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01.29.15

Gentrification: Myth or Key Factor in Explaining Our Changing Cities

A debate about the definition of gentrification and the impact of changing demographics on urban neighborhoods has been kicked off by John Buntin’s article in the January 14, 2015 issue of the on-line magazine, Slate, “The Myth of Gentrification: It’s Extremely Rare and Not as Bad for the Poor as You Think.” Buntin, a politics correspondent for Slate, and a staff writer for the website, Governing.com, starts with the premise that quantitative studies indicate that gentrification is exceedingly rare and beneficial to low income residents when it does occur.  Buntin cites a range of quantitative studies for the proposition that there is no evidence that poor people “moved out of gentrified neighborhoods at a higher than normal rate.  In fact, rates of departure from gentrified neighborhoods were actually lower.” 

One 2010 study cited by Buntin asserts that while income gains in these neighborhoods went to white college graduates under the age of 40, “black high school graduates also saw their incomes rise. . . . in short, black households with high school degrees seem to benefit from gentrification."  Buntin concludes that, at least in America’s coastal cities which face sharply rising housing costs, “gentrification” is not the cause of the housing affordability problem, but rather a symptom of supply shortages which are the key factor behind ever-increasing prices for housing.

The Slate article has elicited a wide range of criticism.  A piece by Henry Parr, in The Fordham Urban Law Journal ,  highlights Buntin’s failure to recognize that the changes in neighborhoods often lead to the loss of community institutions.  Parr also notes that “Buntin’s analysis doesn’t seem to consider how low income residents in gentrified neighborhoods face new and different costs that residents in non-gentrified neighborhoods do not. 

Kim Velsey, writing in a New York Observer  piece entitled,“Gentrification May Be Complicated, But It’s Not a Myth and Neither is Displacement, ” focuses on the fact that “while poor people may move away from both gentrified and non-gentrified neighborhoods, those who leave gentrified neighborhoods often have no choice in the matter.  Velsey also criticizes Buntin’s narrow focus on short-term changes in the neighborhood: “While gentrification might freeze a certain portion of the population in place in the short term, over time the [low income] population is flushed out, especially as the neighborhood is closed off to new residents of lower socioeconomic status.  Velsey goes on to site a study from NYU’s Furman Center showing that “since 2000, just 6% of new subsidized affordable rental units have been located in Manhattan below 96th Street, compared to 17% of subsidized rental units built in the 1970’s.” 

These articles focus us on the changing urban landscape and what factors are critical in community development and in neighborhood preservation.  These on-line pieces bring together the large body of research about the key factors influencing the evolution of our neighborhoods