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Evan Horowitz

Is gentrification good or bad?

Over time, several low-income neighborhoods in Boston have started to draw better-educated and somewhat wealthier residents, including in Jamaica Plain and the South End.

Gentrification is the term that often gets applied to this transformation. But it’s a loaded term, often implying that the new neighbors are crowding out existing residents and transforming the very character of a community.

The research on gentrification suggests there are a wide range of overlooked benefits — and not just for the newcomers. Existing residents aren’t generally driven out. They have their own share of benefits, including higher incomes and greater satisfaction with their neighborhood.

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Which parts of Boston have changed the most?

Compared to other big cities, such as Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., Boston hasn’t actually experienced much gentrification. Governing magazine looked across the 50 largest US cities, and put Boston roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to gentrification. Of the 179 census-defined neighborhoods in Boston, only 12 low-income areas saw the tell-tale mix of rising property values and college-educated newcomers in the years since 2000. Those areas include East Boston, Fenway, Mission Hill, and Dudley Square.

Is gentrification good or bad?

On balance, most rigorous analyses tend to find that the benefits of gentrification are much wider than generally assumed, and the costs less pernicious. Here are a few examples:

Gentrification doesn’t drive people out

You might think that the reason gentrifying areas change so dramatically is because the new, wealthier residents push out existing residents. But in general that’s not how it works. It’s less about people being forced to leave, and more about who fills new vacancies.

Think of it this way: In every neighborhood, there’s some amount of normal churn. Longtime residents leave and new residents come in. What happens with gentrification is that when people leave, as they do in the normal course of things, they are more likely to be replaced by wealthier or more educated residents.

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Existing residents often benefit from gentrification

Some of the benefits really do seem to flow to existing residents, partly in the form of income gains but also in things like improved credit scores.

The most obvious way that gentrification could help existing residents is by driving up home prices. True, that adds to property taxes, but the increase in overall wealth is much bigger.

For renters, the situation is more complicated. Gentrification often leads to higher rental prices, which can bite deep into paychecks. But the very fact that gentrification doesn’t seem to produce a big outflux of people suggests that renters find ways to stay. Partly that’s because they report being more satisfied with their improving neighborhood, though it may also be about the arrival of new businesses, and thus new job opportunities.

Gentrification rarely effects minority communities

Neighborhoods with large numbers of African-American and Latino residents are much less likely to experience gentrification. As one study puts it: “Gentrification is often depicted as a process in which middle-class whites move into and thus integrate minority neighborhoods. But in fact, gentrifiers prefer already white neighborhoods; they are least attracted to black neighborhoods and see Asian and Latino neighborhoods as middling options.”

If the benefits of gentrification are indeed real, this would represent just one more way that minority communities are deprived of economic opportunities.

Are there problems with these studies?

One potential problem is that many of these studies rely on data from the 1990s, when economic growth was much stronger and the gains really did trickle down to the poor and middle class. It’s possible that gentrification in the 2000s has been quite different. Wages, for instances, haven’t grown much in recent years, which could maker it harder for people to keep up with rising rents and stay put as eighborhoods improve around them.

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What is more, even if the studies are right, and gentrification doesn’t drive a lot of people out of their communities, there are undoubtedly some who can’t afford to stay, and it’s not clear where exactly they end up. One attempt to track this population in New York found some people living in public shelters.

If not gentrification, what kinds of changes are really worrying?

High-poverty neighborhoods. As difficult as it is to live below the poverty line, it’s much more difficult when those around you are stuggling too. Pockets of poverty tend to have higher crime rates, worse schools, poor health outcomes, and limited job prospects. And in Boston, as in many cities across the country, poverty is increasingly concentrated in a few long-struggling areas.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz