When the mainstream media cover housing affordability issues, journalists often hone in on gentrification. Young, mostly white, college educated people are moving into urban cities, they say, followed by yoga studios, coffee shops, and luxury apartments. This influx of affluent individuals allegedly fuels the displacement of the poor.
These narratives may be popular, but research studies have shown that gentrification is rare and, in some cases, beneficial. The biggest housing problems facing America’s low-income residents have little to do with wealthier people moving in and everything to do with low-income residents falling even further behind.
Last month, a new Pew Charitable Trusts report found that just 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified between 2000 and 2014. Neighborhoods that experienced gentrification had at least a 10 percent increase in the median income during this period, according to the study. All but one of these gentrifying tracts are located in or adjacent to downtown Philadelphia. Pew also found that over 160 Philadelphia neighborhoods saw a significant decline in the median income during this same period.
In the Pew report, Beth McConnell, policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations noted, “This gentrification stuff is happening in very few places, affecting a small number of people.” She added, “We have many more poor neighborhoods where there is no change.”
Researchers have found that even in New York, where high housing prices have crept into once less desirable neighborhoods, gentrification does not fully explain why affordable housing is so scarce. The Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty research and advocacy organization, recently released a report that found rents increased well above the rate of inflation even in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
One reason for this development is that landlords have been using loopholes in housing regulations to increase their rents, a problem that tenant advocates are fighting to fix. But crucially, the report states that poorer New Yorkers with stagnant incomes and inadequate safety nets have seen declines in their living standards “whether they live in gentrifying neighborhoods or not.”
Tom Waters, one of the report’s co-authors, tells The American Prospect that although gentrification is not the only housing problem facing New York, it has been “very productive from a tenant advocacy point of view” because it has helped the public understand that lower Manhattan is not the only area that needs rent regulation.
These gentrification discussions have sparked broader conversations about housing affordability. When Waters first began working on housing issues, New York landlords told state and local legislators that rent regulations only benefited high-income white people living on the Upper East Side. According to Waters, now people understand that rent regulations are important tools for diverse groups of New Yorkers.
For low-income families, the housing issues associated with concentrated poverty and economic segregation are far more pressing than those associated with gentrification. City Observatory, an urban policy think tank, found that between 1970 and 2010, high-poverty communities that didn’t gentrify fell even further into poverty, and lost, on average, 40 percent of their population.
Daniel Kay Hertz, City Observatory senior fellow, has noted, “If our concern is displacement, then that number ought to be a major concern. It represents the movement of countless households away from their homes, not because of rising rents but because high-poverty neighborhoods don’t provide the residents with enough of the necessities of a good life: strong schools, safe streets, access to jobs, and so on.”
Last year, journalist John Buntin suggested that one reason we see so many myths about gentrification in the news media may be because much of the gentrification that does exist has occurred in New York and Washington D.C., the two major East Coast hubs for journalists. Another reason may be that gentrification is a proxy for middle-class concerns about steadily rising housing prices, according to Buntin.
Nevertheless, housing affordability problems and solutions vary from region to region, and they cannot be properly addressed by blaming poverty on gentrification. In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that weak housing regulations are not merely a function of poverty, they actually create it. Many Americans care about growing income inequality and want to figure out ways to reduce the gaps between the haves and have-nots. If we are serious about changing these dynamics, then a more nuanced focus on housing simply has to be on the agenda.