What Do We Call It When the Rich Displace the Middle Class?

It’s not gentrification!

A well-dressed man looks at his phone at a restaurant counter.
Greasy spoon? Only if the grease is local, thanks. Austin Distel / Unsplash

Rents are going up. Longtime businesses are shutting down. Teachers, firefighters, and other middle-income workers are moving to more affordable neighborhoods—or more affordable cities. You know the drill. What do we call this phenomenon in which neighborhoods upscale beyond the means of long-standing residents, but—because those places long ago lost their low-income population and affordable housing stock or never had them in the first place—aren’t technically experiencing “gentrification”?

Last week, when I wrote about conflicts over the term gentrification and the areas it applies to, I concluded that it seemed inappropriate to let the term encompass every U.S. neighborhood where incomes are rising. If Beverly Hills claims to be gentrifying, the term is telling us nothing at all about the character of the place it describes. Defined more narrowly and carefully, however, the concept can be a useful label as more and more places craft policies to address housing affordability.

Even among experts, such a definition has been elusive. Enterprise Community Partners has released a three-way gentrification study widget that illustrates some of the methodological challenges. Try it out and you’ll notice that many quintessential examples of gentrification, where high rents and displacement continue to be major political issues (like in the Mission or Park Slope), do not show up on many metrics. Take a look at how three different measurements of gentrification apply to Seattle:

Three models of gentrification in Seattle since the 1970s.
Three models of gentrification in Seattle since the 1970s. Enterprise Community Partners

And yet: Even if we can’t call it all gentrification, it is true that economic inequality, wealth concentration, and a national homebuilding shortage have created housing stress for middle-income Americans. The gentrifiers are getting gentrified, and their displacement in some ways mirrors that of low-income residents: Both groups feel, relatively speaking, helpless, angry, and overmatched.

But they are not the same. Low-income Americans have a very difficult time finding affordable housing in virtually all major cities, regardless of costs. Case in point: The most severe housing shortage for low-income renters is in Orlando, Florida, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition—by almost every measure a cheap city to live in.

In contrast, middle-income Americans—those in the middle three income quintiles—by and large do not suffer from housing affordability challenges. Their problems are distinct. “The average middle-income household’s housing expenditures are well within [the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s] affordability guidelines,” says Jenny Schuetz, who analyzed middle-income housing data for Brookings. “I often read about the nationwide housing affordability crisis, and in the traditional definition, that’s just not true.”

Some middle-income earners do spend too much on housing, but mostly in the lower third of earners, and mostly in the most expensive metro areas. Those households do not fit most conceptions of “middle-class”—they made on average $32,600 in in 2015.

Mostly, it seems that when rents rise, middle-income families change their priorities to maintain more disposable income by crowding into smaller units, moving to longer commutes, and putting off homeownership. In short, when their neighborhoods change, middle-income families have choices. The choices aren’t good ones, but that has more to do with regional policy than with incomes. Families in regions with housing shortages have to get smaller apartments with longer commutes. Not so for families in low-cost regions. (By the way, Schuetz calculated the income quintiles within metro areas—the point is not you can take your Seattle salary to Atlanta and live well. It’s that even if you’re in the bottom third of the middle class in Atlanta, you’ve probably got plenty of disposable income left over after housing costs.)

A recent Harvard report went further: Yes, teachers and mechanics spend a distressing portion of their salary on housing in high-cost cities. But they have more money left over for the goods and services whose prices don’t change as much from region to region. Measuring housing stress by residual income, the Harvard team outlines another difference between true gentrification and whatever it is that happens one step up the income ladder.

Which, again, emphasizes some of the issues with providing federal housing aid to the middle class—as Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, proposed in a bill that would provide rental assistance to individuals earning up to $100,000. If you’re having trouble making rent with a six-figure salary, your problem ought to be solved in your local housing market—not with direct aid from Washington. As Schuetz put it, “It’s not the responsibility of people living in Ohio to solve high housing prices in California when Californians created that for themselves.”

All this is really an argument for coining a term to discuss middle-income displacement: It’s not gentrification, but it would be nice to be able to ride through town shouting something other than “the bourgeoisie are coming.”