Gentrification Got Gentrified

If Beverly Hills is afraid of gentrifying, what does the word even mean?

The skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina.
The skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2009.
Flickr/Charlotte Pano

On April 30, Cheryl Davila and Ben Bartlett told their colleagues on the Berkeley City Council that the city should draft “rules and regulations to halt the loss of People of Color including the African Americans” and develop a “right of return” for Berkeley residents of color who have been displaced but would like to come back.

In D.C., which lost its black majority at the start of the decade, this population change has sometimes been derided in the black community as “the Plan.” Elsewhere, too, in neighborhoods like Raleigh, North Carolina’s South Park; Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy; and Charleston, South Carolina’s North Central, it can feel as if the shift happened by design: Decades after the devastations of redlining and urban renewal, money is pouring back in, and longtime black residents are leaving—pushed by high rents, or pulled by the prospect of selling their homes for retirement security. Two-thirds black in the 1970s, Charleston is now two-thirds white, a stark example of what we’ve come to call gentrification.

The arrival of white residents—typically highly educated professionals whose incomes dwarf those of their new neighbors—has diversified about 1,400 U.S. census tracts since 2000, according to an investigation published last week by the New York Times. A separate study, published in March by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, found that 1,049 census tracts had gentrified in that time (based on increases in home values, educational attainment, and income), and 232 of those tracts, or 22 percent, had recorded significant displacement of black or Latino residents. A third study, published in April by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, finds wider evidence still of low-income displacement in economically expanding neighborhoods.

All three of those reports bolster the conventional narrative about urban change in America, which is that urban neighborhoods are getting whiter and wealthier, sometimes at the expense of longtime residents. Yet all three emphasize that, statistically, those changes run very much against larger currents of metropolitan change. The most likely story, for most Americans in most cities, is that their neighborhood is getting poorer and less white. There is no city in the country where low-income people are more likely to live in a neighborhood that’s getting richer than one that’s getting poorer.

That gentrification is—except in a handful of cities—pretty unusual is not news. But you wouldn’t know it from the way people talk about the way we live now. The three new studies emphasize the need for us to keep two ideas in our heads at once: Gentrification is real and is sometimes accompanied by displacement. But most neighborhoods are either rich and getting richer, or they are just getting poorer (mostly the second).

Being more precise is important, because the specter of gentrification is invoked by communities on all ends of the income spectrum to forestall new housing as the country is building fewer homes per capita than at any time since World War II. When the Beverly Hills City Council is arguing that permitting small apartment buildings within city limits would “directly contribute to gentrification,” it might be time to finally come up with a clear-cut definition of the term.

How gentrified is America? Perhaps you clicked on this article expecting answers, but I don’t have them. No one does. Not only do researchers not agree on gentrification’s effects—specifically, how often people are displaced by the influx of highly educated high earners—they can’t even agree on what gentrification is. And they don’t agree on what neighborhoods are eligible for gentrification in the first place. Slate’s own “Are You a Gentrifier?” calculator, from a few years ago, had to decide on a definition of gentrification that precludes ZIP codes like Park Slope and the Mission. (Sorry: too rich to gentrify!)

What’s clear is that two patterns predominate, and neither of them is gentrification. First is the diversification of the suburbs. The number of people living in all-white suburbs shrank from 39.3 million in 2000 to 30.2 million in 2010, according to the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, a shift that looks even more dramatic given the population growth during that time and nearly a decade of subsequent diversification. In an analysis published Wednesday, the New York Times extends the timeline to 2017 and finds a dramatic change: One-third of Americans lived in exclusively white neighborhoods in 1980; just 5 percent of Americans do today, mostly in rural areas. (The Times threshold for “all-white” is a little higher, so the change is larger.)

Second: In the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S., 37 million people live in neighborhoods where more residents are making less money than they used to. Just 8 percent of urbanites live in neighborhoods that are getting wealthier. For the most part, those are not two sides of the same coin, in which low-income residents leave wealthy areas and move to declining ones. There are many more of the latter type of neighborhood than the former. Even defined broadly, gentrification is not very common.

Two recent, rigorous studies—one from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the second from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity—illustrate some of the challenges in measuring gentrification and its impact. “Observers can find at least some evidence for almost any sweeping narrative they wish,” note the authors of the UM report.

Here’s an example: The first study concludes that approximately 1 million people lived in census tracts that experienced gentrification and black or Hispanic displacement between 2000 and 2013.

The second study puts that number at 9 million.

That is a big difference. Part of it stems from the methodology of displacement. The first study measures only race-based declines of 5 percent as displacement. The second counts an absolute decline of low-income residents as displacement.

But most of it stems from how each study quantifies gentrification. The first study is only counting displacement in neighborhoods that were, in 2000, below average in both median household income and home values and have since outperformed regional averages in college graduate share and home value growth. The second study counts displacement in all neighborhoods that have added high earners as a number and share of the population.

The result is two radically different views of how severe the problem of displacement from gentrifying neighborhoods is. And the arcane points in the methodology gesture at a very large and challenging question: Should we limit what we call gentrification to neighborhoods that were once poor? If we do, what do we call it when high-rent displacement comes for the gentrifiers?

This second phenomenon drives a great deal of gentrification discourse. As anyone who has lived in a gentrified neighborhood can tell you, nobody fights gentrification with the self-righteous determination of a first-wave gentrifier. The Onion called this second wave Aristocratization: “The recent influx of exceedingly affluent powder-wigged aristocrats into the nation’s gentrified urban areas is pushing out young white professionals, some of whom have lived in these neighborhoods for as many as seven years.” But the problems affecting very low- and middle-income renters are not the same, and only by distinguishing between them can we devise effective solutions to let people live where they want to live. (To be specific, low-income residents need greater investment in subsidized housing. Middle-income residents should be taken care of by a functioning private housing market.)

On some level, none of this matters much: Like pornography, gentrification is one of those things you know when you see. Data rarely changes minds, and I can think of few subjects on which minds are less likely to change than the character of one’s neighborhood. Often, the most distressing signs of a neighborhood in flux have nothing to do with housing at all, and all academic analyses are about housing.

But as state policymakers address an unprecedented housing shortage and presidential candidates talk housing on the campaign trail, it helps to have a grounded sense of how cities are evolving.

Consider the results of the NCRC’s study, which both limits neighborhood eligibility and then imposes scrupulous conditions on what qualifies as gentrification. Its researchers find that seven cities accounted for half the country’s gentrification: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago. You might notice that San Francisco is missing from that list—that’s because, in NCRC’s methodology, San Francisco was largely ineligible to gentrify. People were already making too much money in 2000, and their houses were worth too much.

The UM report says 12 percent of San Diego has gentrified since 2000. The NCRC pegs it as 29 percent. Rachel Bogardus Drew, a housing analyst with Enterprise Community Partners, applied the framework developed in 2004 by the sociologist Lance Freeman to the NCRC dataset—and found San Diego clocked in at 53 percent gentrified. Confused yet? Applying the Freeman framework, Drew also found Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 57 percent gentrified and St. Louis at 53 percent—identical to San Diego, which comes … as a surprise. To make matters more complicated, the word gentrification appears in the New York Times according to a whole separate logic.

“Part of the issue is there isn’t enough debate about these different ways of both defining and conceptualizing gentrification,” Drew told me. “And different outcomes influence how we respond.”

That point is not academic. Up in Sacramento (68 percent gentrified. Or maybe 6. Or maybe 2. Or 15.1), the California Legislature is deep in a debate over whether to wrest control over housing approval away from local politicians, whose reluctance to permit new homes has driven the state into a housing crisis (which is also a transportation crisis because people now live so far away from their jobs, which makes it, in turn, an environmental crisis). The bill, SB 50, would permit small apartment buildings around bus and train lines in the state’s urban counties.

After his failure to solidify an alliance with fair housing activists doomed the legislation in 2018, sponsor Scott Wiener has promised provisions that will exempt “sensitive” neighborhoods at risk of gentrification from the responsibility to permit new apartments.

That means the debate over what’s gentrifying—and what can gentrify—will have enormous consequences for what gets built in California. Which brings us back to Beverly Hills. There’s a well-documented false consciousness in the United States in which everyone thinks they are middle class. It has a neighborhood corollary: Everyone thinks their neighborhood can gentrify. If they’re right, the word is useless.

1Sacramento is 15 percent gentrified, according to NCRC, with eligibility restrictions on what can gentrify in the first place. Remove those restrictions, and that percentage drops to 2. Applying Freeman’s methodology to the NCRC data set, Drew finds Sacramento’s eligible tracts are 68 percent gentrified. The UM study, meanwhile, reports that 4 percent of all Sacramento tracts are both expanding economically and losing low-income residents.