Jerusalem Demsas of Vox has a thoughtful synthesis of what we know about gentrification.  

If we’re concerned about poverty and inequality, gentrification is far from the biggest problem we face.

Gentrification is surprisingly rare, and while it brings inequality into sharp focus, there’s precious little evidence of widespread harms.  The bright spotlight shining on a relative handful of gentrified neighborhoods hides in the shadows the real and far more pervasive problem of concentrated poverty.

And, as we’ve written at City Observatory, the myopia of gentrification scholarship means that few studies every consider the counterfactual case of asking what happens to people who live in poor neighborhoods that don’t rebound.  

The most common anti-gentrification tactics—blocking new market rate housing—actually make housing affordability and displacement worse.

Writing at Vox, Jerusalem Demsas has become quickly established as a keen observer of urban issues.  This past week, Demsas waded into the gnarliest and most contentious urban debate, gentrification.  This balanced essay is worth a read.  Here’s our take.

Gentrification doesn’t create inequality:  It just makes it more visible.

America’s cities are segregated by race and class and essence of segregation is keeping these worlds separate and apart from one another, and by doing so, make inequality less visible.  What gentrification does, in effect, as Demsas convincingly argues, is to force us to see inequality:

Segregating neighborhoods does not get rid of these sentiments or the harms they cause: it simply hides them. In a wealthy, white enclave like the Upper East Side, there aren’t somehow fewer people who assume any Black person on their street is begging for money than there are in gentrifying neighborhoods. In fact, there are likely more. Gentrifying neighborhoods pull back the veil and allow for these worlds to collide, displaying the vast differences in income, access to education, and government protection and investment.  . . . Taken all together, it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while the unseen culprits (segregated enclaves) are able to avoid controversy: Gentrification is the most visual manifestation of inequality in urban life.

Concentrated poverty, not gentrification is the big urban challenge

Much of the gentrification literature is fueled by anecdotes and narrowly drawn case studies that relate the dissatisfaction that long-time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods feel as a result of neighborhood change.  And there’s little question that change imposes social and psychic costs for long-time residents.  This kind of ethnographic research isn’t so much wrong as it is incomplete.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, this kind of research is biased because is is missing the counterfactuals:  What do long-time residents of non-gentrifying poor neighborhood say about how their neighborhoods have changed?  And what would a neighborhood look like if it didn’t attract new residents.

We and others have assembled comprehensive data on neighborhood change in US cities.  It shows that gentrification is extraordinarily rare (over 4 decades, perhaps 10 percent of poor neighborhoods experienced gentrification, defined as having a poverty rate fall from twice the US average to anything less than the national average).  Statistically, the far more striking fact is the persistence and growth of concentrated poverty.  Poor neighborhoods that don’t gentrify steadily lose population (down an average of 40 percent over 40 years), and the number of high poverty neighborhoods in major US metro’s has tripled.  Americans in poverty today are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  Research shows that all of the negative effects of poverty are amplified by having lots of poor neighbors.  As Demsas concludes:

City by city, the message is clear: Segregation and concentrated poverty are the true blights of urban life, despite our fascination with gentrification.

There’s precious little evidence of the supposed harms of gentrification even in those relatively few neighborhoods that are changing. Careful economic studies show that gentrification generally benefits long-time residents.

Supposed cures for gentrification often make the problems worse

Demsas concludes by musing about the “ethical” ways we might use to promote greater integration, and ends up suggesting more housing, greater tenant protections, and less restrictive zoning in predominantly white and middle income neighborhoods.  Making it easier to build more housing in high demand locations makes a lot of sense, but that advice runs distinctly counter to most anti-gentrification efforts, which are squarely focused on blocking new market rate housing.

The painful irony of many anti-gentrification tactics is they simply serve to make housing affordability and displacement worse. Advocates regularly oppose up-zoning and new developments, or as in Atlanta, impose development moratoria to “save” the neighborhood.  Attempting to slow or stop  neighborhood change by blocking the construction of new market-rate housing—which many associate with gentrification—only makes housing supplies tighter, and drives up rents.  As Demsas notes, this flies in the face of a spate of recent studies that show that construction of new market rate housing actually helps hold down rents, and by setting off a chain of household moves, opens up more housing opportunities for lower and moderate income households.

Two of the big persistent problems in the American metropolis are segregation and racial wealth disparities.  And despite the pain of change, gentrifying neighborhoods are the places where these two interrelated problems are being ameliorated.  Our 2018 study America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods, showed that many places identified as “gentrifying” are the most racially and economically mixed places in the nation.  And contrary to common assumption, once neighborhoods become more racially and ethnically diverse, they tend to stay that way.

As Andre Perry and his colleagues at Brookings Institution have documented, there are persistent disparities in the value of homes in predominantly Black and predominantly white neighborhoods.  These disparities are a major contributor to the racial wealth gap. And these disparities are largest in metro areas with high levels of racial segregation.  It’s a seeming paradox, but rising home prices in gentrifying neighborhoods are actually diminishing this underlying home value disparity.  As bad as a it may be to have to pay higher property taxes because your home has appreciated (and your wealth has increased) it’s far worse to see your wealth stagnate or decline because slumping home values in a segregated neighborhood.