Gentrification may not be the easiest thing to define, but like a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, you know it when you see it.
And in Seattle, you see it everywhere — formerly modest neighborhoods transformed by luxury apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, crossfit gyms and so on.
So maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that a new national study ranks Seattle, among 100 large cities in the U.S., third for the degree of gentrification we’ve experienced since 2000.
But the study also has a more unexpected finding: The effects of gentrification aren’t as dire as people often think. In fact, on balance, it may do more good than harm.
That runs counter to the common perception of gentrification, a trend seen in many American cities in recent years. As young professionals, empty-nesters and other more affluent people rediscovered the appeal of city living, they’ve moved into the urban core. That new wealth rapidly changes city neighborhoods, many of which had suffered from decades of blight and population loss.
But there’s a detrimental side to gentrification. As property values and rents rise, original residents — poorer and often people of color — can be pushed out of the neighborhood. For example, historically black neighborhood the Central District has become majority white and much more affluent.
In Seattle, to fight against this from happening, a movement for rent control has gained traction, led by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
For the study, which was conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, researchers identified about 10,000 census tracts in 100 large cities that had incomes below the area median in 2000 — these tracts were deemed “gentrifiable.”
Then, they looked to see which of these tracts experienced the biggest increase in the percentage of college-educated residents by the 2010-2014 period. The tracts that were in the top 10% for this increase were identified as gentrifying.
In Seattle, there were 82 gentrifiable tracts in 2000. By 2010-2014, 30 of them, or 37%, met the study’s threshold of gentrification. There are only two cities that experienced a greater degree of gentrification than Seattle in this period: Washington, D.C., and Portland.
The data show the bulk of gentrification in Seattle occurred in the central part of the city. But there are pockets of gentrification across the city — North, West and South Seattle all contain formerly low-income areas that experienced a dramatic increase in the share of college-education residents.
The study then made use of a newly available data files from the U.S. Census Bureau to do something novel — namely, to see what happens over time to the original residents of gentrifying census tracts.
The data set enabled researchers to match forms from the 2000 Census with subsequent surveys filled out by the same individual in the 2010 to 2014 period. (It should be noted that the census data forms are anonymized to protect the identities of these individuals).
“It was never possible to link people across time if they happened to respond to more than one survey,” said Davin Reed, community development economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and one of the study’s authors. “We used this data for research purposes (on gentrification) for the first time.”
The outcomes of roughly 130,000 original residents of gentrifiable census tracts in 100 large cities were tracked across time. The results were compared with the outcomes city residents who lived in tracts that did not experience gentrification.
This approach enabled the researchers to address some tantalizing questions.
“When you have this influx of people who are more educated, what happens to the incomes of the people already there? What happens to the rents of the people already there?” Reed said.
“On average, displacement effects and the rent effects are more modest than is typically assumed,” he said.
For example, while census tracts that gentrify gain population from the more highly educated people moving in, the research shows that gentrification doesn’t accelerate the out-migration of original residents by very much — only by 4 to 6 percentage points when compared with non-gentrifying areas.
In gentrifying tracts, the median rents for less-educated residents increased by $144 — not much more than the $116 rent increase for their peers in non-gentrifying areas.
Reed adds that any harms gentrification might cause to original residents should be weighed against the potential benefits. And indeed, the study found the there are benefits.
For original residents who do not move away, gentrification reduces their exposure to poverty, and if they’re homeowners, it increases their home values. For the original residents’ children, gentrification increased their probability of attending college. The study did not show any effects from gentrification on original residents’ employment, income and commute distance.
As neighborhoods revitalize, amenities improve. If original residents are able to stay in the neighborhood — and this new data shows that many of them do — they benefit from these improvements, too.
So where does the perception that gentrification causes so much harm come from?
Reed believes that people have a false notion that neighborhoods are very static places, and the only way they can change is if people are pushed out.
“People see a neighborhood that’s changing, they see a lot of people leaving that neighborhood, and they might attribute that to gentrification,” Reed said. “But even non-gentrifying neighborhoods experience a lot of moving out.” Over the course of the decade, 68% of less-educated renters moved to another neighborhood, regardless of whether their neighborhood gentrified or not. And rents also go up in neighborhoods that don’t gentrify, he said.
“Neighborhoods change for a lot of reasons,” he said. “It’s not all because of gentrification.”
The finding that gentrification has positive outcomes for original residents, as long as they’re able to stay put, may have implications for local policymakers. Cities should accommodate the increased demand for housing in gentrifying neighborhoods by growing the housing stock, while assistance could be targeted to the most disadvantaged residents who are at highest risk of displacement, the study concludes.
While the study shows that displacements from gentrification are not as pervasive as people might think, Reed acknowledges that they do happen.
“This work obviously doesn’t negate any anecdotal experiences or particular experiences,” he said, “but we’re taking a pretty high-level approach and bringing data to bear on this question in a new way.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the increase in displacement of original residents from gentrifying census tracts. The correct increase is 4 to 6 percentage points.