A new study of London is the latest to find mixed evidence for the downsides of gentrification.
If there’s anywhere to spot signs of residential displacement, it should be England—birthplace of the term gentrification. The anecdotal evidence of working-class folks getting priced out of their London homes is enough to fill billboards. And since the U.K. has less residential mobility than the U.S., it’s presumably easier for data snoops to discern the signal of displacement from the statistical noise of general neighborhood turnover.
A trio of Columbia University planning scholars set out on just such a study using national migration data gathered between 1991 and 2009. The basic idea was to see whether low-income or working-class residents were more likely to leave gentrifying neighborhoods than to move out of non-gentrifying areas over time, with gentrification defined as a big leap in the amount of residents holding white-collar jobs or advanced degrees. The researchers analyzed movements across England and Wales as a whole, as well as Greater London in particular.
And yet despite that extensive search they turned up “little evidence of elevated mobility in gentrifying neighbourhoods,” British spelling and all. “The results presented here are thus for the most part inconsistent with the notion that gentrification leads to widespread direct displacement that manifests in higher mobility rates among residents of gentrifying neighbourhoods,” they write in an upcoming issue of Urban Studies.
That inconsistency is best captured in the chart below, which shows the predicted probability of moving:
The two charts on the left show the full sample—all of England and Wales. Across that population, the predicted probability that low-income and working-class residents left gentrifying neighborhoods was about the same as that of low-income and working-class residents in non-gentrifying or advantaged areas. When the gentry did cometh, the masses didn’t necessarily leaveth, at least at a greater rate than they left other parts of the country.
The plot thickened in London. There, poor residents of gentrifying areas did have a much higher probability of moving than their low-income counterparts in non-gentrifying neighborhoods—though this difference was not statistically significant by some measures, meaning it could have occurred by chance. Working-class Londoners, meanwhile, were actually less likely to leave a gentrifying neighborhood than an advantaged one.
“When you look at what’s going on in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, it’s not necessarily increasing the prevalence of displacement compared to what you find among poor people in other neighborhoods,” lead author Lance Freeman tells CityLab.
The inconclusive outcome, as the researchers put it, “seems to defy common sense.” Yet it’s also in line with what many scholars, including Freeman, have found in the past. Some studies turn up weak support for displacement; others come back unclear; still others find that gentrification helps the disadvantaged populations it’s expected to hurt. For a topic so fraught with horror stories and negative preconceptions, the empirical evidence for displacement is surprisingly mixed.
“Some people feel strongly that gentrification is definitely linked to displacement,” says Freeman. “Other evidence, including this article [in Urban Studies], is that it depends on the circumstances.”
An inherent challenge with these studies, says Freeman, is that displaced people are no longer there by definition. Unless you follow specific people over long periods of time, then these populations are hard to track. “Most surveys, they’re static—they look at a place at one point in time,” he says. National household surveys done over many years can help infer displacement, but even these don’t always map cleanly onto the problem; in the case of the U.K. data, for instance, residents couldn’t choose “rising rents” or “landlord pressure” as reasons for leaving a neighborhood. On top of it all, gentrification is plain hard to define.
Some people will no doubt interpret the mixed results to mean that gentrification isn’t as troublesome as it’s often depicted to be. For his part, Freeman thinks that would be the wrong lesson to learn. Displacement and housing affordability are still pressing matters in cities, he says, even if these forces can’t always be linked with new money pushing out old residents. “It’s not just something unique to gentrification, or that gentrification is always exacerbating,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.”