Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report and accompanying map finds extreme gentrification in a few cities, but the dominant trend—particularly in the suburbs—is the concentration of low-income population.
When people talk about how big cities have changed over the last two decades, the word that inevitably comes up is gentrification—the influx of affluent newcomers. A transformative wave of wealth—often accompanied by displacement of lower-income neighborhood residents—has seized prominent parts of Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. But across U.S. metros, gentrification may not be the dominant type of urban change. Instead, it’s the concentration of poverty—particularly in the suburbs—that’s the type of transformation most Americans have been experiencing.
That’s according to new report and mapping project by William Stancil, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity. What Stancil and his colleagues have created is sort of a national-level atlas, if you will, of neighborhood change over the last two decades. It allows users to see what type of shift happened on the ground not just at the metro level, but at a regional level.
That bigger context is absolutely critical, Stancil said. “If you ask, ‘Who won a basketball game?’ and someone says, ‘Well, the Lakers scored 80,’ you need to know what the other team scored, what happened on the other side, to to really get a full picture,” he said. “This [project] is able to provide both sides of the picture—it really presents a holistic view.”
Minneapolis, where Stancil is based, has been grappling with its approach to affordable housing in its Minneapolis 2040 plan—a citywide effort to undo the legacy of widespread single-family zoning. While the city has vowed to build more and denser housing in neighborhoods where it was once forbidden, conversations persist about whether that move alone is sufficient to keep neighborhoods affordable. Often, discussions about the threat of displacement and the threat of concentrating poverty have been happening in silos, Stancil said—often even at odds with each other. “It was sort of a sense that both camps … were talking past each other,” he said.
Many past studies have explored the complicated relationship between gentrification and displacement, and researchers have come up skeptical about whether the first directly causes the second. (For one, displacement is quite difficult to measure.) Demographic shifts observed over time appear to happen in part because low-income residents are more precarious generally, and more likely to move. As rents rise, they’re often replaced by higher-income residents. The low-income residents who do end up being pushed out, however, tend to move to worse-off areas. Over time, these complex, simultaneous changes lead to a shifting of economic, and often racial, boundaries.
To keep it simple, Stancil examined all census tracts (not just the low-income ones previous studies have deemed “eligible” to gentrify). He measured whether they have gained or lost low-income and/or “non-low-income” residents between 2000 and 2016. (Here, “low-income” is defined as people below 200 percent of federal poverty line; “non-low-income” is everyone else.)
Based on what he found, he came up with four color-coded categories of neighborhood change, seen in the grid below: The column on the left showcases the two types of economic expansion or gentrification, and the one of the right, the two types of decline.
Across the map, two kinds of change dominate: The orange patches reveal poverty concentration, when the numbers and shares of non-low-income residents declined and the population of low-income residents grew. Blue represents low-income displacement, when the numbers and shares of non-low-income residents increased, but low-income residents declined. In an interactive map, users can see how these forces shaped every census tract in the U.S. over the last decade.
The biggest takeaway: The most common type of change in the U.S. over the last two decades has been poverty concentration—and it affects low-income Americans, in particular. As of 2016, there is “no metropolitan region in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than an economically declining neighborhood,” the report reads.
Poverty concentration has unsurprisingly been most dire in the Rust Belt. In Detroit (shown in the map below) almost half the residents were living in areas where poverty has been compounding. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago are examples of cities that have experienced similar change.
Because suburban areas are more populous, the majority of people experiencing neighborhood change, particularly poverty concentration, live in the suburbs. This is consistent with past research on the demographic shifts in the suburbs, which are getting more diverse and less affluent.
As the graph above shows, poverty concentration is a city problem as well. But displacement is much more common type of change in cities than in other types of areas: Around 11 percent of city residents live in areas experiencing displacement, compared to 3 percent in the suburbs. Overall, in the 50 largest metros, around 464,000 low-income people have left gentrifying neighborhoods since 2000.
This change appears extreme in cities in California and on the East Coast. Displacement is happening at a regional level in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City. But Washington, D.C. tops the list: Around 36 percent of D.C. residents have been living in an areas that have experienced displacement. In the map below, you can clearly see that change in Shaw, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Petworth in the Northwest. While Wards 7 and 8 have mostly experienced decline, you can see traces of displacement even there.
(Another recent study, as my colleague Brentin Mock recently reported, used a different methodology but also found New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. among the limited number of cities with the most acute gentrification. Washington, D.C., it found, had the highest share of gentrifying tracts, at 40 percent.)
These changes aren’t just economic—they are racial shifts. According to Stancil’s report, people of color were much more likely to live in economically declining areas: Around 35 percent of black residents in the top 50 metros lived in such areas, compared to 9 percent who lived in gentrifying ones. White residents were more likely to leave declining areas (which saw a 22 percent loss in white residents) and to cluster in economically flourishing ones (which saw a 44 percent gain).
Stancil’s neighborhood change model is a simple one—tracts are either economically expanding or declining; poorer residents are either leaving or arriving. This has its advantages: “You don’t have the sort of black box problem where there’s just lots and lots of data being fed in and weird stuff can happen,” he said. But it comes with limitations as well. It can’t say exactly why a place is getting poorer, for example. Is it because a hit to the local economy deepened poverty among existing residents? Or did more poor residents actually move to the area?
“We’ve read in the past… that as low-income people leave the central city, they’re arriving in suburbs and increasing the poverty in the suburbs,” Stancil said. These maps don’t explicitly show that the second was happening because of the first, but they do show the places where the two were happening simultaneously. That said, however, “while there is a sense that poverty is expanding out to the suburbs, it’s not leaving the city.”
Another issue with the methodology is that it measures change by looking at snapshots of census tracts at the beginning and end of the time period, and can’t say much about the trajectory of a particular neighborhood inside that time period. It also cannot predict how a neighborhood may change in the future. It just shows “going forward, that the predominant trend is likely to be low-income concentration—where you get growth sometimes in the center of the city and at the fringes you know you get increasing poverty concentration,” Stancil said.
He hopes that the study’s findings inform policy interventions at the local level, where in some cases, local governments and advocacy groups may be concentrating on the wrong issue—or failing to see how the various types of neighborhood changes are occurring in tandem.
“It really just ends up in a lot of money being wasted,” he said. “You could potentially make the problems a lot worse if you put low-income housing in an area that already has poverty concentration, or if you are doing economic development somewhere that has tons of displacement.”
Stancil’s project makes one thing certain in both cases, however: For some people, urban change is a expression of choice; for others, it is the result of constraints.