There goes the neighborhood

Or maybe not; gentrification may not displace the poor

When richer and perhaps whiter people move into a low-income urban neighborhood, such “gentrification,” the usual narrative holds, can be ruinous: Lower-income people flee their homes, forced out by higher prices.

Efforts to gentrify or “revitalize” neighborhoods may therefore arouse stiff resistance. But growing evidence suggests that the gentrification narrative is either a myth or vastly overstated.

Photo: Matthew Besinger

Photo: Matthew Besinger

Terra McKinnish, associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado, led a study of U.S. Census Bureau data whose results contradict popular conceptions. With former CU associate professor of economics Randall Walsh (now at the University of Pittsburgh) and economist Kirk White of U.S. Department of Agriculture, McKinnish studied demographic trends in neighborhoods that gentrified in the 1990s.

Using detailed, non-public Census Bureau data, they analyzed migration in and out of more than 15,000 U.S. neighborhoods. They compared poor neighborhoods that gentrified during the 1990s to those that remained poor.

“Our findings, which might surprise some, suggest that on many measures, gentrification benefits, rather than harms, non-white households,” McKinnish says.

Further, “We found no evidence that low-income or minority households are being ‘forced out’ of growing neighborhoods.”

Rather, they found that black middle-class families that stay in gentrifying neighborhoods appear to benefit. McKinnish’s team found that 33 percent of the total increase in average household income in gentrifying neighborhoods goes to black households whose wage-earners hold high-school degrees.

Black households with less than high-school degrees benefited less, gaining only 7 percent of the increase in income.

In the McKinnish study, “poor” neighborhoods fell in the bottom quintile of average family income, earning $30,079 or less (in 2000 dollars). A neighborhood was “gentrified” if the average family income rose by at least $10,000 in the ‘90s.

“We’re not saying there aren’t communities where displacement isn’t happening,” Walsh told Time magazine in June. “But in general, across all neighborhoods in the urbanized parts of the U.S., it looks like gentrification is a pretty good thing.”

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