From Gentrification to Decline: How Neighborhoods Really Change. The dominant trend, especially in suburbs, is the concentration of low income people
When people talk about how big cities have changed over the last two decades, the word that inevitably comes up is gentrification—the influx of affluent newcomers. A transformative wave of wealth—often accompanied by displacement of lower-income neighborhood residents—has seized prominent parts of Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco.But across U.S. metro areas, gentrification may not the dominant type of urban change. Instead, it’s the concentration of poverty—particularly in the suburbs—that’s the type of transformation most Americans have been experiencing.
That bigger context is absolutely critical, Stancil said. “If you ask, ‘Who won a basketball game?’ and someone says, ‘Well, the Lakers scored 80,’ you need to know what the other team scored, what happened on the other side, to to really get a full picture,” he said. “This [project] is able to provide both sides of the picture—it really presents a holistic view.”
Minneapolis, where Stancil is based, has been grappling with its approach to affordable housing in its Minneapolis 2040 plan—a citywide effort to undo the legacy of widespread single-family zoning. While the city has vowed to build more and denser housing in neighborhoods where it was once forbidden, conversations persist about whether that move alone is sufficient to keep neighborhoods affordable. Often, discussions about the threat of displacement and the threat of concentrating poverty have been happening in silos, Stancil said—often even at odds with each other. “It was sort of a sense that both camps … were talking past each other,” he said.Many past studies have explored the complicated relationship between gentrification and displacement, and researchers have come up skeptical about whether the first directly causes the second. (For one, displacement is quite difficult to measure.) Demographic shifts observed over time appear to happen in part because low-income residents are more precarious generally, and more likely to move. As rents rise, they’re often replaced by higher-income residents. The low-income residents who do end up being pushed out, however, tend to move to worse-off areas. Over time, these complex, simultaneous changes lead to a shifting of economic, and often racial, boundaries.
To keep it simple, Stancil examined all census tracts (not just the low-income ones previous studies have deemed “eligible” to gentrify). He measured whether they have gained or lost low-income and/or “non-low-income” residents between 2000 and 2016. (Here, “low-income” is defined as people below 200 percent of federal poverty line; “non-low-income” is everyone else.)
Based on what he found, he came up with four color-coded categories of neighborhood change, seen in the grid below: The column on the left showcases the two types of economic expansion or gentrification, and the one of the right, the two types of decline.
Across the map, two kinds of change dominate: The orange patches reveal poverty concentration, when the numbers and shares of non-low-income residents declined and the population of low-income residents grew. Blue represents low-income displacement, when the numbers and shares of non-low-income residents increased, but low-income residents declined. In an interactive map, users can see how these forces shaped every census tract in the U.S. over the last decade.
The biggest takeaway: The most common type of change in the U.S. over the last two decades has been poverty concentration—and it affects low-income Americans, in particular. As of 2016, there is “no metropolitan region in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than an economically declining neighborhood,” the report reads.Poverty concentration has unsurprisingly been most dire in the Rust Belt. In Detroit (shown in the map below) almost half the residents were living in areas where poverty has been compounding. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago are examples of cities that have experienced similar change.
Because suburban areas are more populous, the majority of people experiencing neighborhood change, particularly poverty concentration, live in the suburbs. This is consistent with past research on the demographic shifts in the suburbs, which are getting more diverse and less affluent.
As the graph above shows, poverty concentration is a city problem as well. But displacement is much more common type of change in cities than in other types of areas: Around 11 percent of city residents live in areas experiencing displacement, compared to 3 percent in the suburbs. Overall, in the 50 largest metros, around 464,000 low-income people have left gentrifying neighborhoods since 2000.This change appears extreme in cities in California and on the East Coast. Displacement is happening at a regional level in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City. But Washington, D.C. tops the list: Around 36 percent of D.C. residents have been living in an areas that have experienced displacement. In the map below, you can clearly see that change in Shaw, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Petworth in the Northwest. While Wards 7 and 8 have mostly experienced decline, you can see traces of displacement even there.
Another recent study, as Brentin Mock recently reported, used a different methodology but also found New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. among the limited number of cities with the most acute gentrification. Washington, D.C., it found, had the highest share of gentrifying tracts, at 40 percent.
These changes aren’t just economic—they are racial shifts. According to Stancil’s report, people of color were much more likely to live in economically declining areas: Around 35 percent of black residents in the top 50 metros lived in such areas, compared to 9 percent who lived in gentrifying ones. White residents were more likely to leave declining areas (which saw a 22 percent loss in white residents) and to cluster in economically flourishing ones (which saw a 44 percent gain).Stancil’s neighborhood change model is a simple one—tracts are either economically expanding or declining; poorer residents are either leaving or arriving. This has its advantages:“You don’t have the sort of black box problem where there’s just lots and lots of data being fed in and weird stuff can happen,” he said. But it comes with limitations as well. It can’t say exactly why a place is getting poorer, for example. Is it because a hit to the local economy deepened poverty among existing residents? Or did more poor residents actually move to the area?
“We’ve read in the past… that as low-income people leave the central city, they’re arriving in suburbs and increasing the poverty in the suburbs,” Stancil said. These maps don’t explicitly show that the second was happening because of the first, but they do show the places where the two were happening simultaneously. That said, however, “while there is a sense that poverty is expanding out to the suburbs, it’s not leaving the city.”
Another issue with the methodology is that it measures change by looking at snapshots of census tracts at the beginning and end of the time period, and can’t say much about the trajectory of a particular neighborhood inside that time period. It also cannot predict how a neighborhood may change in the future. It just shows “going forward, that the predominant trend is likely to be low-income concentration—where you get growth sometimes in the center of the city and at the fringes you know you get increasing poverty concentration,” Stancil said.He hopes that the study’s findings inform policy interventions at the local level, where in some cases, local governments and advocacy groups may be concentrating on the wrong issue—or failing to see how the various types of neighborhood changes are occurring in tandem.
“It really just ends up in a lot of money being wasted,” he said. “You could potentially make the problems a lot worse if you put low-income housing in an area that already has poverty concentration, or if you are doing economic development somewhere that has tons of displacement.” Stancil’s project makes one thing certain in both cases, however: For some people, urban change is a expression of choice; for others, it is the result of constraints.
Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Ron Daniels, president of the Baltimore-based civil-rights network Institute of the Black World 21st Century, assembled a group of some of the foremost African-American social-justice advocates, thinkers, and influencers to Newark this weekend for an emergency summit on gentrification. The emergency is that too many white people have been moving back from wherever they fled to into inner-city neighborhoods that have been culturally and racially defined as black communities for the past few decades. This white invasion is an “insidious onslaught” to African-American life as we know it, as Daniels spelled out in a blog he penned last November, and so walls must be built, or rather, policies must be built to stop the occupation.Wrote Daniels:
“Development” in Washington, D.C., the original “Chocolate City,” has displaced thousands of Black people, forcing them to move to surrounding suburban areas; the prosperous central city neighborhood and Black business district in Seattle, Washington has vanished as Blacks have been forced to flee to Tacoma and other outlying cities where housing is more affordable; in Los Angeles, the Crenshaw Subway Coalition is vigorously resisting a subway extension that would spur gentrification in one of the most storied communities in Black America; in neighborhood after neighborhood in New York City, from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx to Harlem, gentrification is rapidly displacing hundreds of thousands of Black people.
“The supposed ills of gentrification—which might be more neutrally defined as poorer urban neighbourhoods becoming wealthier—lack rigorous support,” reads a June 2018 article in The Economist. “The most careful empirical analyses conducted by urban economists have failed to detect a rise in displacement within gentrifying neighbourhoods.”That doesn’t mean that Daniels and the dozens of big policy thinkers gathered in Newark are wrong, though. In fact, there is plenty of data to support Daniels’ claim that it is a crisis, to a certain extent. Close to 111,000 African Americans were displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods in cities across the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, according to a recent report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and most of that displacement has occurred in the cities that Daniels named above.
New York City had by far the largest number of census tracts that saw huge jumps in education levels, median household incomes, and median house values in the 2000–2013 time span, which was how NCRC researchers defined gentrification for the report. Los Angeles was second behind it, followed by Washington, D.C., which had the highest percentage of gentrifying tracts—40 percent—of all major cities. Seattle is among the top 10 cities identified for high “gentrification intensity” (measured as percentage of all tracts gentrified), with 20 percent of its neighborhoods having undergone radical economic change.
And while a gentrifying neighborhood doesn’t always mean the uprooting of non-white people, there has been plenty of that going on, again, notably in the cities that Daniels listed. In D.C., more than 20,000 people moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013—”enough to fill the new soccer stadium built where some of them lived,” reads the report. For New York City, the number is close to 15,000.
Overall, neighborhoods that experienced gentrification and displacement in that time span averaged a loss of 593 African Americans per tract. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Jacksonville, and New Orleans saw well above that average (the New Orleans caveat being that faulty Hurricane Katrina policies displaced many black residents).
These all sound like damning—indeed, crisis-level—statistics, but they should be put into context. While the researchers identified 1,049 census tracts in total that gentrified in the period cited, that is out of 11,196 that were deemed eligible for gentrification in 2000 (meaning they indicated low levels of education, income, and home value). Of those 1,049 gentrified tracts, 232 of them, or 22 percent, showed displacement of black or Latino residents.
Seven cities carried half of the gentrified tracts the researchers found nationally. Just 4 percent of all cities had more than five gentrified tracts, meaning most cities experiencing gentrification were only seeing it in a handful of neighborhoods. Just over three-quarters of all cities experienced no gentrification at all.
One of the main limitations of the NCRC report is that it stops in 2013, the last year for the most accurate U.S. Census data on these metrics. And, of course, a lot has happened in the last five years, meaning neighborhoods that didn’t experience gentrification and displacement in 2014 could certainly be under those spells now. However, the fact that there were so many census tracts ripe for displacement due to dismal income and housing-value levels during the study period is climacteric on its own.
“I think the emergency is that there is widespread disinvestment in low-to-moderate income communities to start with,” said Jason Richardson, NCRC’s research and evaluation director and a lead author of the report. “It’s all related to the same core issues, which are disinvestment in communities that periodically are seeing shifts into these periods of hyper-investment, and that’s what becomes gentrification.”
Meaning: gentrification is more a symptom of neighborhoods being sheltered, isolated, or redlined from economic growth. In fact, a report that NCRC issued last year found that 75 percent of neighborhoods that had been marked “hazardous” in the Home Owners Loan Corporation redlining maps of the 1930s are still some of the most economically struggling communities today. These neighborhoods aren’t dealing with gentrification or displacement, but that’s only because no one is spending any bucks in them to begin with. But that’s not to say that gentrification is not a serious problem. “In the communities where it’s happening, it’s absolutely an emergency,” said Bruce Mitchell, NCRC’s senior research analyst and co-author of the report. “It qualifies as an emergency in the sense that we have an housing affordability issue, or you have large numbers of renters who might be pushed out of the neighborhoods that become unaffordable, pushed further out from the city, distant from public transportation, distant from their jobs. And that makes life more difficult for them. Gentrification may also look different in some cities than in others—it may look different in Baltimore, for instance, than in a place like San Francisco or Seattle where you have really extreme affordability issues.”
So while gentrification and displacement may only be happening in a few areas, they are creating exigent challenges in the lives of those affected. Several presidential candidates, including U.S. Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker, have introduced legislation to provide housing and rental assistance for those vulnerable to displacement—though some experts are skeptical they’d actually dint gentrification overall. Booker, who was mayor of Newark during the NCRC report study period, is credited with bringing much-needed economic development to the city’s downtown corridors. In December, his successor Mayor Ras Baraka launched a commission on gentrification and equitable growth, in part because of the corporate largesse Booker brought to Newark.“Newark must not become another Brooklyn,” said Mayor Baraka at the commission’s announcement. “We are committed to achieving equitable growth so that the benefits of new development and investment are shared by all Newarkers and residents of limited economic means are not displaced by gentrification.”
Baraka is a keynote speaker at Ron Daniels’ gentrification summit, which his city is hosting. Interactive maps in the NCRC report show that several neighborhoods in Newark’s center core gentrified between 2000 and 2010, and two tracts saw black displacement. One of them showed a drop in black residents from 2,244 in 2000 to 988 in 2010, but it’s the tract where Newark’s Brick Towers public-housing development stood before it was torn down in 2008. The NCRC does not identify Newark as a city of “gentrification intensity” or widescale displacement of black residents like neighboring New York, at least not before 2013.
Pink-shaded areas show census tracts where African-American residents were displaced; darker gray-shaded tracts show where gentrification has taken place. (NCRC)But Newark’s affordable housing problems are escalating, according to a 2017 study from Rutgers University’s Center on Law, Inequality, & Metropolitan Equity, particularly given that close to 80 percent of its residents are renters. In 2000, the average Newark renter paid no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. However, as of 2015, “it is now normal to live in a neighborhood where most everyone is struggling to pay rent,” the study authors noted.
Which means gentrification is not an emergency there, yet. But the threat is, as Daniels wrote, “insidious.” Baraka’s commission and the scholars and activists gathered in Newark this weekend are not waiting for it to become an emergency to react. They can’t afford for their cities to become the next Brooklyn.
Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Now, a new paper in the journal Urban Studies examines the extent to which Katrina paved the way for gentrification in hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans. To assess this, the authors, Eric Joseph van Holm of Arizona State University and Christopher Wyczalkowski of Georgia State University, look at the association between neighborhood damage inflicted by Katrina and gentrification. Their study uses data from the City of New Orleans to identify the level of physical damage to neighborhoods, then tracks gentrification in these neighborhoods before and after Katrina, using Census Bureau data for the period 2000 to 2015.
The authors also borrow a method pioneered by Lance Freeman of Columbia University, the author of several leading studies of gentrification and displacement. Freeman’s framework identifies a neighborhood as having the potential to gentrify if it: is located in the central city; has a median household income less than the 40th percentile for the metropolitan area; and has a housing stock that’s older than the region as a whole.
In 2000, roughly one-fifth of census tracts in New Orleans (101 of 504) met all three of these criteria, and thus could be said to have the potential to gentrify. Per Freeman (and the study), gentrification occurs when neighborhoods experience a significant real increase in housing prices and an increase in college-educated residents that is greater than that of the metropolitan area. The study controls for the share of population that is African American, since previous studies have found that mostly African-American neighborhoods are less likely to gentrify than neighborhoods with a lower percentage of black residents. But damage from a hurricane could alter a neighborhood’s demographics by displacing large numbers of residents.The map below shows New Orleans neighborhoods that gentrified by 2015. (Dots are gentrified areas, while the shade of gray indicates probability of gentrifying.) More than half of the census tracts (62 of 101) that were “eligible to gentrify” in 2000 did so by 2015. That is a sizable share by any stretch.
Another map, below, shows damage from Katrina, with storm damage around Mid-City and stretching west, south, and east (that is, in places that gentrified), but also farther north in Lakeview and to the east (places that largely did not gentrify). Similarly, not every neighborhood that gentrified had weathered significant damage.
Overall, van Holm and Wyczalkowski conclude that hurricane damage is positively associated with the likelihood of a New Orleans neighborhood having gentrified in the 10 years after Katrina. And they write that gentrification was more likely in neighborhoods that had worse physical damage. With a “high degree of consistency across specifications,” they note, “our models suggest that those neighborhoods with a higher percentage of physical building damage were more likely to have gentrified one decade after the storm.” But the effect of storm damage on gentrification is not linear. As damage increases, the probability of gentrification increases too, but at a slower rate.
In line with previous research, the study also finds that gentrification was less likely in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of African Americans. This is a disturbing reflection on the persistence of racially-concentrated poverty, especially since the storm led to the mass displacement and relocation of so many of the city’s black, low-income residents.
Suffering a natural disaster is traumatic. We’d like to think that afterwards, people can go back to their original homes and neighborhoods. But that’s not what this study concludes at all. The reality is that the recovery from Katrina was terribly unequal, and disasters pave the way for the replacement of the poor by the much more affluent.When we think about climate change and sea-level rise in cities, we might think about places that see their property values decline and where insurance and mortgages become harder and harder to get, so that eventually, large parts of cities become uninhabitable. But another outcome of climate change is more frequent and fiercer natural disasters, and these can change the racial and class composition of cities. Devastating physical damage pushes existing populations out. This makes it easier for developers to assemble large tracts of land that can be rebuilt, not just to higher standards, but for far more advantaged groups, paving the way for a kind of mass gentrification.It’s high time we put equity and inclusion at the center of our disaster-recovery and rebuilding efforts.