Recently, we’ve received three new pieces of evidence on how gentrification affects the lives of poor people in changing neighborhoods. First, a study from NYU’s Furman Center suggests that residents of public housing in wealthier and gentrifying neighborhoods make more money, suffer from less violence, and have better educational options for their children, despite also facing some challenges. Then another study from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank finds that there has been much less displacement of existing residents from gentrifying neighborhoods than is commonly feared—and that those who do leave aren’t necessarily more likely to go to lower-income neighborhoods. And finally, a Columbia University study on gentrification in London also failed to find evidence of widespread out-migration in neighborhoods with rising average incomes.
Together, these stories suggest that while gentrification can be disruptive, and makes residents anxious about the future, it neither produces measurably higher levels of movement from the affected neighborhoods, nor does it usually make residents economically worse off. If anything, residents of improving neighborhoods see greater wealth (as measured by credit scores) and higher incomes ($3,000 to $4,500 higher for residents of public housing in New York City).
So why is it that when media outlets report on neighborhood change, so many continue to ignore the abundance of evidence that relatively few low-income neighborhoods gentrify, and that when they do there is much less displacement than is commonly believed?
With the growth of research demonstrating the benefits of living in more economically integrated neighborhoods for low-income families, you’d expect to see more news articles about the positive aspects of neighborhood change. . This is especially true in light of the widespread reporting of Raj Chetty et al’s findings about the connection between integration and improved economic mobility for children growing up in poor households.
Unfortunately, most media coverage seems to ignore these consistent research findings. The result is a classic case of what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness”—the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to factual evidence. The truthiness here is that we “know” that gentrification is an intrinsically malignant process, and so we deeply discount or simply ignore evidence to the contrary, even as that body of evidence is piling up. The studies have to be fit into our prior understanding of the issue, rather than adapting our understanding to the new facts.
The New York and Philadelphia studies both confirmed earlier research that gentrification is seldom associated with outmigration, and that it is frequently associated with higher incomes and better economic results for the longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. But no reader of the media coverage would ever get that impression from a quick glance at the headlines or even the thrust of the stories’ narratives. Consider these three examples.
The New York Times headlined its story “In Chelsea, a Great Wealth Divide,” and began by describing the plight of a retired resident of public housing who had to travel to New Jersey to find bargain shopping opportunities. Not until paragraph 14 did the story acknowledge the positive findings from a New York University study that public housing residents in high income or gentrifying neighborhoods enjoyed higher incomes, lower crime, better schools and higher test scores. And not until the final paragraph did the story report the resident’s firm opinion that despite the disorientation of change and the challenge of shopping, her neighborhood was unambiguously a better place to live post gentrification.
Or take the series on gentrification that Governing ran earlier this year. While the magazine acknowledged that gentrification (as defined by rising rents and educational levels) and displacement of the poor are not the same thing, it proceeded as if the link between the two were strong and well-established. In fact, there were more low-income people living in the neighborhoods that Governing identified as “gentrifying” in 2013 than in 2000.
There’s a similar issue in a more recent Next City story about the Philadelphia Federal Reserve study on gentrification, displacement, and credit scores. Although the piece leads by revealing that “gentrification hasn’t forced out as many residents as one might think,” and that those who do leave gentrifying neighborhoods aren’t necessarily more likely to move to more disadvantaged communities, it quickly pivots, announcing that the “findings didn’t leave much to celebrate.”
While the study in question was far from uniformly sunny, it’s odd that a report concluding that one of the most widely-feared aspects of gentrification is relatively rare would so quickly be dismissed. It’s true that on the whole, the news on housing affordability and economic segregation is bad. But reports like this one at least open the door to the possibility that when low-income neighborhoods begin to see renewed attention from people with incomes in the middle class or above, the effects need not be as exclusionary as we fear—and may even, with smart management, lay the groundwork for the kind of integration and reinvestment that has been a major goal of housing policy for decades.
There’s a man-bites-dog quality to the way we talk about poverty. While the gentrification narrative (having rich neighbors makes life harder for poor people) is common, you seldom read stories about the narrative of concentrated poverty (having mostly poor neighbors makes life harder for the poor), which is both more prevalent and demonstrably more harmful. More strikingly, we often turn a blind eye to more straightforward examples of displacement—such as suburban Marietta, Georgia’s $65 million bond issue to acquire and demolish about 10 percent of all its multi-family housing in a pretty transparent effort to move poor households to other cities.
The Marietta apartments in question, before and after being shuttered by the city.
Implicit in all these narratives is a strong crypto-segregationist impulse: Rich people ought to live with rich people, poor people ought to live with other poor people. Any thing that changes this status quo is suspect: If rich people move into poor neighborhoods we call it gentrification. If poor people move into rich neighborhoods, we call it social engineering. It’s difficult to see how this framing ever leads to a world in which there is less economic segregation.
We now have abundant evidence that promoting economic integration positively improves the lives of the poor. But to make progress in reducing concentrated poverty, we need to reframe the conversation and stop demonizing the very changes that are, however slowly and awkwardly, moving us in the right direction.