Poverty is a bigger problem than gentrification

Bloomberg, May 6, 2019: Poverty is a bigger problem than gentrification

First, the good news. More white Americans want to live in heavily black neighborhoods. A 2016 paper by the National University of Singapore’s Kwan Ok Lee found that since 1990, neighborhood segregation by race declined. Even better, mixed white-black neighborhoods have tended to stay mixed, instead of resulting in white flight or displacement of black residents. This trend isn’t true in every area of the country, but it’s quite a change from the mid-20th century, when whites fled mixed neighborhoods en masse to more segregated suburbs.

Now for the not-so-good news. A recent investigation by the New York Times confirmed the trend of white people moving into black neighborhoods. But it also found a disturbing pattern. When a neighborhood is diversified by an influx of nonwhite people, the newcomers’ incomes tend to be about average for that neighborhood. But when white people move into a mostly nonwhite neighborhood, their incomes tend to be much higher than the local average.

Although gentrification tends to improve neighborhood amenities, it can also cause difficulties for long-time residents of poor minority communities. Gentrifiers may be more likely to call the police on their neighbors. New retail outlets can change the character of a neighborhood. And most importantly, housing prices tend to rise, putting pressure on those of modest income. The biggest worry related to gentrification is that it will result in displacement.

For some low-income residents in the country’s so-called superstar cities, this is the reality. A study by the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that from 2000 through 2013, displacement of long-time residents was heavily concentrated in big cities with strong economies.

But overall, gentrification isn’t a big source of displacement. Some studies have found no evidence of increased exit of low-income residents from gentrifying neighborhoods. The NCRC study did find about 135,000 black and Hispanic people displaced by gentrification over the 13 years they studied, mostly in the superstar cities like New York and Washington. And they guess that the true number is somewhat larger. But in a country of more than 300 million people, 135,000 is a very small number. Meanwhile, a 2009 study by urban-planning researcher Lance Freeman found that gentrification didn’t decrease neighborhood diversity.

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