Academic journal article Cityscape

What Have We Learned about the Causes of Recent Gentrification?

Academic journal article Cityscape

What Have We Learned about the Causes of Recent Gentrification?

Article excerpt


The gentrification of neighborhoods in U.S. central cities has attracted notice since at least the 1970s. Since 2000, however, greater changes in an expanding section of cities and neighborhoods have renewed interest from policymakers, researchers, and the public in the causes and consequences of gentrification. Many central-city neighborhoods have seen increased investment and housing prices, stabilized tax bases, improvements in amenities, dramatic shifts in cultural and demographic characteristics, and an influx of new residents of higher socioeconomic status (SES). Questions about residential, cultural, social, and political displacement have accompanied these changes. Is recent gentrification different from earlier instances in the 1970s and 1980s? How costly or beneficial are these shifts in the internal structure of cities to households, firms, and society? Which households benefit and which ones lose as neighborhoods turn over? What are the likely consequences of policies intended to mitigate or slow the pace of gentrification? Will the recent gentrification of U.S. central cities revert, persist, or expand further, eventually inverting the dominant 20th-century pattern of rich suburbs and poor central cities?

An understanding of the causes of recent gentrification can inform answers to these questions. For example, the relative importance of supply and demand for neighborhood housing and amenities may have implications for policies intended to slow the pace of gentrification. If gentrification is primarily caused by an increase in the supply of housing, then restrictions on such supplies might effectively mitigate some of the negative consequences for existing residents. If gentrification is primarily caused by an increase in the demand for amenities, however, then development restrictions may perversely amplify housing price increases and subsequent displacement effects. An understanding of the changes in the geography of jobs or amenities can help us understand gentrification's consequences for commuting and consumption by low- and high-income households. Another example is that the relative importance of temporary policies, unstable amenities, durable factors, or changes in tastes may help policymakers, households, and businesses forecast future neighborhood changes.

A main challenge for understanding the relative importance of the causes of recent gentrification is the tendency for endogenous factors to reinforce neighborhood change. Just as development activity might attract new residents of higher SES, those residents may subsequently attract new retail stores and employers and also more new residents of higher SES. Very strong responses in endogenous factors to small initial causal factors can potentially further increase neighborhood status, creating a self-sustaining cycle for gentrifying neighborhoods. Although we may be able to make progress on understanding the proximate causes of gentrification, it may be more difficult to uncover deep, fundamental factors.

In this article, we first highlight some features of recent gentrification that popular understandings of gentrification often do not emphasize to provide background for our subsequent discussion. Then, we survey recent progress on understanding the causes of gentrification in U.S. cities since 2000, focusing on four papers presented at the 2016 Research Symposium on Gentrification and Neighborhood Change. (Other articles in this symposium of Cityscape focus on characterizing recent gentrification and understanding the consequences of gentrification.) Although some progress has been made in identifying some causal factors, we still do not have a complete account of the relative contribution of many factors. We suggest remaining questions and opportunities for future research.

Features of Recent Gentrification

The term gentrification elicits many definitions. In this article, we refer to gentrification as the process in which neighborhoods with low SES experience increased investment and an influx of new residents of higher SES. …

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