Who is Vulnerable

Who is vulnerable to gentrification's effects?

Gentrification's winners and losers are not random. Certain groups are more vulnerable to housing instability and ultimately displacement from their neighborhoods. 

The elderly are uniquely vulnerable to suffering negative effects of gentrification. As Anne Petrovic writes, "American society fails to acknowledge the elderly live alone, in some of the country's worst housing conditions... It often takes a natural disaster to wake [us] up."1

The relative poverty, limited mobility, and isolation of seniors are significant . A 2006 study found that Chicago neighborhoods lost significant numbers of their elderly residents when they gentrified.2

The most obvious vulnerability is financial. Seniors typically live on small, fixed incomes, which makes it hard for them to absorb housing shocks. They simply cannot pick up an extra shift to cover the rent.

Another factor is limited mobility. The elderly have more difficulty getting around than other groups; they often rely on housing near transit and other services. This limits their housing options and makes moving to a new home logistically difficult.

Finally, the elderly are vulnerable because they are isolated. They often live alone and have few relationships outside of their existing communities. This makes it challenging for them to resist displacement or find new housing. It also makes displacement emotionally traumatic.3

In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy, Eric Klinenberg describes how the 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed hundreds of isolated seniors. Only in Latino areas of the city did strong social fabrics protect the low-income elderly, even when the city failed to help. Displacing the elderly from such fabrics may quite literally mean the difference between their life and death.4

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning ethnography, Evicted, Matthew Desmond reveals how landlords in Milwaukee discriminate against families with children.5

Landlords dislike children because they cause damage and make too much noise. Worse, they attract unwanted attention to subpar housing from child protective services. All this means that families with children are evicted at higher rates.6

Although it has been illegal to discriminate against renters with children since 1988, landlords can turn away renters with recent evictions.7 Eviction is thus a convenient tool for landlords.

Gentrification makes things worse by increasing landlords' incentives to evict troublesome tenants. It also shrinks the number of affordable rentals large enough to accommodate families with children. In Washington, D.C., for example, large families are overrepresented among the poor. These families accuse housing developers of deliberately refusing to build large apartments in order to keep out renters who would make their buildings less attractive to wealthy tenants.8

It is easy to imagine why small businesses might be vulnerable to gentrification. Rachel Meltzer, professor of urban policy at the New School, lays out two reasons why this may be the case.

First, changes in resident demographics mean changes in buying power and taste. This could mean fewer customers for existing small businesses. Second, as new businesses enter to capture the higher-income clientele, commercial rents rise. Higher rents make it more difficult to open or operate a business.9

However, it is important to note that small businesses fail at high rates, even in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.10 In addition, commercial leases tend to be longer than residential ones, which could postpone rent increases for businesses even as housing costs skyrocket.

This may explain why Meltzer finds that between 1990 and 2011, there is very little difference between small business retention in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City. However, her study study did find that small businesses are more likely to be replaced than to leave a vacancy in gentrifying areas. Furthermore, the replacement is more likely to be a new kind of service, and more likely to be a chain establishment.11

The loss of small, locally-owned businesses in gentrifying areas has important implications. It can result in less local hiring. It also eliminates an important vehicle for immigrant and minority entrepreneurship. Finally, residents may no longer see themselves and their needs reflected in the local landscape, which can foster feelings of instability. (For more on this last point, see Kate Shaw and Iris Hagemans' work on "gentrification without displacement").12

Low-income renters are especially vulnerable to housing instability. They are a highly mobile group regardless of whether their neighborhood is gentrifying or not. They may be forced to move when they cannot make rent or when the buildings they occupy are sold or demolished. In Baltimore, high rates of eviction have turned cheap rental properties into tenant mills, with each cycle leading to less stable situations for residents.13 As we pointed out earlier, gentrification exacerbates this instability by increasing rents and making landlords eager to replace low-income renters with wealthier tenants. Part of the reason that low-income renters deserve special attention is that they often rely on relationships for housing, income, and support. This means that for this group, displacement can disrupt vital social networks.14 In addition, research shows that vulnerable renters who are forced to leave gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to end up in poorer neighborhoods, compared with more advantaged renters or similarly vulnerable renters who live in non-gentrifying neighborhoods.15

In her 2015 dissertation, Jackelyn Hwang showed how immigration and race affect patterns of gentrification in U.S. cities.  She found that Asian and Hispanic immigrants can actually 'prepare' neighborhoods for gentrification by satisfying preferences for diversity and stabilizing declining neighborhoods. They also offer gentrifiers a "preferred alternative" to predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods.16

Yet some immigrants, especially unauthorized ones, may be very vulnerable to increased housing instability if their neighborhood gentrifies. Immigrant households with undocumented or mixed status are less able to qualify for public assistance, access subsidized housing, or speak up about landlord abuses.17 Our visits to gentrifying Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Denver suggested that immigrants may also be more willing to accept cash deals to sell their houses.

John Betancur's 2011 study of five Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Chicago found that gentrification-driven displacement is especially problematic for non-white immigrants. These immigrants rely heavily on "place-based support and co-ethnics for information and assistance with practically every other need ...Dispersal disconnected the vulnerable and needy from place-based supports."18


1. Ana Petrovic, "The Elderly Facing Gentrification: Neglect, Invisibility, Entrapment, and Loss," The Elder Law Journal, 15 (2008): 551.

2. Philip Nyden, Emily Edlynn, and Julie Davis, "The Differential Impact of Gentrification on Communities in Chicago," Loyola University Chicago Center for Urban Research and Learning for the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations, January 2006.

3. "How IOA Views Aging in America," Institute on Aging.

4. Eric Klinenberg, Heat wave: a social autopsy of disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

5. Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016.

6. Matthew Desmond, Weihua An, Richelle Winkler, and Thomas Ferriss, "Evicting Children," Social Forces 92 no. 1: 2013.

7. Title VIII: Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

8. Paul Duggan, "In Gentrifying D.C., Apartments for Large Families are Disappearing Quickly," The Washington Post, August 29, 2016.

9. Rachel Meltzer. "Gentrification and Small Business: Threat or Opportunity?" Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 18, no.3 (2016): 57-85.

10. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Entrepreneurship and the U.S. Economy." Business Employment Dynamics, April 29, 2016.

11. Rachel Meltzer, "Gentrification and Small Business."

12. Kate Shaw and Iris Hagemans. "'Gentrification without displacement’ and the consequent loss of place: the effects of class transition on low-income residents of secure housing in gentrifying areas." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39, no.2 (2015): 323-341.

13. Doug Donovan and Jean Marbella. "Dismissed: Low-Income Renters in Baltimore Become Migrants in their Own City." The Baltimore Sun, May 6, 2017.

14. Kimberly Skobba and Edward Goetz. "Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households." Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 15, no.2 (2013): 154-171.

15. Lei Ding, Jackelyn Hwang, and Eileen Divringi. "Gentrification and Residential Mobility in Philadelphia." Regional Science and Urban Economics, 61 (2016): 38-51.

16. Jackelyn Hwang. Gentrification, Immigration, and Race in the Changing American City. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, 2015.

17. On qualification for public assistance, see Tanya Broder, Avideh Moussavian, and Jonathan Blazer. "Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs." National Immigration Law Center, December 2015. On access to subsidized housing, see 

18. John Betancur. “Gentrification and Community Fabric in Chicago.” Urban Studies, 48, no.2 (2011): 383-406.