Simply put, gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents (Merriam-Webster).
The term “gentrification” was coined in the 1960s by sociologist Ruth Glass. Glass described this trend as an “invasion” and argued that it was a self-reinforcing process. As more and more middle-class buyers fixed up the old houses, she wrote, the neighborhoods grew in social status “until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
Gentrification can sometimes make a community poorer. Although the process of gentrification intends to improve the economic conditions of the community, the opposite can sometimes happen. This change takes a negative form when the new members of the neighborhood have a preference for franchise stores, brand names, and overall convenience.
Most gentrification occurs because of the absence of policies that value community input, offer equitable rezoning, and provide intentional housing options. Without policies that attempt to remedy the trends that cause forced displacement, gentrification will continue to abolish and displace lower-income communities. It is my strongest conviction that to develop such policies, we must identify and acknowledge the disproportionate and destructive effects of gentrification so that we can best mitigate them.
Change to cities, neighborhoods, and communities remains inevitable — nevertheless, with the latest direction of change, many communities are experiencing gentrification.
Gentrification occurs when “communities experience an influx of capital and concomitant goods and services in locales where those resources were previously non-existent or denied.”
Gentrification usually leads to negative impacts such as forced displacement, a fostering of discriminatory behavior by people in power/authority, and a focus on spaces that shut-out low-income individuals, people of color, and others who are marginalized.
The gentrification process becomes detrimental when it forces original residents to leave the neighborhood through exponentially increasing property prices, coercion, or buyouts. If there is no widespread displacement, and the shifts in the neighborhood are carefully planned with community input and involvement, gentrification can be a good thing for the community, increasing socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic integration. However, let me be clear: This is rarely ever the case across the spectrum.
Most notable — property values previously taken to task
The director Spike Lee was in the news recently for an anti-gentrification speech at a public event. The question that initially set off Lee’s rant came from an audience member at a Black History Month event in Brooklyn, New York, who pointed out that gentrification can raise property values in historically Black neighborhoods. This person claimed a family that had bought a home in Bed-Stuy years ago for $40,000 would now be sitting on an asset worth $3.5 million to $4 million. In this way, gentrification could be a means of “wealth creation in the African-American community.”
There’s no doubt that gentrification pumps up property values, but this doesn’t help most long-term residents in gentrifying neighborhoods because they don’t own their homes.
A 2007 study in Urban Affairs Review looked at two neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon that experienced “skyrocketing housing prices” due to gentrification. It found that, before gentrification started, only 41 percent of the units in one neighborhood and 25 percent of the units in the other were owner-occupied. Thus, less than half the residents in one neighborhood, and only a quarter of the residents in the other, had a chance to cash in on the increased prices.
Even for homeowners, though, exploding property values can have a downside. As property values go up, so do property taxes, making it more expensive for low-income homeowners to keep the homes they’ve owned for years. Nevertheless, according to a 2016 study in Urban Affairs Review, it’s still pretty rare for homeowners to be forced out of a neighborhood by rising property taxes. It can occur in areas where property taxes are especially high, but the authors found no evidence that it’s more likely to happen in gentrifying neighborhoods.
A potential upside of gentrification is that it can bring new businesses to an area, boosting the local economy. However, some critics and pundits of gentrification argue that these are mostly trendy, hipster-friendly businesses such as restaurants, gourmet food outlets, tattoo parlors, yoga studios, and pricey boutiques, which aren’t useful to older, working-class residents. While that is taking place, they claim, existing local businesses are being forced out because their owners can’t afford higher rents.
Several studies have found that gentrifying neighborhoods do indeed attract new businesses at a higher rate than non-gentrifying areas. These include a 2011 article in Economic Development Quarterly, a 2012 piece in RSUE, and a 2017 report from the office of the New York City Comptroller, which found that “of the ten New York neighborhoods experiencing the fastest business growth between 2000 and 2015, all but one was a gentrifying neighborhood.”
New businesses in an area should bring new jobs, and several studies confirm that this happens in gentrifying neighborhoods. The 2012 RSUE study found that when the average income in an area is rising, retail jobs increase. A 2014 paper published in RSUE also found “a small, yet uneven amount of employment growth” in gentrifying areas, with restaurant and service jobs increasing while manufacturing and wholesale jobs declined.
A 2017 paper in RSUE looked at this question in more detail, trying to find out whether gentrification actually creates jobs in the immediate neighborhood. It found that the neighborhoods where income was on the rise actually lost jobs at an average of nine jobs per year, or about 10 percent of all the jobs in a typical neighborhood. However, areas within one to two miles of the gentrifying neighborhood gained 10 to 21 times as many jobs as the immediate neighborhood lost.
Of course, the fact that new jobs are being created doesn’t necessarily mean these new jobs are going to local residents. So far, there hasn’t been much research to find out if locals are more or less likely to keep their jobs when an area gentrifies. The 2017 paper found that areas close to a gentrifying neighborhood tended to gain “goods-producing and low-wage jobs,” which are the kind of jobs that are easiest for less-educated people to obtain.
Naturally, as wealthier people move into an area, the average income in the area goes up. Admittedly, there is some evidence that shows the people already living in gentrifying neighborhoods can see a boost in their income as well. The 2011 RSUE study by Ellen and O’Regan found that about 21 percent of the rise in average income in gentrifying neighborhoods came from income gains for people who already lived there.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that gentrification is behind these income gains. In theory, gentrification could be creating better jobs and more income for residents. It could also work the other way around, too: Because gentrification tends to lead to higher rents, only the people whose incomes were already rising could afford to stay in the neighborhood.
Debates about gentrification tend to fall into one of two categories. On one hand, many people argue that gentrification is good for cities because it brings a higher tax base, revitalizes previously derelict neighborhoods, improves public safety, and attracts newcomers to boost the economy. On the other hand, there are those that argue that gentrification is bad, an evil made possible through decades of disinvestment in poorer communities and the disenfranchisement of communities of color. Critics of gentrification point to displacement as the primary threat to low-income communities. Displacement is the process by which a neighborhood becomes too expensive for its long-term residents to live in so that, over time, lower-income residents get priced out due to rising rents, property taxes, or general cost of living.
We notice gentrification because it happens quickly and often dramatically: a new building goes up, a park gets refurbished, new residents move in, or public spaces change. Yet, it seems we are so used to concentrated poverty that we no longer see it — or we avoid it altogether. While we debate the issue of gentrification, chronically poor neighborhoods slowly decay, and more and more neighborhoods slide downward and into poverty.
A myriad of studies has already revealed the deleterious effects of concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty is associated with higher crime, worse mental and physical health, low-quality public services, and lower economic mobility. It also disproportionately affects people of color: 75 percent of poor people living in urban neighborhoods with concentrated poverty were African-American or Latino in 2010. Concentrated poverty and segregation inflict a double-blow on communities of color, too often ensuring that opportunity is determined by one’s race, place, and income.
Cities are at the nexus of the globalized, knowledge economy. To be competitive, cities must attract highly-educated, highly-skilled talent and encourage urbanized, technological, and creative growth. Yet, growth accompanied by vast economic inequality is not only unsustainable, it deepens the social problems created by policies of the past. Cities, and the nation, would do well to note that equality—and equitable development—are in all our best interest.
Although displacement is cited as the most common concern of gentrification, the research on gentrification and displacement is unclear. Ingrid Gould Ellen and Gerard Torrats-Espinosa studied the long-term effects of gentrification and tracked racial change over time. They defined gentrification narrowly as an increase of income in a neighborhood compared to the larger metro region over time.
The researchers found that a growing number of low-income neighborhoods occupied predominantly by people of color have gentrified in recent decades, although most have remained low-income. Gentrification in the short-term has brought racial integration for many of these neighborhoods, and neighborhoods that became racially diverse through gentrification remained racially diverse past the initial gentrification period. Some neighborhoods that experienced gentrification in the 2000s did experience a more significant rise in white population in the short term and may not experience the same racial stability in the long term.
Gentrification can also benefit neighborhood residents by lowering poverty rates and exposing residents to more opportunity. Recent studies found that public housing residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are exposed to less violent crime, are more often employed, and have higher incomes and greater educational attainment than their counterparts in low-income neighborhoods. Urban revitalization also brings more services to an area. A lack of choice and competition in disinvested neighborhoods may cause families to pay more for goods and services. There can be benefits to gentrification, but only to long-term residents who are not pushed out. Development without displacement is the key. Fighting against displacement rather than fighting against development should be our focus.
Joseph Glasgow, PhD has become an innovator of law enforcement tactics and practices among many others in North Carolina.