Q&A: Gentrification, Displacement, and the Changing Landscape of Urban Inequality

By Bina Patel Shrimali

Jackelyn Hwang is a Visiting Scholar in Community Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. Jackelyn’s main research interests are in the fields of urban sociology, race and ethnicity, immigration, and inequality. In particular, her research examines the relationship between how neighborhoods change and the persistence of neighborhood inequality by race and class in U.S. cities. As a Visiting Scholar, Jackelyn works with the SF Fed’s Community Development team to examine gentrification and displacement in the Federal Reserve’s Twelfth District.

Bina Patel Shrimali, Senior Researcher in Community Development at the SF Fed, interviewed Jackelyn to learn more about her work, the nuances of the research on gentrification and displacement, and its implications for the field of community development.

Bina Patel Shrimali (BPS): What motivates you to study gentrification and displacement?

Jackelyn Hwang (JH): For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, U.S. cities were characterized by decline, depopulation, and residential segregation by race, ethnicity, and class. Over the last two decades, however, cities have undergone major changes. They’ve become multiethnic and have had large declines in crime, and they’ve experienced reinvestment while increasingly attracting middle- and upper-class residents—the process we call gentrification. These changes may seem positive at first glance, given the history of disinvestment in many urban neighborhoods, but this may not be the case for those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Much of our understanding about urban poverty and inequality, as well as the solutions that we’ve developed to address them, are based on patterns of the past. I want to better understand how the new dynamics in cities are affecting these issues to contribute to policies that promote equality.

In my view, urban inequality and residential segregation are the key drivers of racial and ethnic inequality in the U.S.—an injustice that I’m very passionate about. It’s vital to understand the various dimensions of these drivers if we want to make progress towards an equitable society.

BPS: What do you think is important about bringing research rigor to this set of questions?

JH: When it comes to gentrification, displacement is a major concern, but the quantitative evidence on whether gentrification displaces people is weak and more often suggests that it doesn’t displace people. Yet, some people are clearly being negatively affected by gentrification. If the numbers aren’t there and we don’t fully understand the consequences of it, it’s difficult to implement policies or strategies for sustainable solutions. The existing research face limitations in the data, adopt a narrow framework for thinking about displacement, and are limited in timing or place. Gentrification is an evolving process that varies across cities and across neighborhoods, so we need better data and research that carefully considers its nuances to better understand its consequences.

BPS: In the breadth of your research which has included both local and national studies on gentrification and displacement, what contradictions do you see in the empirical research and commonly held beliefs around gentrification and displacement?

JH: The popular depiction of gentrification nowadays is that it is the influx of white middle- and upper-class residents moving into low-income, minority neighborhoods. In my research based on Chicago neighborhoods, I find that neighborhoods with greater shares of blacks and Latinos were less likely to gentrify or gentrified at a slower pace compared to neighborhoods with greater shares of whites, even among neighborhoods that were adjacent to other gentrifying neighborhoods. Surprisingly, gentrification avoids neighborhoods that have populations over 40% black. This suggests that higher-income urban residents, particularly whites, and developers hoping to attract them, in the aggregate, have racially-ordered residential preferences, consistent with long-standing explanations for why segregation persists.

Another example is my work on displacement in Philadelphia with Lei Ding and Eileen Divringi at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Another popular depiction of gentrification is that it results in widespread displacement, particularly among minority and poor residents. In our research, we track a large sample of residents from 2002 onwards—a big improvement in fine-grained data compared to past research in this field. Residents with low socioeconomic status tend to move a lot, so we don’t find that residents with low-socioeconomic status (SES) in gentrifying neighborhoods are moving more compared to low-SES residents in similar neighborhoods that don’t gentrify. This is consistent with other quantitative studies that suggest that displacement due to gentrification isn’t happening. In a city like Philadelphia, with high vacancies and high homeownership among lower-SES residents, this is plausible. However, we also find that low-SES movers end up in disadvantaged neighborhoods if they are moving from predominantly black gentrifying neighborhoods compared to other gentrifying neighborhoods. This suggests that the consequences of gentrification on displacement may be unequally distributed by race.

Gentrification is complex, but popular depictions often oversimplify it. My research draws on improvements in data and methods to help us see these nuances and better understand how gentrification unfolds.

BPS: What questions keep you up at night?

JH: I constantly think about this discrepancy between qualitative accounts and popular discourse, on the one hand, and the seemingly inconsistent quantitative evidence on the other hand. Quantitative data is limited in what we can observe, so what are we missing? How can we look at this process better?

BPS: If you had a magic wand, what data would you wish for to help deepen our understanding of these issues?

JH: My dream would be a longitudinal dataset from the last two decades or so with a very large sample of urban residents. This dataset would contain rich demographic information, including residential histories and locations; survey or interview data on mobility choices and neighborhood preferences, their mobility process (how they ended up where they are), and their experiences in their neighborhoods; and fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) information on the neighborhoods themselves to better capture neighborhood change (rather than relying on only demographic and housing characteristics from the Decennial Census and American Community Survey 5-year estimates).

BPS: Is there any consensus about what we should do to stop displacement? What do you think are the promising strategies?

JH: Proposing solutions to mitigate displacement is challenging because the published quantitative findings thus far do not find evidence of displacement. The qualitative evidence and anecdotal accounts are powerful, but it’s still difficult to design policy without understanding how widespread displacement is and how it varies across different places and stages of gentrification. As I mentioned, most studies compare mobility patterns of low-SES residents from gentrifying neighborhoods to those in similar neighborhoods that don’t gentrify. Other research shows that residential instability is prevalent among disadvantaged residents in both gentrifying and nongentrifying residents, but the mechanisms are likely different. So, there need to be policies in place that protect disadvantaged residents from residential instability in general, but the policies can be targeted to neighborhoods in ways that accommodate what processes are happening there. In general, there is consensus that we need solutions that keep people in place if they want to stay and, in neighborhoods that are undergoing socioeconomic ascent, we also need to maintain an affordable housing stock so that the affordable options for low-SES movers does not become further limited.

Additional strategies of inclusive and equitable development to ensure that changes also benefit the interests of preexisting residents are necessary. Policies that regulate property owners’ practices, protect socioeconomically disadvantaged residents from exorbitant increases in rents and property taxes, and increase the affordable housing supply are key. Nonetheless, gentrification and displacement unfold differently in different places—both across metropolitan areas and even within metropolitan areas. This is due to differences in the history and patterns of development, decline, and segregation in places and differences in the local economy and policy climate. The “right” policies need to be attentive to the nuances of local conditions.

For more resources and materials related to gentrification and displacement, visit our Gentrification and Displacement page.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.