Exploding the Gentrification Myth: Columbia Prof’s Surprising Findings

For nearly 20 years, activists in Harlem have organized an anti-gentrification block party on Tiemann Place. To raise money for the West Harlem Coalition, a group of tenant associations and neighborhood activists, longtime residents sell homemade crafts and food on this quiet, tree-lined street between Broadway and Riverside Drive. Since Columbia University’s recent announcement of its extensive development plans for the surrounding area, the street is destined to become only more of an anti-gentrification battleground. But as tensions rise, some are asking if the activists have, in fact, misidentified the enemy.

For as long as gentrification has been a divisive topic, the underlying assumption has been the same: As wealthier people move into downtrodden neighborhoods, low-income people are pushed out. But does gentrification actually cause increased displacement? Lance Freeman, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University, thinks the answer is no. One of the leading academics to step on the gentrification land mine, Mr. Freeman (who happens to live in a Columbia-owned apartment just around the corner from Tiemann Place) has found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explode the myth itself. “It’s a controversial issue,” he told The Observer recently, “The research results were unanticipated. But the data says what it says.”

What his data says is this: Low-income people in gentrifying neighborhoods are, in fact, more likely to stay in their apartments longer than low-income people in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Not only does gentrification not cause displacement any more than the myriad other factors that result in poor people losing or leaving their homes, says Mr. Freeman, it actually provides an incentive to stay. Think about it: Would you be inclined to leave your apartment if the neighborhood was improving?

Mr. Freeman referred to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey in reaching his conclusion. He found that poor households living in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City, including Harlem, were 24 percent less likely to have moved between 1991 and 1999 than poor people living in non-gentrifying communities. Even when controlling for various factors, like age, race and overcrowding, poor households were still 20 percent less likely to move from gentrifying areas than poor households living in non-gentrifying communities in New York City.

Mr. Freeman’s research, which will appear in The Journal of the American Planning Association in January, indicates that rent regulation plays an important role in protecting low-income residents. Between 1996 and 1999, Mr. Freeman says, average rents for unregulated apartments in gentrifying neighborhoods (such as Harlem, Chelsea, the Lower East Side and Morningside Heights) rose by 43 percent, but average rents for rent-controlled and -stabilized apartments in those same neighborhoods rose by only 11 percent. But regulation isn’t the sole factor. “Rent regulation is part of it,” said Mr. Freeman. “But if the neighborhood is on the upswing, people want to stay.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, activists in Harlem who have seen displacement firsthand-some narrowly escaping it themselves-find this hard to believe.

“This is crap,” said James Lewis of Harlem Operation Take Back about Mr. Freeman’s research. Mr. Lewis said he almost lost his own apartment when his landlord tried to convert the building from single-room occupancies to traditional apartments. After saving his home, he started HOTB to help other people in danger of losing their S.R.O.’s. “I don’t know how he’s getting his conclusions,” he said of Mr. Freeman. “He’s misinformed. You don’t need to see the fire to know a building has burned.”

The results do seem to fly in the face of observable reality-not just to Mr. Lewis, but probably to most people who have witnessed the migration of the bohemian bourgeoisie into what were once declining neighborhoods. When Mr. Freeman presented a short version of his research in an obscure newsletter last year, it was greeted by other academics as somewhat of a surprise. So another study is currently being conducted by researchers at Rutgers University, who are using some of the same data and are also asking questions about gentrification and displacement.

“Because the results seem somewhat counterintuitive and raise a lot of questions, they want to make sure it’s right,” said Mr. Freeman. “You don’t usually see that in the social sciences. Who knows-maybe they’re going to trash my research.”

Mr. Freeman’s research, however, does not stand completely alone. Conclusions similar to his were reached two years ago by Jacob Vigdor, an assistant professor at Duke University, who analyzed Boston neighborhoods.

“There’s no evidence that gentrification increases residential turnover,” Mr. Vigdor concurred. “The typical image people have in their minds is that people are being thrown out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. But there is usually some degree of vacancy and rehabbing of buildings that weren’t previously inhabitable. The thing everyone has to keep in mind is that there’s turnover in all neighborhoods, and landlords harass poor tenants in all neighborhoods. What happens in gentrifying neighborhoods is that it becomes visible.”

While some activists are willing to admit the research may be valid, they say it misses the bigger picture. “The bottom line is that in these neighborhoods, any vacant apartment is replaced by a completely different tenant from a completely different lifestyle,” said Tom DeMott, who organizes the Tiemann Place block parties and has lived and worked in Harlem for 30 years. “That’s right in your face. An old Chinese family moves out, that apartment will be rented to white kids between the age of 22 and 35.”

And herein lies the confusion between gentrification and displacement. Mr. Vigdor cited studies suggesting that, over a five-year period, roughly half of all residents in typical urban communities move voluntarily. In a non-gentrifying neighborhood, the people who move out are replaced with tenants from a similar socioeconomic background. By definition, apartments that are vacated in gentrifying neighborhoods are filled with a different class of people. But that doesn’t mean there’s more forced displacement than in any other neighborhood. What does happen-and both Mr. Freeman and Mr. Vigdor readily acknowledge this-is that the pool of low-income apartments in gentrifying neighborhoods shrinks over time, which may be cause for serious concern. But, says Mr. Freeman, even this process isn’t as dramatic as it’s often portrayed.

“If you walk through [Harlem], it’s clearly still a low-income neighborhood,” said Mr. Freeman. “But compared to what it was 10 years ago, it seems like a big difference. People see the chain stores that opened up: Modell’s, Old Navy, H&M. But they’re not necessarily targeting an affluent clientele. They’re serving the neighborhood. To say that Harlem is going to turn into Park Slope-that seems far-fetched.”

In an effort to look beyond sheer numbers, Mr. Freeman has been conducting interviews with longtime residents of Harlem to get their impressions of how the neighborhood has changed. “People are appreciative of the improved services and like the increased diversity, but there’s some resentment about the engine of change,” he said. “They perceive an invisible hand that is cleaning up the neighborhood because whites have moved in. So there’s some resentment about that. But overall, people seem to recognize that an entirely low-income neighborhood isn’t necessarily good.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. “I don’t have mixed feelings about the gentrification process,” insisted Mr. DeMott. “I see what it does; I see the difficulty that people face. That’s my concern. I love the neighborhood. I love the people. When I see something that is steam-rolling them, I don’t have mixed feelings.”

Despite the hard line taken by some anti-gentrification activists, there seems to be an increasing realization of the fallacy behind the anti-gentrification stance. “We got angry when the middle class moved out,” said Mr. Vigdor. “Now we’re angry when the middle class is moving back in. Usually when something is bad, the opposite of that is seen as good. So there’s some cognitive dissonance going on here.”

Mr. Freeman agrees. “To say that it’s all bad is somewhat undeserved. It’s more complex than that. If you take that stance to its logical conclusion, you’d have to say that a declining neighborhood is a good thing.”