Research Findings

How gentrification reproduces racial inequality

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May 20, 2021

Gentrification—the socioeconomic upgrading of previously low-income neighborhoods—has spread to more cities and more neighborhoods over the last two decades. It has increasingly ignited opposition around how it displaces poor residents out of their once-neglected neighborhoods.

But research has consistently found that this isn’t the case.

Nearly all studies, including our own, that track poor residents living in gentrifying neighborhoods find that they do not move out of their neighborhoods—in general or involuntarily—substantially more than those living in low-income neighborhoods that don’t gentrify. Instead, most of the demographic changes in the neighborhood are due to the changing demographics of who is moving into neighborhoods rather than who is moving out.

Are concerns of residential displacement therefore misguided?

The answer is no. How it affects where poor movers go, rather than whether poor people move, uncovers how gentrification reproduces racial inequality.

Our research published in the American Journal of Sociology shows how gentrification leads to unequal residential outcomes for poor residents by race, even without increasing the likelihood that poor residents will move. These consequences reproduce racial inequality in the quality of neighborhoods that people live in.  

Drawing on a unique restricted large-scale, longitudinal dataset of over 50,000 Philadelphia residents from 2002 to 2014, we examined not only whether poor people are more likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods compared with those that are not gentrifying but also where movers end up. Few datasets allow researchers to follow a large number of residents over time and to their destinations.

There are several reasons why poor people may not move more from gentrifying neighborhoods compared with neighborhoods that do not gentrify, even when housing values and rents rise. Some adapt strategies to stay—such as living in crowded households or offsetting other financial costs—or benefit from housing subsidies. Moreover, the comparison group—poor people in disadvantaged neighborhoods that do not gentrify—experiences high rates of chronic residential instability.

We sought to better understand the constraints and consequences of moving by examining where movers ended up.

Research on segregation documents how Black people continue to experience racial discrimination and have biased networks and information when searching for housing. Predominantly Black neighborhoods are also undervalued and underappraised.

These processes perpetuate racial segregation and the racial wealth gap. With this in mind, we tested differences in outcomes between poor people in historically Black gentrifying neighborhoods from other gentrifying neighborhoods.

We measured gentrification based on whether neighborhoods had substantial increases in their housing values or rents and had substantial increases in their college-educated population.

Most historically Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia did not gentrify; however, gentrification in Black neighborhoods was still prevalent. Historically Black neighborhoods (more than 50 percent Black in 2000) comprise half of the neighborhoods that our measure identified as gentrifying in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2013.

We found that poor residents who moved from historically Black gentrifying neighborhoods had few options in the face of gentrification. They tended to move to poorer neighborhoods that were not gentrifying within the city. These areas also had higher violent crime rates and lower school test scores, and were the same places to which poor residents from nongentrifying neighborhoods moved.

Poor residents from other gentrifying neighborhoods that were not historically Black, on the other hand, benefitted from gentrification. They often moved to wealthier neighborhoods in the city and in the suburbs.

We also found evidence of indirect, or exclusionary, displacement—when poor people are unable to move into neighborhoods as gentrification intensifies. Poor people moving into Philadelphia and within Philadelphia were more likely over time to move into poor neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify and increasingly less likely to move into gentrifying neighborhoods.

Altogether, gentrification reconfigures cities to reproduce racial inequality, even without increasing displacement.

First, it reduces the number of affordable neighborhood options and increases neighborhood options for middle- and high-socioeconomic status residents within cities.

Second, it places relatively less value on historically Black gentrifying neighborhoods compared with other gentrifying neighborhoods.

These processes, along with discrimination in the search for housing, fosters upward mobility for poor residents who move from gentrifying neighborhoods that are not historically Black, and it facilitates downward mobility for those from historically Black gentrifying neighborhoods.

What can be done about this?

Assuming gentrification continues to run its course, providing more housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods for poor residents and targeted resources and support, like relocation counseling services, that connect Black people to these opportunities are needed.

Further, sustained investment in resources and opportunities in poor neighborhoods that aren’t gentrifying is also important. Poor movers, especially poor Black movers, should not be limited to neighborhoods with high levels of disadvantage, high crime, and low-quality schools.

Investment in poor neighborhoods must also come with a robust set of policies to prevent displacement, like rent stabilization or rent subsidies, emergency relief aid, property tax caps, tenant counseling, and enforcement against predatory buyers.

Similar efforts to mitigate housing insecurity are also needed in gentrifying neighborhoods, especially historically Black ones. While poor residents did not move more frequently from these neighborhoods, moves from historically Black gentrifying neighborhoods appear constrained.

Finally, efforts to reduce racial discrimination in the housing market and racial wealth disparities are necessary.

Of course, the right levers will vary by place.

While our study is based on the case of Philadelphia, we expect that racialized differences in residential mobility patterns associated with gentrification would bear out in most other places in the US. They may be more muted in places with less segregation. And, these patterns will probably look different spatially, depending on each city’s history of urban development and structure of segregation.

While the consequences of the pandemic on the course of gentrification are yet to be seen, housing and neighborhood instability, particularly for poor communities of color, will undoubtedly be worse in the wake of the pandemic.

The disproportionate rise in joblessness among Black people will have disproportionate effects on their housing insecurity across all neighborhoods, and disinvestment and decline will likely be exacerbated in low-income neighborhoods that aren’t gentrifying.

The temporary protections against evictions and foreclosures have helped delay these consequences, but long-term solutions are needed. Research has repeatedly shown that housing security is key to social and economic stability and mobility, and that neighborhoods lacking opportunities and resources can have detrimental effects on one’s economic and social mobility.

If we want to provide everyone a chance to rebuild from the pandemic, housing and neighborhood stability and opportunities are key. Without the right policy levers, neighborhood inequality will continue to persist as cities transform.

Read more

Jackelyn Hwang and Lei Ding. “Unequal Displacement: Gentrification, Racial Stratification, and Residential Destinations in Philadelphia.American Journal of Sociology 2020. For a free, pre‐publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Ted Eytan via flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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