In Defense of Gentrification

The prevailing narrative ignores an abundance of evidence that relatively few low-income neighborhoods get gentrified—and when they do, there’s much less displacement than is commonly assumed.

Lucas Jackson / AP

When higher-income people start moving into lower-income neighborhoods, how does that affect longtime residents? Recently, three studies have pointed toward an answer that’s different from the most common one.

First, a study from NYU’s Furman Center suggests that residents of public housing in wealthier and gentrifying neighborhoods make more money, live with less violence, and have better educational options for their children, despite also facing some challenges. Second, a 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 move to lower-income neighborhoods. And finally, a Columbia University study on gentrification in London also failed to find evidence of widespread departures in neighborhoods with rising average incomes.

Together, these stories suggest that while gentrification can cause social discord and make residents anxious about the future, it neither produces measurably more departures from neighborhoods, nor does it usually make residents economically worse off. If anything, residents of improving neighborhoods see greater wealth (as measured by their 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 the prevailing narrative ignores the abundance of evidence that relatively few low-income neighborhoods get gentrified, and that when they do there is much less displacement than is commonly assumed?

With the growth of research demonstrating the benefits of living in more economically integrated neighborhoods for low-income families, it’s surprising that this narrative doesn’t play a big role in how people think about gentrification. When the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues’ findings about the connection between economic integration and economic mobility were reported, they were framed as an argument for moving poorer families into richer neighborhoods, and not vice versa.

The narrative that results from ignoring this more positive data is popular because of its “truthiness”—it seems to be right according to intuition, regardless of what factual evidence suggests. The truthiness here is that gentrification is assumed to be an intrinsically malignant process, and so any evidence to the contrary is deeply discounted or ignored, even as it piles up. The aforementioned studies, and others, simply don’t fit into the most common understanding of the issue.

The New York and Philadelphia studies both confirmed earlier research that gentrification is seldom associated with displacement, and that it is frequently associated with higher incomes and better economic results for the longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. But few news-following Americans would get that impression.

Consider three examples. In a recent story headlined “In Chelsea, a Great Wealth Divide,The New York Times described the plight of a retired resident of public housing who had to travel to New Jersey to find bargain-shopping opportunities. But not until the 14th paragraph 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 retired resident’s firm opinion that despite the disorientation of change and the challenge of shopping, her neighborhood was unambiguously a better place to live after it had been gentrified.

There was also a series of articles 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. But 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. 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 they’re feared to be—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 mentality that guides the narrative about poverty. While the gentrification narrative (having rich neighbors makes life harder for poor people) is common, news stories seldom promote 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, more straightforward examples of displacement—such as a plan in the suburb Marietta, Georgia, to demolish 10 percent of all its multi-family housing that will fairly clearly move poor households to other cities—tend to go overlooked.

Implicit in all these narratives is a strong quasi-segregationist impulse: Rich people ought to live with rich people, and poor people ought to live with other poor people. Anything that changes this status quo is suspect: If rich people move into poor neighborhoods, it’s called gentrification. If poor people move into rich neighborhoods, it’s called social engineering. It’s difficult to see how this framing ever leads to a world in which there is less economic segregation.

This post appears courtesy of City Observatory.