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Using Geography to Define 'Gentrification'

Focus more on people, less on place.
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(Photo: tektur/Shutterstock)

(Photo: tektur/Shutterstock)

Does the term "gentrification" always include displacement? For some, gentrification is the very definition of displacement. I could unpack the normative understanding of "displacement." Not today. The hubbub about gentrification isn't about displacement. It is about segregation.

Another day, another study failing to find empirical evidence of gentrification causing incumbent residential displacement:

Although the empirical evidence on residential displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods is weak, many scholars have pointed to the indirect displacement that gentrification brings by reducing the affordable housing supply, as well as alternative forms of displacement that take place as neighborhoods gentrify. While less advantaged households may not move out of gentrifying neighborhoods, gentrification results in less advantaged residents being priced out of areas that they could have afforded originally, often from areas by the central business district, thereby making access to jobs and amenities more difficult for these residents (Newman and Wyly, 2006). In addition, the decrease in affordable housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods can force lower-income residents to search for housing in more disadvantaged neighborhoods (Newman and Wyly, 2006). The aforementioned studies find that residents who move to gentrifying neighborhoods tend to be more socioeconomically advantaged than original residents in the neighborhoods (McKinnish et al., 2010; Ellen and O’Regan, 2011), which suggests that less advantaged residents may indeed be entering more disadvantaged neighborhoods. Because of data limitations, studies on displacement and gentrification using longitudinal data have not analyzed the types of neighborhoods to which residents in gentrifying neighborhoods move.

Pay attention to the literature review. This study confirms both the scholarship that sees little evidence of gentrification driving displacement as well as the strong evidence that neighborhood improvements keep certain demographics out. Perhaps people get displaced. We don't know. We do know that gentrification keeps people out. Gentrification promotes segregation.

How does gentrification promote gentrification? Atlanta, Georgia, explains:

Those without an understanding of the segmented nature of housing markets may leap to the conclusion that the increasing supply of luxury units will lower the cost of lower-end units by increasing the overall supply of rental housing. There is a serious problem with this logic. First, as the industry follows a herd mentality by chasing the luxury rental market, owners of, and investors in, lower-cost units may disinvest out of more affordable units, converting them to upscale, much more expensive units or demolishing them to make way for luxury units or nonresidential uses. While the increased development of luxury units may have a marginal negative effect on high-end rents, this activity may actually draw capital away from the more affordable sector leading to disinvestment and shrinkage of that supply. The two ends of the market are in-fact segmented from each other, but they compete for land and capital and so the proliferation of the luxury market may, in fact, result in less on the more affordable end. Meanwhile, those with modest incomes may be faced with higher rents in the lower-cost segment of the rental market, or may even try to stretch themselves – perhaps too far - to afford a small but expensive unit in the luxury market.

Perhaps the increasing supply of luxury units in a gentrifying neighborhood will force incumbent residents to move elsewhere. We don't know. We do know that the increasing supply of luxury units in a gentrifying neighborhood will keep certain socioeconomic groups out. Hello, redlining.

Yes in my backyard (YIMBYism) is the new segregation. NIMBYs keeping people out of certain neighborhoods is an old story. YIMBYs do the same while scapegoating NIMBYs—"I'll see your racism and raise you."

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.