“Gentrification, as it is commonly understood, is about more than rising housing prices. It’s about neighborhoods changing from lower-income, predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods to high-income, predominantly white neighborhoods. Demographers and sociologists have identified neighborhoods where this kind of displacement has occurred. Wicker Park in Chicago, Harlem and Chelsea in Manhattan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn—these places really did gentrify. Sociologists and demographers captured these changes in case studies and ethnographies. But starting a decade ago, economists began to ask more nuanced questions about the displacement the other social sciences were documenting. Simply documenting that low-income people were being forced out of a neighborhood whose housing prices were rising didn’t mean in and of itself that gentrification was causing displacement, they noted. Poor people often move away from nongentrifying neighborhoods, too. Indeed, low-income people move frequently for a variety of reasons. The real question was whether low-income residents moved away from “gentrifying” neighborhoods at a higher rate than they did from nongentrifying neighborhoods.
The other reason we continue to talk about gentrification probably has more to do with middle-class fears. Housing prices in America’s most expensive coastal cities have risen sharply since the end of the Great Depression. Expressing concern about “gentrification” in those cities may simply be another way of expressing concern about rising housing prices. But in fact, different types of cities have very different kinds of affordability problems. In coastal cities, the cost of housing is often far higher than the cost of construction. That is primarily because supply is constrained. Builders in Washington can’t turn Adams Morgan’s row houses into a high-rise apartment district, so row house prices rise. High demand plays a role too, of course. Some of that demand reflects a preference for older, close-in housing stock. The fact that global cities deliver high wages to the most skilled workers is almost certainly more important though. Gentrification isn’t the cause of these cities’ affordable housing problem. It’s a symptom.”