What You Need to Know about Gentrification (with Lesson Plan)

Cold-pressed juice bar where the laundromat used to be? Check. Dog grooming service where a corner store once stood? Check.

OK, so maybe those aren't definitive indications of gentrification. But they are some pretty telltale signs that your neighborhood is changing.

Gentrification -- derived from the word gentry, or people of high social class -- describes the economic and cultural transition that often occurs when wealthier people begin to move into predominantly poor inner-city neighborhoods.

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The term ‘gentrification’ was coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass, in reference to changes she observed in certain areas of inner London.  "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class," Glass said. "Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social social character of the district is changed."

This shift typically pumps economic investment into the neighborhood, spurring new development and services that cater to higher-earning residents, while prompting rapid increases in rents and property values.

While this boost in resources can result in improved safety and services, it also invariably alters the character and culture of an established community. In many instances, long-term residents in the neighborhood are priced out and forced to move to more affordable communities farther afield.

Gentrification can also heighten racial tensions in many neighborhoods, as the arrival of wealthier, mostly white newcomers can indirectly result in the eventual displacement of lower-income communities of color that have lived there for generations.

"To me it’s primarily a racial justice story," said Rebecca Carroll, a WNYC producer and reporter for a podcast about gentrification in Brooklyn called “There Goes the Neighborhood."  "It’s a cycle of migration for black and brown people," she said in an interview with WNYC's The Takeaway. "Always moving according to when white people -- who are largely the people with money -- decide that they want to reclaim a neighborhood or a space.”

Welcome to the hot-button topic of gentrification, a process that has swept through neighborhoods in cities across the country in recent decades, as interest in urban living has grown. It's a loaded term, generally used negatively to connote displacement and "yuppification."

But as with all demographic shifts, gentrification is complicated, and produces a host of changes -- some negative, some positive -- depending on who you ask.

Many impacts of gentrification actually appear quite desirable. The process can result in reduced crime and blight in neighborhoods that have long been under-resourced and overlooked. And it often yields new investment in buildings and infrastructure and a boost in local economic activity.

However, equity issues arise when the positive changes disproportionately benefit the newest arrivals and remain largely inaccessible to established community members, who find themselves socially and economically marginalized in their own neighborhoods. It can be particularly detrimental to lower-income renters, who are most vulnerable to rent hikes and are often the first to be forced out.

In his excellent description of gentrification, part of POV's 2003 documentary project Flag Wars, urban designer Benjamin Grant notes that the gentrification process in many neighborhoods is generally slow to catch on, but then reaches a tipping point and snowballs.

"Few people are willing to move into an unfamiliar neighborhood across class and racial lines," he writes. But "once a few familiar faces are present, more people are willing to make the move. Word travels that an attractive neighborhood has been 'discovered' and the pace of change accelerates rapidly."

While there's no technical definition of gentrification, Grant notes, the process is generally characterized by specific changes:

Demographics: An increase in median income, a decline in the proportion of racial minorities, and a reduction in household size, as low-income families are replaced by young singles and couples.

Real Estate Markets: Large increases in rents and home prices, increases in the number of evictions, conversion of rental units to ownership (condos) and new development of luxury housing.

Land Use: A decline in industrial uses, an increase in office or multimedia uses, the development of live-work “lofts” and high-end housing, retail, and restaurants.

Culture and Character: New ideas about what is desirable and attractive, including standards (either informal or legal) for architecture, landscaping, public behavior, noise, and nuisance.

Grant goes on to note that a gentrified neighborhood often becomes a “victim of its own success." The rapid increase in desirability that spurs a spike in rents and property values can erode the qualities that attracted newcomers in the first place. As affordability decreases and lower-income residents are displaced -- often people of color and artists --  the neighborhood becomes noticeably less racially and culturally diverse.

Some cities have made strides than others to slow the pace of gentrification, namely by safeguarding the supply of affordable housing and enforcing rent control laws. But it's proven a tricky balance to maintain, and anti-gentrification activists commonly accuse city governments of falling short in these efforts.

It should come as little surprise then, that the San Francisco Bay Area -- one of the most expensive regions in the country with a rapidly growing population and a major dearth of affordable housing -- has long been a gentrification hotbed. Particularly during economic booms, like the current tech boom, the cost of living skyrockets.

As once lower-income neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and other major Bay Area cities become increasingly desirable and expensive, populations have shifted, in some cases dramatically. The resulting exodus of long-established, low-income communities of color to the region's cheaper peripheries has literally changed the face of many communities.

An oft-cited example is San Francisco's Mission District. Long known as an artistic enclave and hub of Latino culture and community, the neighborhood has undergone an accelerated level of gentrification during this latest economic boom. Rents and home prices have skyrocketed. New condominium developments dot the landscape. And scores of older businesses and galleries have been replaced by high-end restaurants and shops. Without an adequate affordable housing supply, low-income residents, many of them Latino, have been increasingly pushed out of a neighborhood they've lived in for generations.

The Bay Area's African-American population has been more impacted by gentrification than perhaps any other group. Consider these figures:

In 1970, African-Americans made up 13.4 percent of San Francisco's population, according to census data. By 2010, that population had shrunk to just 6.1 percent. Meanwhile, African-Americans in 1970 made up just .1 percent of the total population in the small city of Antioch, on the far northeastern edge of the Bay Area. By 2010, Antioch was 17.3 percent African-American.

See the map below, which shows changes in the region's black population, by census tract, since 1970.

The new KQED podcast American Suburb explores this outward migration. It tells the story of modern Antioch, where entire communities of African-Americans, many from Oakland and San Francisco, have relocated in recent decades.

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