March 27, 2018

GENTRIFICATION: Changing Neighborhoods for Better or Worse


 Old build in Olde Towne East, Columbus, OH, an overpopulated, rundown area a decade or two back


The renovation or removal-and-replacement of older structures is a worldwide phenomenon. This report focuses on gentrification in the US, with local examples drawn mainly from Columbus, OH.

At its most innocent, gentrification means ‘fixing up neighborhoods and making them attractive,’ the kind of place ‘the gentry’ would like to live.  Who can argue with that?

Certainly, not the developers rebuilding whole neighborhoods, often with tax rebates as incentives. Nor the bankers. Nor can the architects, construction workers, materials suppliers and truckers needed for the job. Nor the handymen who rehab older homes. The landscapers. The furniture and appliance merchants. The nearby eateries that feed all this activity. Not the passing motorists who note how satisfying it is to see that run-down area get a new lease on life. And certainly not the politicians who approve the plans and whose campaigns benefit from grateful donors.

In fact, not too many people object to gentrification, even the development-driven kind, apart from the original residents who are uprooted from familiar homes or who, if they manage to stay on, have to adjust to change and new neighbors. The folks who appreciate heirloom architecture, about to be razed for that new condo array, aren’t too happy. And then there those activists who connect the dots.


What is Gentrification?


If you had the money, which would you live in? To each his/her own taste in ‘castles’.

Since 1964, when the term was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass, gentrification has had a mixed reputation. In Glass’s model, middle and upper-middle class people begin to move into a lower-income neighborhood to take advantage of more economical housing. At this point, gentrification can actually be good for all. Businesses get a boost; homes get renovated; sidewalks are improved.  Local residents may find more job opportunities as business picks up. So they, in turn, can improve their own homes.

In this scenario, property values rise gradually. The tax base improves and with it city services and schools. Higher values mean some original residents can sell their home at a profit. They also mean some less fortunate residents can’t keep up with increasing rent or taxes. Those who find it too pricey, begin to move out. Others move in. But the change is gradual and usually stable. Some studies of such gradual change, suggest that it can have a positive effect in raising incomes and satisfaction for those who stay on.

Another indicator may be found in a study of gentrification in New York City in the 1990’s using data collected as part of the city’s rent regulation policy. Unsurprisingly, it found that low-income households in the gentrifying neighborhoods were less likely to move than low-income households in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.



Subdivided over the years into over-stuffed flats in run down, derelict buildings. (photo: Library of Congress)

Since the early 2000’s, the process has heated up. Development-driven, it often means total replacement of existing stock with luxury housing. The sudden rise in housing costs pushes out the original residents. Concerns over displacement of vulnerable lower-income or elderly people make the news, and the pejorative view of gentrification becomes a journalistic meme, especially if associated with racial change.

In “The Pros and Cons of Gentrification,” Vanishing New York blogger, Jeremiah Moss describes hyper-gentrification: “… the change comes from city government in collaboration with large corporations. Widespread transformation is intentional, massive and swift, resulting in a completely sanitized city filled with brand-name mega-developments built for the luxury class. The poor, working and middle classes are pushed out, along with artists, and the city goes stale. Quoting urban scholar Neil Smith, Moss calls it “a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods.”

A common theme is the older, predominantly Black neighborhood torn apart, replaced by coffee shops and chain bookstores for yuppies. This type of change, like Urban Renewal of the 1960’s, may involve bulldozing to make room for the new-build. Or it may be refurbishing of older architecture, subdivided over the years into over-stuffed flats and run down, derelict.

Faced with the ‘bomb crater’ vacant lots left by Urban Renewal when funding ran out, city officials looked for ways to reclaim the tracts. Property value fell until investors saw prospects for a good return, with a little tax break. As word of alternative means spread, hyper-gentrification took off. A 2013 Cleveland Federal Reserve report mapped the top-ranked US cities for gentrification.

Hyper-gentrification is also accomplished through “apartment flipping,” where management companies take over a property, evict the current tenants, do some cursory repairs, and either raise rents for a target market, e.g. university students, or sell the building to another landlord. The evicted lower-income tenants are left to fend. In one instance, in San Francisco, apartment owners were offered a flat $10,000 for their flats. Take it or leave it. The tenants, this time, responded by organizing and using digital mapping to track their and others’ bad landlords.

Hyper-gentrification attracts developers, as it requires large-scale investment. It secures the backing of city hall, as higher rents and more profitable businesses mean higher revenues to operate city services. At least, that’s how development schemes are sold to the public. The tax incentives are billed as ways developers can reduce rents, making ‘affordable housing’ possible.

Profit Motive vs Public Good


Luxury condos at the junction of German Village and Olde Towne East, Parsons Av and Livingston, Columbus, leasing to medical professionals at Nationwide Children’s Hospital campus across the street.

The need for investor groups – frequently self-billed as ‘partners’ – brings well-off businessmen in touch with each other. Their contact may already be established through civic organizations, charitable efforts, or the golf club. Now in contact with the technocrats in public offices, they share information on trends, loans, and government grants. And how to tap into them. A look at the 2016 EPA webinar with grant-awarded stakeholders in its Brownfields Program, Area Wide Plans (BF AWP) gives some insight both in how information is shared, as well as the wisdom of a well-planned program with oversight and accountability. The BF program is designed to facilitate restoration and reuse of previously contaminated sites. Laudable, watchable.

That people with the necessary financial ability and ‘contacts’ join together to promote a potentially profitable project does not mean they are ‘only in it for the money.’ Granted, some are, but, many express a desire to help their community. It is not unusual for a successful person to have grown up in an area targeted for gentrification and to be thrilled to ‘help make something of my old turf.’

When profit outstrips goodwill as the motivation, investors may want to be persuaded and may play coy for ‘incentives’ in the form of tax reductions. The city may not collect all the revenues it anticipated, but some is better than none. And, politicians become mindful of the contributions developers may offer their campaigns -- an unfortunate aspect of the money-in-politics characteristic of current US elections.

Who does gentrification hurt and how?


Pavey Sq, OSU campus area – Apartment block in rear was to have been 11 storys high, attached to just facades of homes on High St. Neighbors objected vociferously.

The ways in which this abrupt change is a new facet of gentrification, differing from the gradual shifts noted in the last century, is the subject of more recent studies. Justin Feldman, in Harvard - Shorenstein Center’s resource for journalists, notes that “Since the term appeared in the lexicon, scholars have debated both its precise meaning and the phenomenon’s effects on society — particularly whether the process harms or benefits the original residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.” The site lists a number of studies, with more recent ones employing more cross-correlations to make sense of complex interrelationships.

Statistics on crime are not uniformly kept in all jurisdictions, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not been funded to research gun crimes for over a decade. One possible trend noted in a Duke University paper, however, is that in gentrified areas murder and bodily injury may drop per capita while property crimes increase. Or vice versa, say others. The data are not well enough articulated to show tensions and crimes before, during and after gentrification.

CDC has made some statements on the health aspects of gentrification. On its webpage Health Effects of Gentrification, it notes that “Several factors create disparities in a community’s health. Examples include socioeconomic status, land use/the built environment, race/ethnicity, and environmental injustice. In addition, displacement has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations, including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.”

CDC continues, pointing out that “vulnerable populations typically have shorter life expectancy; higher cancer rates; more birth defects; greater infant mortality; and higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease” as well as the likelihood of an “unequal share of residential exposure to hazardous substances such as lead paint.” This CDC webpage is currently archived (for further study and rewriting?).

In her 2014 paper for Stanford University, “How Gentrification in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation,” Jackelyn Hwang uses updated algorithms to assess her thesis. At pains to point out differences in outcomes, she looks at the effect of incoming groups. Asian immigrants, for example, tend to increase the diversity and income level of an area they gentrify. Hispanic immigrants do not raise the income level, ergo do not gentrify. White gentrifiers tend to decrease diversity, while income levels rise. It appears that different ethnic groups feel safe and welcome where Asian immigrants have improved the area, while in areas gentrified by Whites, Blacks may only feel safe, but not welcome.

Hwang concludes, “In many of America’s cities, civic leaders have pinned hopes for urban revitalization on gentrification and efforts to attract immigrants. But facts on the ground show that they need to weigh the probability that these forms of urban change can further isolate poor blacks and Latinos and – contrary to media claims – actually increase racial segregation and inequality.

The studies continue, the algorithms improve, but the jury is still out. The sense of loss and anger among those displaced, however, is no less real, no matter how the change is quantified. But, ultimately, the whole community, the whole society, is hurt when changes result in the same injustices and lack of diversity that existed before.

Whose neighborhood is this, anyway?

Before/After in Olde Towne East. A labor of love, some DIY, when you make your first $10 million. Renovation doesn’t come cheap!

Some points in the studies to bear in mind:

  1. Gentrification is not always a matter of White incoming and Black leaving. It does, however, have to do with fungible income. If money can be spent to advance one’s comfort or status, it will come in and it will be spent.
  2. Those who have the money to spend in US society are predominantly middle and upper-middle class Whites. Those who have the least, on average, are Black Americans. And in between, not counting undocumented immigrants of all racial/ethnic extraction, are People of Color: Latino, Asian, Native Americans.
  3. Gentrification can take place in previously Black areas, or in areas home to generations of poor and working class Whites and other ethnic groups.
  4. Some gentrified neighborhoods become racially compact. Others, become racially diverse. Luxury apartments for young, college-educated professionals, for example, will be more diverse, an outcome of equal opportunity laws in education and jobs.

The factors affecting population movement are varied. This WOSU timeline of Olde Towne East, Columbus, OH, shows the White business elite giving over to diverse middle-class Black and White, as a result of transportation options. Olde Towne was seen as a vibrant, healthy neighborhood, a place to build a future and raise a family. Later, the area underwent a period of drug-related crime and distrust of police. Residents, mainly working class or low-income, confronted the problem through Block Watch cooperation. Still, fallen incomes and deteriorating housing stock rendered the area ripe for re-gentrification.

Now, connected by freeway bridges to the previously White working class South Side and the German Village area that had gentrified in the 1960’s, Olde Towne East was discovered by gays. Having shared the earlier revamping of German Village, this new generation of LGBTQ was branching out and looking for interesting, affordable properties to fix up.

No mega-buck developer’s dream, the work was mostly loving DIY. Nonetheless, the real estate market was aroused. Residents began to notice an uptick in code-violation calls, a common tactic to encourage selling out cheap. Lower income residents could neither afford the repairs nor pay the fines for non-compliance. Suspicion sprang up. Resentment grew. And the Flag Wars were on.


Handled wrong, neighborhood change rubs raw, sets oppressed groups against each other. Reconciliation?

Olde Towne East’s problems and progress were recorded for PBS by two documentarians, one a former resident of the area. PBS summary:

“Shot over a four-year period, Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras' Flag Wars is a poignant and very personal look at a community in Columbus, Ohio, undergoing gentrification. What happens when gay white home-buyers move into a working-class black neighborhood? As the new residents restore the beautiful but run-down homes, black homeowners must fight to hold onto their community and heritage. The inevitable clashes expose prejudice and self-interest on both sides, as well as the common dream to have a home to call your own.”

For the next best thing to the whole documentary, start with the trailer above, then “Behind the Lens” with Bryant and Poitras, and go on to the clips of residents featured in the film, in forum for WOSU-TV.



Upper Cup, S Parsons Av, casual renewal, bagged beans and roaster working; old, new, and immigrants congregate here, cause the coffee is to die for!

Societal level: If US society had achieved its vision, gentrification and displacement would be non-issues. We have not arrived there yet. So, in the broad view, we must:

  • Continue to work for racial/ethnic/gender justice.
  • Reduce income inequality.
  • Enforce equal pay laws.
  • Guarantee a minimum wage sufficient to support a family.
  • Devise targeted, sustained efforts to protect minorities from displacement.
  • Strengthen residential rent regulation where such exists.
  • Encourage a housing surplus to keep prices down.
  • Ensure (truly) affordable housing for all.

Political level: To promote honesty and community concern in government, voters must:

  • Remove money from the electoral system, so that politicians are less tempted, feel less compelled to collude with contributor groups.
  • Get over the ‘low/no tax’ whine; demand reasonable taxes to pay for common-good services.
  • Demand transparency and access to accurate, advance information about planned projects that may drive gentrification.
  • Monitor the provision of services and demand they are high quality for all.


Gentrified in Portland, OR: Tidy, and monitored!


Community level:  To the extent a city’s leadership has a vision of a truly inclusive, diverse urban environment and canny staff to execute the vision, the city, as a whole, thrives. Portland, OR, for example has the Portland Plan, with a study mechanism for gentrification based on regularly updated data sources to predict and monitor neighborhood change. Their website is simple, easy to navigate, and full of informative texts and maps. For a lively exchange between residents and readers, try this August 2016 webpage from The Atlantic.

Columbus, OH, used in several examples in this article, likewise has a vision of a ‘vibrant’ city, an optimistic tone with diversity and inclusion highlighted. In many city functions, the inclusivity goal of recent city leadership can be seen. But understanding how neighborhood planning is accomplished is harder to see. The Planning Division website is dense, a bit heavy in technocratic jargon. Tellingly, much is said about revitalizing businesses. Planning bodies seem to have plenty of stakeholders, absent citizens. And the process for appointing or electing representatives of neighborhood resident councils is vague. City council is currently elected ‘at large,’ so neighborhood representation is left to chance.

Considering these two municipal examples, as well as suggestions made in reports referenced here, some objectives might include:

  • Develop an accurate mechanism for assessing neighborhoods, their likelihood to be gentrified, their proportion of vulnerable residents, and their likelihood to be stimulated into change by planned institutional or civic projects (e.g. a new school or hospital near the area.)
  • Develop neighborhood councils through vigorous outreach to residents and ongoing dialogue among old and new residents. Give these councils a stakeholder voice in decisions affecting the area.
  • Encourage inclusivity events and activities that bring residents into contact. Increased pedestrian access can help. Friendly venues, open and affordable for all income levels as well as festivals, parades, art and hobby fairs can also help.
  • Take care when granting tax incentives without specific goals in rent control (affordable housing).
  • Redirect tax breaks to mom-and-pop stores to keep indigenous businesses in the area. Pass an ordinance to control chain store sprawl; demand a bit of variety along with charm.
  • Further the economic revitalization of blighted urban neighborhoods with care to meeting the needs of current residents.

Most of all: Make sure affected residents have a stake and a voice in the decision making for the neighborhoods where they live!


Freeman Lance, Braconi Frank. Gentrification and Displacement: New York City in the 1990. Journal of the American Planning Association. 2004;70(1):39–52.

Hwang , Jackelyn; How "Gentrification" in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation; Stanford University,  August 2014.

McKinnish T, Walsh R, White TK. “Who gentrifies low-income neighborhoods?” Journal of urban economics. 2010;67(2):180–193. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

von Aikman, Mischa Derek; Urban Economics; February 6, 2014; “Gentrification’s Effect on Crime Rates”

“Proposed Mixed-Use Development Would Replace Historic Houses on High Street” Columbus Underground, December 11, 2015

“Proposal would raze old houses near OSU” The Columbus Dispatch , Dec 19, 2015

Portland Plan, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Sep 2012 presented to council