By Tim O'Shea
Gentrification is a dirty word. While contemporary, gaining traction mostly in the last decade as high-profile neighborhoods are seemingly overrun by cultural imperialism, gentrification has been accused of everything from reinforcing structural racism to wiping out minority culture. But on the substantive, quantifiable level, can we make any conclusions over it’s affects on the community it moves into?
First of all, the definition of gentrification itself is unstable. Most sources agree that it involves a movement of high-income individuals into a previously low-income area, usually urban, for various reasons, such as rising property values or possibly new venues or attractions. Where the definitions begin to diverge is whether or not the influx of wealthy people inherently entails a displacement of lower-income individuals as a result of increasing property taxes and rents.
This issue of displacement is the first point of controversy. The logic against gentrification is very simple: rising demand from the wealthy influx drives up rent prices and property values (and thus property taxes), making the area less affordable for lower-income families and forcing them to move out. As such, meta-analyses find that anywhere from a few hundred thousand to 2.5 million people find themselves displaced every year from gentrification . Yet other analyses find contradictory results, such as one study of national census data found no evidence of mass displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods . In fact, individual studies of Brooklyn  and Boston  each found reduced levels of displacement from gentrification. But why? How could increasing costs on families increase their propensity to reside in the neighborhood? Answering such a question requires looking beyond mere rent levels to evaluate the effects of gentrification.
It would be naïve to limit the assessment of gentrification to merely the effects on rent. For instance, wealthier residents spend more in their local communities, while simultaneously paying more in to the tax system and reinvigorating public services. However, opponents argue that residency doesn’t guarantee any more money to the community, especially if the wealthy can do things like shop and contract services from outside the community out of desire for higher quality. Moreover, tax evasion may reduce their contributions to the funding base for local programs. Once again, the statistical results are mixed. The same study of census data found a 20 percent increase in income for original residents in gentrifying neighborhoods , while a comparative study of New York found that gentrification was heavily correlated with homelessness . But there may be an even deeper dimension to the gentrification problem that could trigger changes among all the other factors discussed.
As usual, politics affect everything, and gentrification is no different. Gentrification may pose a risk to the poor of an area for two reasons. First, the rich may become a higher focus of the government’s goals in a city if they arrive on the scene, or may polarize local governments and use lobbying to gain more power, diverting resources towards themselves instead of into poverty-targeting programs. However, others see it differently. For instance, the rich may be able to perform that same redirection from other areas of states or regions into their host city, helping those directly around them. Or, even more intriguingly, given that gentrification is such a politically powerful and charged term , gentrification may act as a signal flare for city government’s to increase poverty alleviation measures out of concern for the poor, even if the poor are in fact being benefitted.
Clearly the academic community is light-years away from conclusions over the effects of gentrification, not unexpected given it’ relative recent surge of appearances in the policy community. But if one is to learn anything from gentrification, it is to never judge a phenomenon on face value. Even though the media and other high-profile voices have been quick to crucify gentrification, it may not be the devil it’s been painted to be.