What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.

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