June 25, 2021
We have a forever long deal with Shelterforce, the housing journal, and Social Policy, the quarterly journal we publish, to share subscriptions. We mail them one and for a long time they mailed us one, although I can’t remember the last hard copy I received. Nonetheless, they send me regular emails. Mainly, I speed by the headlines as part of my email overload coping strategy. The other day though, one caught my eye with a headline, “Gentrification is Not the Real Problem.” Hearing the term so often, especially now as housing prices skyrocket, the very contrarian title lured me into the piece by Brett McMillian.
Once there, I stayed with it. McMillian is a Columbia University PhD student, all of which was easily forgiven when he started the piece with a very unscholarly rant about how sick he was of hearing the label gentrification widely applied for neighborhood change by demonizing the wrong issues, in his view. The heart of McMillian’s argument is that broadly applied charges of gentrification…
repackages a set of debunked theories as reality, and second, because it obscures a set of real crises that need fixing, namely, neighborhood-level inequality, the disappearance of affordable housing, and wages that have lagged behind the rising cost of shelter.
I like discussion of fixing those problems, and they are huge, but what is being debunked?
McMillian finds the commonly restated argument that wealthy whites are moving into diverse neighborhoods and displacing locals a theory from the 1970s that, when tested, comes up short. He cites three pretty definitive studies,
…a 2005 study covering over 31,000 households from 1980 to 2000, Freeman found that “mobility out of gentrifying neighborhoods is not necessarily dramatically different from mobility out of other neighborhoods.” A little over a decade later, Ellen also found no significant differences in mobility among low-income residents who lived in gentrifying neighborhoods when tracking over 35,000 New York City children enrolled in Medicaid and who lived in market-rate apartments from 2009 to 2015. Lastly, Quentin Brummet and Davin Reed, writing in 2019 for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, found “moderate,” 4-6 percentage-point increases in mobility rates among less advantaged residents of gentrifying neighborhoods from 2000-2014 (the baseline mobility rate among all renters in the study was 70-80 percent), using a sample population of over 170,000 adults and children and a definition of gentrification based on educational attainment.
That’s very interesting.
McMillian follows this up by citing a handful of studies that establish that overwhelmingly whites to do not move into neighborhoods that are 40 to 50% Black, tightening down his case. Do they drive up housing prices? McMillian argues, and we now have seen this for years and even more pronounced everywhere since the pandemic, that the lack of new construction of affordable housing creates the shortages that drive up rents and home prices.
McMillian makes the case that where there is movement into neighborhoods it is in the relatively small number of more desirable areas, as we see even in my own Bywater in New Orleans, but it is not happening for the most part in the vast number of neighborhoods in cities across the country that are in decline because of inequitable resources and opportunities. That situation triggers residents to leave, housing values and citizen wealth to be diminished, and negative outcomes in health, education, and family stability.
McMillian is trying to stir up some sand and get his name out there. Fair enough, but he makes a strong case, and he’s absolutely right that we need to organize against the real issues that are systemic, and not be distracted by the random developments and families creeping into the community. They are worth a tussle, but the main events should force us into deeper struggles.