Everything you think you know about gentrification is wrong

By Joe Cortright 

Facts are stubborn things: And they don’t support the folk wisdom equating gentrification with displacement.

There’s a palpable and growing amount of cognitive dissonance between the accepted conventional wisdom about the intrinsically evil nature of gentrification, and a body of careful detailed research that shows that its either not bad, or actually produces measurable benefits. That cognitive dissonance is on full display in CityLab’s recent reporting on a new study of gentrification in New York.

It’s almost taken as a given by many that gentrification is synonymous with displacement. But a new study from New York University (and one from last week from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve) provide the best evidence yet that there’s essentially no difference in out-migration rates between gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods. In his article,  “Gentrification Did Not Displace NYC’s Most Vulnerable Children“, Kriston Capps bluntly and accurately summarizes the results of Ingrid Gould Ellen’s study of kids born to Medicaid families in New York City:

Using Medicaid data, researchers found that most low-income children in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods stayed, even as affluent newcomers moved in.

Low-income children born into neighborhoods in New York City that later gentrified were no more likely to be pushed out over a seven-year period than children born into low-income places that did not gentrify, according to a new study that follows exactly where these vulnerable families lived and moved.

The study’s findings turn the conventional wisdom about the link between gentrification and displacement on its head. Low-income children who remained in their gentrifying neighborhoods saw a 3 percent greater decline in neighborhood poverty than those in low-income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify.

CityLab calls these conclusions “surprising” and “counter-intuitive”, but these studies confirm a wealth of other research, going back more than a decade that reach essentially the same conclusion.  Gentrification is rare and seldom seems to produce displacement of long term residents. We’ve covered these studies at City Observatory, here, here, here, here, and here.

Still, Capps felt a strong need to cushion the blow for his readers:

If you are, like many CityLab readers, a mortal foe of gentrification, the study doesn’t necessarily mean that your world is now upside down. The picture that the study paints is complicated.

Translation:  “Don’t worry, you can still cling to your knee jerk antipathy to gentrification.” Capps assures disbelievers that they can discount this study, because, “it’s complicated.” That’s a pretty straightforward dodge:  it may be complicated, but there’s now a very large body of evidence that you can’t blame gentrification for displacement, which is the most common argument as to its harm. And one theoretical complication he flags, that gentrification may impose higher burdens of people of color, well, actually isn’t borne out by the data in the NYU study, as Capps acknowledges:

The NYU researchers concede that using averages for a sample of thousands of children could conceal specific harms: : After all, housing discrimination makes it much harder for black and Latinx households to find safe and affordable housing. When the researchers ran the model for children of different races, though, they found few differences. There was no evidence of elevated mobility (greater displacement) for children of any race.

Surely, this is complicated.  But the weight of evidence is now pretty clear that gentrification is not, on balance a bad thing, and in fact, may produce substantial benefits:  the Philadelphia Fed study confirms that gentrification produces benefits for long-term residents who remain in the neighborhood. So actually, if you are a mortal foe of gentrification, especially who equates gentrification with displacement, it’s time, as Brad DeLong would say, to mark your beliefs to market.

A shifting rationalization: Conflating moving and displacement

Implicitly, there’s a new line of argument about the hardships faced by poor households:  Gentrification may not force people to move, but these studies show that low income renters move a lot, and moving is per se bad.  Capps concedes that gentrification isn’t causing displacement, but that the high levels of movement of low income households is the problem:

Instead, displacement is a near-constant in the lives of vulnerable families—a force that isn’t correlated with gentrification. Understanding how displacement works is crucial in providing housing to low-income families who seriously lack residential stability, which is key to everything.

This line of argument  conflates “mobility” with “displacement”.  For example:

There was no evidence of elevated mobility (greater displacement) for children of any race.

Rates of mobility (or displacement) for families living in subsidized housing (31 percent) or public housing (36 percent) were far lower than children in marketplace housing.

Undoubtedly, transitory and uncertain tenure is a huge burden for poor families, as Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, clearly demonstrates.  But it’s a stretch to equate every household move with displacement.  Movement or migration may be an indicator of displacement, but isn’t the same thing. Careful studies of migration have shown that low income renters move for lots of reasons: changes in family status (marriage, divorce or separation), change of jobs, etc.).  Most of these moves are self-reported as voluntary in surveys.  Martin and Beck found that about one-quarter of moves by low income renters were “involuntary.”

More importantly, moving is often either an indicator of success or a path to opportunity.  Low income people move out of neighborhoods when their economic conditions improve (to be able to afford a safer place, better schools, nicer amenities) or simply to get better access to jobs.  The evidence from the latest analyses of the Moving to Opportunity program and Eric Chyn’s analysis of family relocations in Chicago shows that moving to a better neighborhood is one of the most important routes out of poverty for kids in low income households. In one of the most detailed and nuanced studies of residential mobility of low income households with children, scholars at the Urban Institute tracked household moves in low income neighborhoods in ten cities over a period of years.  Claudia Coulton, Brett Theodos and Margery Turner  found that moving was an essential path out of poverty for many households.

A move, however, does not always signal problems. For a substantial minority of families, residential mobility represents a positive choice. Across the Making Connections neighborhoods, 3 of every 10 movers were up-and-out movers, often becoming homeowners in better neighborhoods where they were more satisfied and optimistic.

And conversely, some households perceive residential “stability” as a bad thing:  they feel stuck in neighborhoods with limited opportunities and amenities. In Coulton, Theodos & Turner’s study, a fifth of long term residents in low income neighborhoods were classified as “dissatisfied stayers.”

In just the same way that we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that gentrification causes displacement (or inevitably harms long time neighborhood residents), we shouldn’t assume that every move by a low income household out of a low income neighborhood is either involuntary, or results in hardship and that neighborhood stability is a sign of success. It’s more complicated than that. Ultimately, if we’re concerned about involuntary displacement, our focus ought to be on poverty.  As Matthew Desmond writes:

. . . if we want to understand why so many families are forcibly displaced from their homes, “poverty” rather than “gentrification” is a better concept to apply.

For too long, the debate about gentrification has hinged on grossly over-simplified narratives, that assume that neighborhoods never change, and that any movement in or out of a neighborhood is negative. It’s a very good thing that we’re finally applying evidence to understand the causes and effects of neighborhood change. To its credit, CityLab accurately reports that the New York University study (like earlier ones) show little or no relationship between gentrification and displacement. Hopefully this increasingly fact-based narrative will lead us to productive policy discussions about how to harness new investment in low income neighborhoods to assure diversity, and will also alert us to the far larger challenge of addressing concentrated poverty.

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