. Ironically, “economic development” is a public term, not a private one.

    Thus, what is the proper role of public officials using public dollars implementing a pubic concept to subsidize the commercial real estate industry rather than leveraging those public dollars to produce impacts & outcomes taxpayer-resident want to see? This is a question never posed, much less addressed.

  2. Fernando’s definition would apply as well to the displacement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas after Columbus. What is happening in old urban centers now is perhaps a ‘kinder, gentler’ version if only because the urban but not quite urbane indigenous have not resorted to forceful resistance and are currently relying on treaties of sorts with the elected and unelected ‘public officials’. Meanwhile those same officials implement policies and programs which accelerate the the process of gentrification. Lacking the means to stay in the city centers, the urban indigenous are forced out into decaying suburbs on the fringe of the metroplex, where the access to traditional urban amenities is limited and constrained by geography and economies of scale. The effect of taxation on the cost of living follows the diaspora since the US has increasingly relied on more and more regressive taxation strategies at federal, state, and municipal levels.

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