Marcia Robiou is a New York City-based independent journalist covering conflict, gender, and migration.
A recent study documents the negative effect on the mental health of people displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City.
Gentrification can be hazardous to your health, according to a team of New York City researchers. Their recently published study finds that hospitalization rates for mental illness—including schizophrenia and mood disorders—are two times as high in displaced people versus those who remain in their neighborhood. It is one of the first U.S. studies to quantify the hidden mental health consequences of gentrification.
The potential public health implications are significant: Nearly a million people are at risk of being priced out of their homes in New York City alone. National numbers reveal that gentrification is greatly accelerating. Since 2000, 20 percent of low-income neighborhoods gentrified in the 50 largest cities in the country (compared to 9 percent in the 1990s) with the highest number of gentrifying census tracts located in New York City.
If displacement results in an increase in mental health hospitalizations, as this study suggests, the cost to U.S. cities could be high. There is a strong link between mental health and chronic conditions including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. A person with a history of mental illness is two to six times as likely to suffer from injury, whether intentional, like a homicide or suicide, or unintentional, such as a car accident, than a person with no mental illness.
The study’s primary authors, Sungwoo Lim and Pui Ying Chan, both of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had a hunch that people who are forced out of their homes suffer some type of health consequences. For a year and a half they trawled hospital records and analyzed national census surveys for 12,882 residents across 28 city neighborhoods, tracking the residents’ movements by reviewing address changes logged in national census data for a period of nine years.
Before the authors published their findings the evidence had been, “pretty limited and mostly anecdotal,” explained Lim, the department’s research director. “Our intention was basically to quantify any potential health impact of gentrification using large data sources. The study kind of confirmed what we already knew.”
The study, published in the PLOS One journal in December 2017, examined which mental health conditions were driving displaced persons to New York City hospitals and emergency rooms most often. The top five were alcohol and substance abuse, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, mood disorders, and anxiety. They found that before the displaced group was priced out of their homes, they had similar rates of mental health illness to those who remained in their home: in terms of mental health illness, 24 percent and 22 percent; and equivalent levels of hospitalization (0.8 and 0.8 times per year) and emergency room visits (2.3 and 2.3 times per year).
The researchers identified displaced subjects by tracking those that registered an address change from a neighborhood the researchers identified as gentrifying: That is, a neighborhood that experienced rapid growth in median household income, rental price, and proportion of college graduates, according to the study. These displaced residents most often moved to lower-income neighborhoods, and once displaced, their rate of hospitalization for mental illness doubled compared to those who remained.
“It’s hard to pinpoint gentrification as the reason for emergency room visits or mental health crises because there are so many factors involved in the daily lives of people living in poverty or on the brink of poverty,” said Gabriela Nelson, a researcher with Dealing with Gentrification, an initiative with the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. She believes people don’t make the connection between gentrification and mental health because there is a dearth of statistical information on the subject.
Some of the first studies on the emotional toll of gentrification were conducted in response to the displacement of a largely immigrant neighborhood in downtown Boston by an urban renewal campaign between 1958 and 1960. Erich Lindemann, then a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, documented the emotional impact of displacement upon immigrants who lived in the row houses. His studies helped give rise to the field of community mental health, sparking conversations about the invisible and often overlooked health burdens that can result from urban renewal programs.
Mindy Fullilove, author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, explains that people with fewer material resources tend to rely on existing social structures for essential services that the more well-to-do pay for. One person may depend on a neighbor for child or eldercare services, for example, or residents in one area may team up to form a neighborhood watch. Being forced to move and to lose such safety nets can be a catastrophic event.
“You’re never just losing the house,” Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School, said. “You’re losing the culture of the place, the political power you had, the neighborhood, the social connections. You cannot just put those things in a box and take them with you. The losses are extraordinarily high.”
While the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study fills a yawning data gap, there are important caveats: The researchers don’t know if the study’s subjects had been in poor health before the study began. However, Jacob Faber, an assistant professor of public service at New York University, believes that the study nonetheless highlights an important issue. “Even if read with the most skeptical eyes, there’s still an important story here from a public health standpoint,” said Jacob Faber, an assistant professor of public service at New York University.
Lim and Chan said that they hope their data-driven approach will encourage other health departments around the country to build on their findings. As a result of this study, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created an internal working group that will produce followup studies focusing on specific neighborhoods out by next year, Lim said.
“Gentrification is not a secret thing where people in the community are not aware. You know what’s happening and you are waiting to see what will happen to you,” said Negesti Cantave, an advocate with a public housing organization in Harlem. “That’s a prolonged stressful experience.”