New construction at T Street and 14th NW. by Randall Myers used with permission.

Gentrification produces mostly positive effects for the existing, generally lower-income residents of upscaling neighborhoods, some recent studies show. But that doesn’t mean that there are no losers. Neighborhood change is as complex as it always has been, which means there are near-infinite ways to decipher and judge its effects on individuals.

Authors Quentin Brummet with NORC at the University of Chicago and Davin Reed at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia released a paper in July that studies the effects of gentrification on the economic well-being of original residents and children. In this study, “original residents and children” are defined as the people who lived in a neighborhood in the year 2000, and either remained there or moved out as the neighborhood gentrified over the next decade. Gentrification is defined as the net-positive in-movement of people with college degrees into a lower-income census tract.

Its main findings are that neighborhood mobility is already high across income categories: 70% to 80% of renters change neighborhoods over a decade, and 40% of homeowners do, too. When a neighborhood is gentrified, the likelihood that original residents move increases only slightly, by about 5%. That likelihood is slightly higher for lower-income renters.

Brummet and Reed conclude that gentrification only marginally increases out-movement, and, importantly, that those who remain experience certain benefits. Those benefits include exposure to lower poverty rates, increases in home values, and other correlates of neighborhood opportunity.

Gentrification in DC is exceptional

Of course, this made a splash, and the study received lots of coverage. CityLab has a thorough summary of its particulars and results. In short, the methods are impressive: The authors use a unique and very large set of Census panel data to track the life trajectories of people between 2000 and 2010-2014. They look at the 100 most populous metropolitan areas in the country.

The authors rank Washington as the “most gentrifying central city” in the country from 2000 to 2010-2014, ahead of other hotspots like Portland, Seattle, and Denver, echoing a few other recent reports. Their map, produced at the end of the paper, shows the familiar pattern of gentrification in and around DC’s core.

From page 30 of the study.

This study, like other recent macro-scale econometric studies on gentrification, reports most of its results in averages. A neighborhood out-mobility rate increase of a few percent on average, across gentrifying neighborhoods in the whole country, can mask what’s happening at the hyper-local scale. In certain neighborhoods, out-movement through displacement, whether direct or indirect, has likely been much higher.

When we talk about gentrification in DC, we often use U Street, Shaw, Bloomingdale, and Columbia Heights as signifiers of it, even though what’s happening in them, and neighborhoods like them, is exceptional. A 2017 paper by Kyle Fee, a researcher at the Cleveland Fed, classified neighborhoods in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh by a typology of change. He concluded that while most neighborhoods remained the same over time, the rate of change in some neighborhoods increased the rate of change overall:

In general, this analysis shows that from 1970 to 2010, most neighborhoods tended to remain the same from decade to decade. However, the overall rate of neighborhood change has increased in all four of the cities studied during the past two decades, with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh experiencing the greatest change from the 1990s to the 2000s

Most neighborhoods in most American cities are not gentrifying. But the intensity of what happens in the neighborhoods that are is often so unfair, and so visible, that we respond in kind: virulently. So, we’re not challenging Brummet and Reed’s econometric findings, which we think are solid. But we know that econometrics are not the sole criteria on which to judge the effects of neighborhood change on individual residents.

Brummet and Reed refer frequently to “the baseline” from which they measure change. It’s important to remember that “the baseline” for a lot of people in many neighborhoods—not just the ones that gentrify—is poverty and instability. This tracks with the extensive research showing that concentrated poverty results in more displacement than gentrification. (This is famously illustrated by Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.) Poverty undergirds gentrification’s ill effects.

What about gentrification’s other impacts?

Still, the conclusions of Brummet and Reed’s work can feel insensitive, given the lived experience of people in neighborhoods where there is an influx of wealth. The authors themselves note that their research’s greatest shortcoming is that it doesn’t estimate the costs of leaving a neighborhood.

Gentrification can harm people through direct costs like moving costs, or the security deposit for a new apartment, which—given that few people have enough cash to cover emergency expenses—could easily unfold into an even more precarious financial situation. And though gentrification’s social and cultural costs are well-covered by many qualitative studies, that’s exactly what feels so unaccountable as to be the overwhelming driver of change.

If people perceive that their neighborhoods are so different they no longer think of them as home, does it matter if they’re are able to comfortably remain in their homes? Does it matter that the places that they live are safer, healthier, and more accessible—which often means that the homes there become more expensive? How much does it matter if they benefit economically?

Lance Freeman’s 2006 book, There Goes the ‘Hood, dissected a similar question. His research has continued to provoke thoughtful discussion of whether we’ll accept change, or if we’d prefer neglect. An excerpt of it reads:

This book argues that indigenous residents do not necessarily react to gentrification according to some of the preconceived notions generally attributed to residents of these neighborhoods. Their reactions are both more receptive and optimistic, yet at the same time more pessimistic and distrustful than the literature on gentrification might lead us to believe. Residents of the ‘hood are sometimes more receptive because gentrification brings their neighborhoods into the mainstream of American commercial life with concomitant amenities and services that others might take for granted. It also represents the possibility of achieving upward mobility without having to escape to the suburbs or predominantly white neighborhoods. These are benefits of gentrification typically not recognized in the scholarly literature.

Yet the long history of disenfranchisement, red lining, and discrimination also inspires a cynicism toward gentrification that might not be evidenced elsewhere. Though appreciative of neighborhood improvements associated with gentrification, many see this as evidence that such amenities and services are only provided when whites move into their neighborhoods. Moreover, many see these improvements as the result of active collaboration between public officials, commercial interests, and white residents. Though much has been written about displacement and somewhat less about the political consequences of gentrification for indigenous residents, this dimension of cynicism toward gentrification has not been explored.

Brummet and Reed’s paper gives us approximately zero data on how people feel about living in a different place, and how they feel about their neighborhoods changing. But we think that’s OK. Its authors don’t purport to do that, and they offer valuable insight by placing the small number of neighborhoods that are nearly always discussed simultaneously with gentrification in relief, against many, many other neighborhoods nationwide. Their recommendations—accommodating the increased demand for housing close to amenities and city centers by building more of it—align with GGWash’s worldview.

Another recent study based on Medicaid data found that gentrification did not displace low-income children in New York. It was conducted by Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning and director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; health economist Sherry Glied, dean of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Kacie Dragan, project manager for NYU Wagner’s Policies for Action Research Hub.

“These kids move a lot, whether their neighborhood gentrifies or it doesn’t gentrify,” Glied told CityLab. NYU’s researchers found that health outcomes for children who stayed in gentrifying neighborhoods improved. But those benefits accrue within a shifting and rocky landscape that’s replete with other factors. Per CityLab:

When vulnerable families did move, they tended to move longer distances (which the researchers can track by their exact addresses). Low-income families leaving gentrifying areas were more likely to change zip codes or move to another borough (although they were no more likely to leave New York City altogether). Maybe that’s because these families must travel farther to find affordable housing.

People—ourselves included—can’t help but view new buildings as representative of development and growth. Our country’s history of racial and economic segregation has meant that change is almost unilaterally uneven and unfair. Housing policies and mechanisms like the DC’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, legalizing apartments, increasing voucher amounts and expanding access to services, and compliance with fair-housing laws can mitigate this, but can’t completely or individually staunch the racial wealth gap.

By the transitive property of signifiers of neighborhood change, the very new buildings that could possibly mitigate some negative effects of newcomers, by literally absorbing them without much displacement, are almost universally regarded as symbolizing the physical and cultural exclusion of current residents. Data can nearly never account for that.

Correction: Quentin Brummet’s affiliation is with NORC at the University of Chicago, not the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Alex Baca is the Housing Program Organizer at GGWash. Previously the engagement director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the general manager of Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system, she has also worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She has written about all of the above for CityLab, Slate, Vox, Washington City Paper, and other publications.

Nick Finio is the Associate Director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is also a PhD Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning. His dissertation is focused on gentrification in the DC area and elsewhere. At NCSG, he works on a variety of projects, including Purple Line advocacy and various regional planning projects. He has lived and worked in the region since 2011, and currently resides in Hyattsville with his son.