April V. Taylor
The trend of white, more affluent residents moving into urban neighborhoods that have historically been made up of less affluent people of color, known as gentrification, is a trend that is on the rise in cities across the country. The term gentrification was first used to describe this movement of middle class families into former working-class neighborhoods in London in 1964. While some bill gentrification as a positive process that revitalizes blighted communities, improves services and returns wealth, others view it as a desecration of authentic and autonomous neighborhoods that puts low income and minority residents at a disadvantage and destroys the social fabric of their communities. The answer about whether or not residents, who are either displaced or choose to stay behind, are worse off because of gentrification depends on what data sets are being analyzed, but what is consistent across the board is that segregation and concentrated poverty are increasing as gentrification increases across the country.
It is important to point out that it is not just local governments that are responsible for the policy changes that allow gentrification to happen, the federal government has spent more than $120 billion since 1974 in Community Development Block Grants through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As billions have been poured into “revitalization efforts,” residential patterns of U.S. households have become increasingly segregated. This increase in segregation is both racial and socioeconomic.
Statistics that highlight this trend include the fact that major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are considered hypersegregated with more than 35 percent of the country’s Black population living in hypersegregated places. The number of high poverty urban neighborhoods tripled between 1970 and 1990 causing social isolation and spatial isolation to interact in a way that makes advancement by minorities difficult. As gentrification perpetuates concentrated poverty, people become stuck in disadvantaged neighborhoods for generations with many cities becoming a “patchwork of concentrated disadvantage juxtaposed with concentrated advantage,” according to Harvard University’s Robert Sampson.
One of the interesting statistical trends of gentrification that illustrates the persistence of segregation in American cities is the type of neighborhoods that are most prone to gentrification. Researchers have found that the racial composition of a neighborhood has a threshold effect that prevents most neighborhoods with a Black population over 40 percent from being gentrified. In other words, neighborhoods that are more black tend to stay that way. The separation of American neighborhoods by race is coupled with the existence of concentrated poverty. A statistic that highlights this is that for every single neighborhood that has been gentrified since 1970, there are 10 neighborhoods that have remained poor and 12 that have slipped into poverty, meaning wealth and poverty are becoming increasingly concentrated in separate neighborhoods.
American cities are also becoming increasingly segregated in terms of level of education due to gentrification according to Stanford economist Rebecca Diamond. As the cost of living has started to dramatically vary in ways that have not been historically true, cities with higher costs of living have become affordable only to those with college degrees and less educated residents are pushed out by an inability to afford housing and services. Diamond attributes this not just to the wage gap between high school and college graduates, which increased by 50 percent between 1980 and 2000, but also to the larger increase in the economic well-being gap.
As many policymakers and academics have focused the national conversation on helping those who are displaced by gentrification, the bigger issue of increasing racial, academic and socioeconomic segregation has become the elephant in the room that few are acknowledging. Those who are paying attention are realizing that the national trend toward gentrification is in fact a new, multi-pronged form of segregation. The solution to equality and shared upward mobility across race and class may not be simply in ending gentrification but in understanding the factors that are perpetuating and increasing the segregation of American neighborhoods and cities.