Fear vs. Fact: Gentrification

It’s a common thought; we often fear what we do not understand. From Star Trek characters to Marie Curie, it is easy to find quotes about overcoming fears when we better understand something. In conversations around urban life today, there’s a “scary” monster lurking about neighborhoods - gentrification. Today, we’re sharing some research we hope shines a little more light on the anxiety-producing topic.


A common question we receive when describing the way better schools can change a neighborhood is, “But what about gentrification? What if bringing in a good school makes the neighborhood gentrify?” Or, in other words, what if a policy is too successful?

Last summer, Idrees Kahloon, writing in The Economist, described gentrification this way:

GENTRIFIER has surpassed many worthier slurs to become the dirtiest word in American cities. In the popular telling, hordes of well-to-do whites are descending upon poor, minority neighbourhoods that were made to endure decades of discrimination...This story is better described as an urban myth. The supposed ills of gentrification—which might be more neutrally defined as poorer urban neighbourhoods becoming wealthier—lack rigorous support.

So, what is happening in America, then, in places where we see serious amounts of change in specific neighborhoods? We fear gentrification for our neighborhoods and cities because it feels true.


Much research shows that when poorer neighborhoods change, displacement is rarely an effect. But Kahloon also addresses why displacement feels true:

  1. Poor Americans move frequently, regardless of district or neighborhood.

  2. Poor neighborhoods lack investment, and therefore, there is room in commercial and residential properties (or space) for richer people. This phenomenon explains how the number of poor people living in New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods barely budged from 1990 to 2014, but the neighborhoods changed significantly.

  3. City governments often promote affordable-housing schemes, such as rent control or stabilisation, in response to rising rents.

So, in essence, things are changing, but displacement does not necessarily seem to be caused by gentrification. In fact, one study even showed that poor people in gentrifying areas were less likely to move when they live in a gentrifying neighborhood.


Yes, this feeling is real too. Kahloon also explains that rising rent is not the fault of the gentrifier, but of many regulations in certain areas along with the net creation of jobs significantly outpacing the housing market across the US. “Rent-burdened” households are a real issue - those spending more than 30% of pre-tax income on rent. From 2001-2015, households that fit this definition in America increased from 32% to 38%, and it’s worse for the poor with 52% below the poverty line spend over half their income on housing (stats from the same article above).


Neighborhood culture is important, as are the emotional connections to a place that many people forge, but ultimately, over time, neighborhoods everywhere change. Think back to any place you’ve lived and watched businesses, housing, etc. either come or go. The thing to consider is when one stands firmly against change, particularly in the name of preserving a historically minority neighborhood, it can also mean that same person is standing for segregation and urging on white-flight.

What a contradiction to risk. Gentrifying communities have been found to strengthen both racial and economic diversity in those areas. And sure, not everyone will like each other immediately, but there are mountains and mountains of research that say children who live in more racially and economically diverse neighborhoods live better lives.

Essentially, what happens when a neighborhood gets a little richer? Less crime, better schools, better life outcomes (less teen incarceration, pregnancy, and death), better amenities, and “a tax collection surge which ultimately means more political clout.”

Kahloon explains, “Gentrification steers cash into deprived neighbourhoods and brings people into depopulated areas through market forces, all without the necessity of governmental intervention.” Opposing gentrification could actually mean insisting that areas of concentrated poverty remain poor and that racially segregated neighborhoods stay cut off.

Want to read more about gentrification? We’ve listed a few more of our favorite resources below. But ultimately, don’t let a fear of the “evil gentrification” keep you from allowing areas of concentrated poverty to have more choices and better schools.