But exactly how does this dynamic play out, and is displacement inevitable? A new comprehensive review of what we know about gentrification sheds much needed light on this heated issue. The review, by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and UCLA and published by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, takes a close look at studies of gentrification and displacement conducted over the past several decades. (I wrote about the review’s insights on how public investment shapes gentrification last week). It helps us better understand several questions related to gentrification and displacement: Just how extensive is displacement, exactly what kinds of people are displaced, and how do people and groups fare after they leave gentrifying neighborhoods?
Perhaps the foremost student of gentrification and displacement is Lance Freeman of Columbia University. His 2004 study with Frank Braconi found that poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods of New York City were less likely to move than poor households in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. This of course may have to do with the fact that there are less poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods to begin with. Still, the authors concluded that “a neighborhood could go from a 30% poverty population to 12% in as few as 10 years without any displacement whatsoever.” In a subsequent 2005 study, Freeman found that the probability that a household would be displaced in a gentrifying neighborhood was a mere 1.3 percent. A follow-up 2007 study, again with Braconi, examined apartment turnover in New York City neighborhoods and found that the probability of displacement declined as the rate of rent inflation increased in a neighborhood. Disadvantaged households in gentrifying neighborhoods were actually 15 percent less likely to move than those in non-gentrifying households.
Counterintuitively, several studies have even found that gentrification can in some cases reduce displacement. Neighborhood improvements like bars, restaurants, waterfronts, or extended transit can and sometimes do encourage less advantaged households to stay put in the face of gentrification. A 2006 study found that displacement accounted for only 6 to 10 percent of all moves in New York City due to housing expenses, landlord harassment, or displacement by private action (e.g. condo conversion) between 1989 and 2002. A 2011 studyconcluded that neighborhood income gains did not significantly predict household exit rates. What did predict outmigration was age, minority status, selective entry and exit, and renting as opposed to buying.
A 2010 study on “Who Gentrifies Low-Income Neighborhoods” found that the impact of gentrification on black residents varies based on level of education. By examining around 15,000 census tracts in 64 metros from 1990-2000, the authors found that gentrification tends to benefit highly educated black households. In fact, one-third of the increase in income among gentrifying neighborhoods during this period came from the progress of this specific demographic. This in turn causes gentrifying neighborhoods to be more attractive to middle-class black households. But gentrification can also have a negative effect on less educated black households, by pushing those who did not complete high school out of gentrifying neighborhoods.
Indeed, displacement is becoming a larger issue in knowledge hubs and superstar cities, where the pressure for urban living is accelerating. These particular cities attract new businesses, highly skilled workers, major developers, and large corporations, all of which drive up both the demand for and cost of housing. As a result, local residents—and neighborhood renters in particular—may feel pressured to move to more affordable locations.
A 2013 Cleveland Fed study found that extensive gentrification is the province of a limited group of large superstar cities and knowledge hubs like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Washington D.C. In three-quarters of America’s 55 largest cities, less than ten percent of all neighborhoods experienced gentrification from 2000-2007, and gentrification affected 5 percent or less of a total of 22 neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, these cities are the ones being hit hardest by displacement. And with real estate prices in these cities surging toward all-time highs, there is reason to believe that displacement may worsen over time.
Creative solutions that make communities better
Gentrification and displacement, then, are symptoms of the scarcity of quality urbanism. The driving force behind both is the far larger process of spiky reurbanization—itself propelled by large-scale public and private investment in everything from transit, schools, and parks to private research institutions and housing redevelopment. All of which points to the biggest, most crucial task ahead: creating more inclusive cities and neighborhoods that can meet the needs of all urbanites.