Gentrification by the numbers

UGA real estate professor's new book offers a quantitative history of gentrification in the United States
Scene of an aging small town neighborhood with storefronts

Over the last 30 years, gentrification has become a bogeyman for urban planners and affordable housing advocates — but what does the term mean, and how has it objectively changed our cities?

Richard Martin, associate professor of real estate at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, has tracked gentrification trends across the U.S. for more than a decade. His book, “Gentrification Trends in the United States” was published this summer.

The book focuses on the demographic changes in the nation’s largest 100 cities to see how gentrification trends change over time and what cities were most affected.

Everyone talks about gentrification, but what is the academic definition? How do you define it in this book?

One of the problems with gentrification research is no one can agree on a definition. Everyone mostly agrees that it involved neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status experiencing an influx of higher socioeconomic status households. The agreement pretty much stops there. There are debates about whether it is inherently a central city phenomenon or not, how much change is necessary to consider a neighborhood to be gentrifying, how long the process takes, etc.

My research involves using quantitative analysis to identify gentrifying neighborhoods. The goal of the book is to simply find out how common the types of changes associated with gentrification are. I limit gentrification to occurring in lower-income central city neighborhoods and use Census data to look at a large sample of cities from 1970-2010.

I focus on three types of changes:

  • Income gentrification: Lower-income central city neighborhoods that see their household incomes increase by more than incomes increase for the entire metropolitan area.
  • Educational gentrification: Lower-income central city neighborhoods that see the percentage of their residents with a college degree increase by more than the percentage at the metropolitan level.
  • Occupational gentrification: Lower-income central city neighborhoods that see the percentage of their employed residents who work in professional occupations increase by more than the increase at the metropolitan level.

Were you able to find a pattern that indicated one type of gentrification usually happens first?

I don’t look at this, but there are some interesting trends over time. Income gentrification was very rare in the 1970s and 1980s but increased substantially in the later decades. Occupational gentrification was the most common in the 1970s but didn’t increase as much over time as income and educational gentrification. One takeaway from the book is the sense that everyone had the gentrification increased a lot in the 2000s was not imagined.

I found a very large, across-the-board increase in the amount of gentrification in the 2000s relative to earlier decades. However, this was the culmination of a long-term trend: Gentrification levels were at their lowest in the 1970s and increased every decade until 2010.

What city has seen the biggest impacts of gentrification? Why?

Over the entire 40 years, Denver and Chicago were the cities I identified as having the highest levels of gentrification activity.

Atlanta was not impacted much at all in the 1970s and 1980s but had the second-highest level in the 1990s and the highest level in the 2000s.

I don’t really look at “why”. I am simply trying to measure the amount of gentrification. “Why” is a good topic for the next project.

This book tracks trends until 2010, but are there any post-2010 trends you saw shaping up when you were putting it together? Do you see the seeds of today’s “affordable housing crisis” in this data?

I am working on what I hope will be a follow-up book and it includes the 2010s. Early evidence is that the 2010s pretty much involved a continuation of the trends from the 2000s.

What is the benefit of measuring the three types of gentrification separately?

An additional contribution of this book is it measures three different types of gentrification in each city and decade. Separate chapters are devoted to measuring income, educational, and occupational gentrification. Since each type of gentrification is measured using the same methodology, it is possible to identify things such as which types of gentrification were most common at each point in time, how the levels in each type of gentrification changes over time, and which cities were most affected by the different types of gentrification.

The focus is on such things as changes in the central city share of metropolitan population and employment, how central city income levels changed relative to the levels of their metropolitan areas, and how central city educational attainment and occupational mix compare with their metropolitan areas. The primary purpose of the analysis in Chapter 3 is to identify whether the overall metropolitan socioeconomic trends from 1970 to 2010 were such that an increase in gentrification would have been expected or, as is found to be the case, did the increase in gentrification activity chronicled in this book occur despite the prevailing trends.