March 13, 2019
The Pace, and Face, of Gentrification: Population Change in Five Brooklyn Neighborhoods
By Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps
The housing affordability crisis and its multiple ripple effects, arguably the well-being issue du jour in New York City, cannot be properly addressed without discussing gentrification. A term with which New Yorkers are well acquainted, gentrification describes neighborhood transformations often characterized by changing racial composition, rising incomes and rents, shifting business activity, and displacement of long-time residents.
Gentrification is a complex and contentious issue; some of the changes it can bring, such as more reliable transportation, better sanitation and other services, and cleanup of abandoned properties, can be positive and welcome. But these changes rarely occur in a vacuum.
At the core of the debate is the question of who reaps the benefits and who bears the costs. While better services are sorely needed in neighborhoods long suffering from disinvestment, the timing is an affront to long-time residents; are those improvements an effort to address disinvestment, or rather new investments to attract new residents—a whiter, more educated, higher-earning group?
More importantly, regardless of the intended recipients of improvements, upscale change can be a threat. When sidewalks and streetlights are repaired and garbage service and school resourcing improve, is it a better quality of life or displacement that awaits original residents? There is no single answer here. Some stay and perceive the improvements and new opportunities to outweigh the costs, others stay but feel disoriented and even unwelcome, and struggle with rising rents and prices. And some are displaced. In a city of renters, an increase in property values is not likely to enrich long-time residents—on the contrary, it raises their cost of living and may even push them out.
Quantifying displacement is not easy, and establishing causality between gentrification and displacement is even more difficult. But in New York City, there have been undeniable shifts in the composition of residents in a number of neighborhoods. The five neighborhoods with the largest increase in White residents accompanied by a decrease in residents of another racial or ethnic group are all found in Brooklyn—Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Gowanus, and Crown Heights North.
Between 2000 and 2010, these neighborhoods all saw an increase of between 6,700 and 15,600 White residents, paired with a simultaneous decrease in Black residents (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights North), Latino residents (Williamsburg), or both (Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Gowanus). These numbers alone cannot give an exact picture of displacement in these areas. Two points in time cannot account for movement in and out in intervening years, a newcomer displacing an original resident of the same race, and other nuances the data do not capture. Nevertheless, in these neighborhoods it is clear that sizeable increases in the number of White residents have been accompanied by considerable decreases in Black and Latino residents.
Neighborhood change and revitalization are inevitable parts of the urban cycle; the question is whether policymakers can support the revitalization of communities without large-scale displacement and destabilization, and how. Certain strategies can bolster the benefits and mitigate the harms of gentrification, such as including the voices of residents in decision-making processes, integrating truly affordable housing into development plans, putting in place protections against displacement, and reinvesting real estate profits into public spaces and services that benefit all residents. These strategies can go a long way toward steering revitalization to support human development for all.
Kristen Lewis is director and Sarah Burd-Sharps was formerly co-director of Measure of America. Measure of America, a non-partisan project of the non-profit Social Science Research Council, provides easy-to-use yet methodologically sound tools for understanding well-being and opportunity in America. Through reports, online tools, and evidence-based research, we work with partners to breathe new life into numbers, using data to identify areas of need, pinpoint levers of change, and track progress over time.