Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: Gentrification Did Not Displace NYC’s Most Vulnerable Children

A 2015 headline from The New York Times told a typical story about the changes happening to many booming cities today. “Gentrification in a Brooklyn Neighborhood Forces Residents to Move On,” the headline reads, describing the plight of residents of Crown Heights. West Indians and African Americans—residents who have made the neighborhood their home for generations—describe being pushed out by a rising tide of wealthier newcomers.

Those residents move from Crown Heights to East Flatbush, Canarsie, and even Virginia. In prose that could be verse, the article laments the unmistakeable arrival of prosperity to Crown Heights, “invisibly and then unmistakably—slowly, and then all at once.”

Today, that story looks more complicated than ever. The arrival of affluent and white renters and homebuyers has visibly transformed gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and elsewhere across the country. Yet looking at the outcomes for some of the most vulnerable residents of these changing neighborhoods reveals some surprising results, a story that runs counter to the dogma that displacement is the nonnegotiable cost of gentrification.   

Low-income children born into neighborhoods in New York City that later gentrified were no more likely to be pushed out over a seven-year period than children born into low-income places that did not gentrify, according to a new study that follows exactly where these vulnerable families lived and moved.

The new study, conducted by researchers at New York University and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, used Medicaid records to track the paths of children living in New York City from January 2009 to December 2015. This extraordinarily useful trove of data allowed researchers to see where families lived and moved, even month-to-month. By following the changing addresses of a large cohort of low-income children over the course of this seven-year period—a time of rapid gentrification for neighborhoods like Crown Heights—the researchers were able to show where these children started, and where they ended up.

They found that the majority of low-income children born into neighborhoods that later gentrified stayed in those neighborhoods, a finding that contradicts the most upsetting (and prevailing) theories about gentrification: Namely, that the original residents of a neighborhood, especially the most vulnerable ones, are forced out when more affluent residents arrive.

Using address records from Medicaid allowed researchers to track the lives of low-income families down to the building level. With this dataset, they could distinguish precisely between low-income households living in subsidized housing and those living in market-rate housing, and find out whether the kids were zoned for good schools or live in buildings with lots of code violations. If gentrification drives displacement, as the popular thinking goes, then low-income children living in market-rate housing in gentrifying neighborhoods should be especially vulnerable.

But that’s not what the research shows. To be sure, these families live incredibly transient lives: Children in low-income households were very likely to move more than once over this period, regardless of their neighborhood, residence, or demographic group. But low-income children living in neighborhoods that experienced gentrification were not more likely to be displaced than those living in persistently low-income neighborhoods that did not gentrify. In fact, even as neighborhood incomes increased all around them, the majority of these children stayed.

“Importantly, we see no evidence of elevated rates of mobility for kids who are born into gentrifying neighborhoods,” says Ingrid Gould Ellen, professor of urban policy and planning and director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

She adds, “The takeaway here is not that there’s no displacement. When we say this, that’s what people hear. It’s just that there’s displacement in all kinds of neighborhoods.”

Medicaid gives the researchers access to data on a “near universe” of low-income children living in rental buildings, Gould Ellen says. Her co-authors are healthcare specialists: Sherry Glied is a health economist and dean of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Kacie Dragan is project manager for NYU Wagner’s Policies for Action Research Hub, an organization that analyzes the effect of non-health policies (such as housing or transit) on health outcomes for Medicaid patients. The researchers believe that their study is the first-ever longitudinal study on gentrification to use health data.

“These kids move a lot, whether their neighborhood gentrifies or it doesn’t gentrify,” Glied says. “A very large fraction of these kids move in the first several years of their lives. It turns out, that fraction is not correlated with whether the neighborhood that they’re born into gentrifies. Poor kids are not very residentially stable.”

New York City census tracts by gentrification status, 2009–2015. (NBER/Furman Center)

The study’s findings turn the conventional wisdom about the link between gentrification and displacement on its head. Low-income children who remained in their gentrifying neighborhoods saw a 3 percent greater decline in neighborhood poverty than those in low-income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify. Importantly, those families who moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods did not appear to end up in worse neighborhoods than those who moved out of persistently low-socioeconomic status areas.

“The lack of evidence for displacement is something of a puzzle as well as a frustration to many observers who are certain that they are witnessing low- and moderate-income households being displaced as their communities gentrify,” the study reads. “Part of the issue may be that displacement is simply more salient in gentrifying areas. People may be less likely to notice the evictions and forced moves in other neighborhoods, because in non-gentrifying neighborhoods newly entering tenants more closely resemble those exiting.”

If you are, like many CityLab readers, a mortal foe of gentrification, the study doesn’t necessarily mean that your world is now upside down. The picture that the study paints is complicated. When vulnerable families did move, they tended to move longer distances (which the researchers can track by their exact addresses). Low-income families leaving gentrifying areas were more likely to change zip codes or move to another borough (although they were no more likely to leave New York City altogether). Maybe that’s because these families must travel farther to find affordable housing.

Again, it’s complicated. Children who moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods moved to slightly safer areas—but into worse building conditions (as measured by building code violations). Children who stayed in gentrifying areas attended somewhat worse schools than those who moved away (as measured by math scores at locally zoned elementary schools). Maybe that’s because the gentrifiers moving in were more likely to be childless. However, these changes in crime, school performance, and building conditions are weaker than the overall reduction in poverty experienced by families who stayed.

For this study, the researchers used a specific definition of “gentrification”: large, relative spikes in the share of adults with college educations in low-income, center-city neighborhoods. While there are endless ways to define gentrification, the share of college degrees is least likely to be explained by factors other than an influx of new residents, the researchers say. (Incomes could change for original residents even over a short period of time, for example.) To qualify for Medicaid, a needs-based benefit, families must make less than 154 percent of the poverty line. Controlling for several factors, the researchers examined children born into low-income neighborhoods in New York between 2006 and 2008, who were continuously enrolled in Medicaid from 2009 to 2015, and who lived in market-rate multi-family rental housing. That was a sample of about 35,700 children.

Select raw findings for outcomes for children born into low-income neighborhoods in New York. (NBER)

The finding that gentrification is not correlated with displacement for poor children may be counterintuitive, to say the least, but it lines up with other efforts to study the long-term outcomes for original residents of changing neighborhoods. A recent study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and the U.S. Census Bureau also found that gentrification does not strictly drive displacement. Over a long time period, the census evidence shows a modest increase in mobility (that is, displacement) for low-income renters in gentrifying neighborhoods. But the residents who do leave do not wind up living in more disadvantaged areas, and the residents who stay experience certain measurable benefits.

The NYU researchers concede that using averages for a sample of thousands of children could conceal specific harms: : After all, housing discrimination makes it much harder for black and Latinx households to find safe and affordable housing. When the researchers ran the model for children of different races, though, they found few differences. There was no evidence of elevated mobility (greater displacement) for children of any race. Asian children born into gentrifying neighborhoods saw slightly fewer moves; fewer white children moved from any neighborhoods. Children of all races who remain in gentrifying neighborhoods saw greater reductions of poverty than those who stayed in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.

Another finding that leaps out: Low-income children living in supported housing were much less likely to move. Rates of mobility (or displacement) for families living in subsidized housing (31 percent) or public housing (36 percent) were far lower than children in marketplace housing. (Although those figures are still quite high!) Still, in terms of displacement to children in subsidized or public housing, gentrification made no difference one way or another.

This study does not contradict the lived experiences of residents of Crown Heights or other gentrifying neighborhoods who felt they were forced out or watched as neighbors moved away. What the research shows is that neighborhood change is mostly driven by who moves in. More affluent and whiter residents moving into low-income neighborhoods absolutely change those areas, for better and for worse—as seen in everything from poverty rates and math scores to conflicts that lead to cultural erasure.

But as for who moves away? While gentrification and displacement might appear to be the same thing, this research shows otherwise. Instead, displacement is a near-constant in the lives of vulnerable families—a force that isn’t correlated with gentrification. Understanding how displacement works is crucial in providing housing to low-income families who seriously lack residential stability, which is key to everything. It’s also critical for building neighborhoods that are fair, affordable, and diverse for the future.

“Our takeaway is not, ‘We don’t need to worry about gentrification.’ We don’t want to minimize the anxiety that renters in New York City and around the country are feeling about their housing stability,” Gould Ellen says. “People are shouldering, especially low-income households, crushing housing-cost burdens, and are legitimately worried about losing their homes and losing their communities.”

She adds, “But the debate about policy responses to gentrification is focused almost exclusively on helping existing residents stay in their homes. That’s important, but it’s also important to focus on policies that allow a diversity of residents to continue to move into neighborhoods over time.”