The impact of gentrification—especially the displacement of lower-income residents—remains a topic of enormous debate in urbanism circles. Most research on the subject finds the extent of displacement to be statistically rather small; in fact, the leading student of the subject, Lance Freeman of Columbia University, argues that widespread displacement caused by gentrification is largely a myth.
But that doesn’t mean that existing residents don’t feel other effects.
One new study, by sociologists Joseph Gibbons and Michael S. Barton in the Journal of Urban Health, provides new insight into gentrification by examining the health and well-being of black and white residents who are experiencing it. As the researchers point out, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists a variety of adverse health effects that may stem from gentrification and displacement, particularly increased stress that can lead to mental health problems, health problems, premature birth, and in some cases death. The study takes a deeper dive into the connection between gentrification and health by using a large-scale health survey in Philadelphia, a city that has experienced considerable gentrification.
The survey collects detailed information from individuals on their health status and conditions, health-related behaviors, and use of health care as well as demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Gibbons and Barton use this data to compare the health outcomes on black and white residents of gentrifying and other neighborhoods in Philadelphia, using the conventional measures of gentrification—changes in housing costs, incomes, and education levels across neighborhoods or Census tracts.
The map below identifies the different kinds of neighborhoods that were gentrifying in Philadelphia.
Nearly 80 percent of the 968 neighborhoods were considered non-gentrifiable; a third of the other 20 percent were found to be gentrifying. Of the gentrifying neighborhoods, 31 neighborhoods experienced white gentrification and 29 experienced “black gentrification”—when middle-class black residents move into lower-class black neighborhoods. The study develops and uses statistical models that examine the effects of this process on individuals’ health while controlling for income, education, employment, race, and other factors.
Having identified which neighborhoods were gentrifying, the study connected the health survey answers to the neighborhoods of respondents.
While gentrification had an overall marginal effect on improving self-rated health, it led to worse health reports from black respondents. The map above shows the strength of correlation between race and self-reported health in neighborhoods.
Black respondents were more likely to rate their health as poor or fair in neighborhoods that were gentrifying or those that are nearby, such Center City, South Philly, and University City (near University of Pennsylvania). Overall, black respondents were 27.3 percent more likely than white respondents to report poor to fair health. But black respondents living in a gentrifying neighborhood were almost 75 percent more likely to report poor-to-fair health than counterparts in other neighborhoods.
While factoring in other socioeconomic outcomes sheds doubt on the fact that these poorer outcomes for black respondents in gentrifying neighborhoods are caused by residential displacement, the authors argue that the endurance of these bad health outcomes suggest the subtle effect of gentrification’s cultural displacement. That change is also difficult to quantify: Self-reported bad health outcomes had a similar correlation in neighborhoods experiencing black gentrification.
Regardless of the process of how a neighborhood is gentrifying, this research hints at the idea that bringing affluence and resources to a community does not necessarily offer relief to its disadvantaged residents: The health disparities that afflict rich and poor in our increasingly unequal cities are more durable than that.