What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is a Process.

First

Drawing on Lisa Bates' definition, we define gentrification as the process that occurs when an urban neighborhood has attractive qualities but remains relatively low in value.

Bayview, San Francisco (photo by authors)
Then

When demand to live in that neighborhood increases, higher-income households can outbid low-income households for housing.

River North, Denver (photo by authors)
Consequently

New development and economic activity begin to cater to higher-income tastes.

Bayview Pasta est. 2015, San Francisco (photo by authors)
Finally

Vulnerable households migrate out of the neighborhood ("direct displacement") and low-income residents are no longer able to move in ("exclusionary displacement").

Trailers, San Francisco (photo by Cyril Fluck via Flickr)

This definition underlines the way gentrification plays out at the neighborhood level. The key ingredient is a neighborhood that has a certain amenity, such as being close to downtown, yet has stayed cheap thanks to historic disinvestment, industrial land uses, flood risk, or other conditions.

The factors that render the neighborhood low-value make it both affordable and unstable. For example, if the area is in a floodplain, it could attract low-income households that are willing to risk flooding in exchange for a place to live. These households may have bad credit or  mixed documentation status that disqualified them for subsidized housing in safer neighborhoods. They may now have to rent their homes, because flood zone designation triggers expensive flood insurance requirements for homeowners. These low-income renter households face displacement as soon as newcomers drive up rents or convince the city to invest in flood control measures.

It is important to remember that this definition does not talk about the forces at work beyond the neighborhood scale, such as a “return to the city” movement among young and educated people; the bifurcation of urban economies, which exacerbates housing affordability problems; and a shortage of housing supply reinforced by local restrictions on development and the federal government's withdrawal from affordable housing production.