Community development

Gentrification: What it is and why it matters

The term gentrification has become a buzzword to describe the changes in urban neighborhoods across the country, but do we really know what it means? Is it just the arrival of trendy boutiques, expensive lattes, and much-maligned hipsters?

Gentrification appears in numerous forms of media, from Vanity Fair, Forbes, and New York Times articles to television episodes of South Park, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and High Maintenance, but the original term was coined in the 1960s by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the processes by which the poor were squeezed out of parts of London as upper-class, inner-city neighborhoods were created. In the U.S., this process has been steadily increasing as, after decades of sprawl, many American cities are experiencing a surge in populations, with young adults and affluent retirees moving into urban cores.

So what is gentrification in an American context?

Most simplistically, gentrification is a term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, resulting in an increase in rents and property values, often pushing out many of the low-income, longtime residents. This also results in changing the neighborhood’s character and culture. The in-migration of middle- to upper-middle-class residents typically occurs in areas that were previously blighted or occupied by the poor or minority who have experienced generations of inequity and discrimination.

Gentrification isn’t a purposely malicious act, but its effects can be extremely damaging. Many lower-income residents are unable to afford home ownership, or their access to homebuying processes have been blocked through decades of racist mortgage practices. Because of this, there are typically high numbers of renters in these neighborhoods who are especially vulnerable to market changes. When their neighborhoods begin gentrifying, their rent prices can quickly skyrocket, as landlords, realizing the new financial potential of their properties, substantially raise the rents. This results in driving people out of their homes, allowing landlords to rent those same apartments for far more money to the incoming, gentrifying class.

These are not only big city problems; cities such as Chattanooga are also experiencing the squeezing of lower-income families’ housing budgets as rental prices increase, far outpacing the rise of wages. Per an article in the Times Free Press from July of 2016, the rental rates in Chattanooga have far outstripped the income gains over the past 25 years, making many apartments out of the reach of renters. A study by Apartment List estimated that the rents, adjusted for inflation, in Chattanooga rose 21 percent from 1980 to 2014, while the inflation-adjusted household incomes for that same period increased by only 7 percent. While the rising rental rates in Chattanooga are a boost to real estate developers and investors, the increase in local rents also squeeze household budgets, and low-income families are the most vulnerable to these pressures.1

When people are forced out of their homes, they aren’t just leaving their apartments behind, they are leaving their social networks—their friends, family, schools, places of worship, and businesses they frequent. They also are tasked with finding a new apartment, which takes time and resources, and becomes more and more difficult in a shrinking affordable market. Furthermore, these moves can be prohibitively expensive, as renters often must come up with the first month’s rent and a security deposit, as well as any costs associated with relocating their possessions. These heavy financial burdens can even result in low-income residents becoming homeless.

Is gentrification good or bad?

The answer to that largely depends on your point of view. From the point of view of landlords, real estate developers, and investors, gentrification can be a very positive thing, as it raises the real and potential value of the properties in the area, increasing their profits. Additionally, from the perspective of the gentrifier, as well as some longtime residents of these neighborhoods, rundown houses getting fixed up, reductions in neighborhood blight, increasing property values, as well as new retail and restaurant options, are all great. From a policymaker perspective, gentrification also has numerous positives. It can reduce vacancy rates as abandoned houses get purchased and rehabbed, help stabilize declining neighborhoods, and reduce suburban sprawl without direct government involvement. It can also lead to increased diversity in a neighborhood.

But aren’t diversity and neighborhood integration supposed to be good things?

Diversity and integration are generally great things. For example, it’s been established that racially integrating schools can improve test scores, retention, and college acceptance rates, but gentrification does not always lead to integration, and often it does the exact opposite. Gentrification results in the forced exodus of low-income residents and minorities to make room for more affluent white people. In effect, gentrification is essentially the reversal of the “white flight” that occurred after World War II. During this period, white families were subsidized by the federal government to relocate from the cities to the suburbs while black and immigrant populations were concentrated in the inner cities. There was significant disinvestment made in the inner-city areas, with investments focusing instead on the development of the primarily white middle- and upper-class suburbs and the highway systems to connect them to downtown jobs while allowing them to skip over the downtown residential neighborhoods.

Now, as white flight is seeing a reversal, and middle- and upper-class residents are returning to inner-city neighborhoods, residents who can pay more for rent drive up prices in these areas, pushing the existing population elsewhere.

But do people really have a right to remain living in places they cannot afford?

There is no inherent civil right to live in whatever neighborhood you want, so the fact that some may be priced out of a neighborhood does not necessarily seem to be a big deal. You don’t have a right to live in Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. or the Marigny in New Orleans or Southside in Chattanooga. On the surface, renters having to move to the suburbs or another neighborhood doesn’t seem like a huge tragedy, and homeowners who must sell due to increased property taxes will be making far more than they ever would have before, thanks to the increase in property values and home prices.

While gentrification is neither all negative nor all positive, the negatives for the most vulnerable urban populations are quite extreme. These longtime residents are pushed either to other inner-city neighborhoods or to the suburbs. Both options come with their own issues. For low-income residents, the suburbs are farther away from most of the job centers, requiring lengthier commutes and/or reliance on less reliable, or nonexistent, public transportation. Furthermore, if they are pushed to other neighborhoods within the inner city, those neighborhoods will experience a further concentration of poverty, as well as potential overcrowding problems, especially in larger urban areas, creating slum-like conditions with substandard housing that often lacks electricity and/or running water. The presence of this type of substandard housing is not only a problem in large cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago, but it can be seen in smaller cities, including Chattanooga.

You choose to be a gentrifier, people do not choose to be gentrified, so be thoughtful about your choices and where you choose to live.

OK, so how do I know if I am a gentrifier? Can I be a good gentrifier?

There is not a one-size-fits-all gentrifier. While the conventional image of gentrifiers is middle-class, well-educated, white, young to middle-age professionals (outsiders), this stereotype is not an all-encompassing description of gentrifiers. Numerous articles have been written about white versus black gentrification, examining the impact of black gentrifiers on Harlem, Chicago, and Atlanta. We are not going to focus on the race of the gentrifier here, but rather on the overall motivation for being a gentrifier and the corresponding impacts they can have on the neighborhoods where they choose to reside.

Boston University professor Japonica Brown-Saracino delved into the typology of gentrifiers in her 2009 book, A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity. She outlines three major types of gentrifiers:

  1. Urban pioneers—move to neighborhoods to change them from working-class to middle-class enclaves with the purpose of pushing out former residents and remaking the neighborhood in their image.
  2. Social homesteaders—work to preserve the historic built environments of gentrifying neighborhoods, though care less for the longtime residents who have been living in these historical buildings.
  3. Social preservationists—try to limit residential displacement of longtime residents by supporting locally owned businesses and renting commercial and residential.

Urban pioneers embody the traditional image of a gentrifier as someone who comes to conquer an urban neighborhood, seeing it as an “empty” realm waiting for conquering, ignoring the presence of the residents who already reside in the neighborhood. Social homesteaders, on the other hand, are interested in preserving and restoring the historic built environment but are less concerned with the social networks of the long-term residents of the neighborhood. Finally, social preservationists work to preserve the social (and often the historic built environment) of their newly adopted neighborhoods. This type of gentrifier is attracted to a neighborhood based on the authentic aspects of the longtime residents, and thus aim to preserve these communities.

So you’re a gentrifier, now what?

The “what now” or “what next” questions are some of the most important. We can see that gentrification is happening, that it has some positive impacts for the neighborhoods that are being gentrified, but that it can also have some devastating impacts on the most vulnerable residents of those neighborhoods.

There are a few ways to approach this question, first from an individual or “what do I do” perspective and then from a more macro or policy-based perspective. Let’s first deal with the micro perspective and then we can address the macro perspective. It is important to note that there is no silver bullet to fix these urban development problems, but we can do things to mitigate the issues while encouraging the positive developments to still flourish.

At an individual level, a number of important strategies can be implemented:

  1. Don’t assume that a neighborhood is a blank slate!
    You are not the first person to move into this neighborhood. You did not “discover” this neighborhood. There are already people living there. While the Wall Street Journal may describe the neighborhood as “forgotten,” as it did with the Weeksville section of Bedford-Stuyvesant2 (an area that has been continually occupied by African-Americans since the 19th century), it is not forgotten by the current and longtime residents of the area. New residents, especially younger residents, often don’t have any sense or awareness of existing residents and only think of a neighborhood based on what’s good for them: it’s cheap; it’s convenient; it’s a fun and funky area. A lot of people will describe a neighborhood as having had nothing there before. Perhaps to them there was nothing there, but it was and is something to someone. With that in mind, keep your eyes open and realize that there is a history in that neighborhood before you.
  2. Be aware of your own role in this process!
    The first step (and one of the most important steps) you should take is admitting that you’re part of this problem. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but once you do, you can start moving forward with your new community. Often, newcomers will find that they have skill sets that they can offer to their new community. For example, perhaps you have a more flexible schedule so you can attend policy meetings and city council meetings, and report back to others in your community whose work or family schedules prevent them from attending. By being aware of your role, you can start taking measures to mitigate your negative impacts while trying to build up and support the community of which you’ve chosen to be a part.
  3. Support local businesses!
    Shop and frequent the businesses that were in the neighborhood long before you arrived. Usually one of the first signs of gentrification is the popping up of new coffee shops and boutiques to serve the influx of new residents. What happens to the businesses that have been in the neighborhood for a long time, that were there to serve longtime residents? Often, they close. In fact, one 2005 study on Williamsburg found that 90 percent of the 52 bars and restaurants had been open for a decade or less, while a large number of the Hispanic-owned businesses had dropped by half during this same time. This indicates that most of the bars and restaurants are new, catering to the gentrifier population, while the Hispanic businesses that cater to the longtime neighborhood population are closing at a rapid pace. It is easy to fall into self-segregating ways, such as shopping at businesses that are designed for the newcomers to a neighborhood. Push back against that and shop at longtime residents’ businesses. It might make you feel uncomfortable at first because you might be in the minority, but your support can help preserve the diversity in the neighborhood.
  4. Get to know your neighbors!
    Talk to your neighbors. Be friendly. If you have a front porch or stoop, spend some time there waving and saying hello to your neighbors. Introduce yourself. Be visible and interactive in your neighborhoods, and not just with the people who look like you. All too often, newcomers only interact with other newcomers and avoid interacting with longtime residents, especially in neighborhoods dominated by people of color.
  5. Know when to hold your tongue!
    It is great to get involved in your neighborhood, get to know your neighbors, and attend community meetings, but be aware of when it is time for you to listen. Often, as newcomers become more involved and attend more community-based meetings, they have a lot of opinions and risk hijacking the meetings. What a newcomer may see as a community necessity might be drastically different from what the longtime residents feel their needs are; with that in mind, come prepared to listen and learn.

Maintaining a supply of affordable housing is a key to ensuring that neighborhoods experiencing gentrification remain diverse. This diversity and integration make neighborhoods stronger and have numerous benefits to children raised in those neighborhoods. At a macro level, there are several initiatives and interventions that can help protect the most vulnerable residents from being evicted or simply priced out of their neighborhoods and maintain important levels of diversity.

Suggestion 1: Aggressively build middle-income housing. Middle-income households struggle to afford to rent or buy in cities across the U.S. A more aggressive middle-income housing production program is needed, rather than devoting all of a city’s housing resources to low-income housing production. Furthermore, investing tax subsidies in low-income and middle-income housing production will facilitate the development of mixed-income neighborhoods while also mitigating the impacts of gentrification.

Suggestion 2: Form a neighborhood-based community land trust, or CLT, which, as the name suggests, means community residents own the buildings and/or the land they sit on. Working through a nonprofit, they can keep housing at a rate that they collectively deem affordable for families with incomes below a certain threshold. This way, longtime residents can determine their community’s fate instead of private developers determining it for them.

Suggestion 3: Ensure that every community stakeholder has a voice and place at the table. This means bringing community members into the planning process from the start and making sure developers respect community goals and priorities. This requires understanding how information travels through communities and how people within them voice their concerns. Some communities are Internet-savvy, so you can communicate with them using those platforms, but other communities are relationship-based, where knocking on doors will have the greatest impact. It’s important to change tactics depending on the community with which you are trying to work, and it must go beyond simply holding community meetings.

Suggestion 4: Build income and create assets. While stabilizing housing affordability and ensuring appropriate amenities are crucial components of neighborhood planning, income and asset creation are critical to ensuring resident well-being as the neighborhood economy improves.

At a federal level, raising the federal minimum wage, providing a more generous earned income tax credit, and creating more progressive income taxes will help begin to address the growing income inequality in the U.S. While the federal-level initiatives are extremely important, local interventions are often easier to implement and may help realize a more immediate impact. These policy interventions should focus on providing needed resident services—childcare, transportation, basic retail sectors and access to health care—as these are preconditions for success. Tying public investment to local-hire and living-wage provisions can significantly mitigate negative displacement pressures by bringing some of the benefits of the new investment to existing residents. Furthermore, creating stable, higher-paying local jobs helps anchor a neighborhood, providing residents with more opportunities for increasing their household incomes, with the potential to lead toward multigenerational wealth development.

  1. Community benefit agreements: These could be developed to ensure that public works projects, capital projects, and new employers hire local labor whenever possible, agree to pay living wages, and incentivize further investment and involvement in community workforce development initiatives.
  2. Youth-directed skills development: Mentorship programs could be offered through schools and youth and family development centers to present a multitude of opportunities to neighborhood youths, including two- and four-year college programs, direct-to-employment internships, apprenticeships, and credentialing offers. These programs can also offer soft skills programming to aid youth in developing resumes and cover letters, learning proper email etiquette and how to dress for interviews, and so forth.
  3. Neighborhood-based small business incubators: Aiding local entrepreneurs with developing and establishing new businesses in their own communities can help drive positive neighborhood investment. These neighborhood-based incubators are one strategy to create self-employment opportunities to increase household wealth, while also providing goods and services to the community.

While Chattanooga may not be experiencing gentrification to the extent or pace of larger cities, such as NYC or Atlanta, it is seeing a rise in rental costs coupled with stagnant wages. Renters are especially susceptible to market rate changes and often will experience a subtle displacement, as landlords choose not to renew leases or increase monthly rents and/or security deposits. Furthermore, many renters are unaware of their legal rights, resulting in unjust evictions and forced relocations. Moving from renter to homeowner is one of the most important moves for families to have generational stability; homeownership allows for families to accumulate wealth, not just income, that can be passed down from one generation to the next but gaining access to mortgage loans, saving enough for down payments, and being able to afford to buy in neighborhoods as the prices start to inflate all present significant barriers for low-income families.

Our next post will explore how neighborhood community land trusts have operated in some cities to help bridge these barriers, as well as what this might look like in Chattanooga. Additional posts will consider neighborhood-based economic development to pair wealth accumulation with income accumulation at a neighborhood-level. We will continue to explore several strategies to help preserve, protect, and support historic neighborhoods in Chattanooga to construct more equitable urban development policies.


  1. Flessner, Dave. 2016. Chattanooga Rent Prices Rise Three Times Faster than Income, Chattanooga Times Free Press, July 4. Retrieved August 8, 2017. 

  2. Velsey, Kim. 2015. In Brooklyn, the Weeksville Neighborhood Stirs, The Wall Street Journal, July 14. Retrieved August 8, 2017. 

Cate Irvin

Research director

Cate Irvin is the research director for Metro Ideas Project. She is a doctoral candidate in the City, Culture and Community program at Tulane University and also earned her master’s degree in public health from Tulane University. Her research focuses on three theoretical foci: space, place and identity; social and spatial inequality in the urban context; and urban redevelopment and gentrification.