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Displacement: The misunderstood crisis

Karen Chapple, Professor, City and Regional Planning | August 28, 2015

When we think of gentrification and displacement, we typically envision a hipster – young, professional, and probably white – in the Mission District or Brooklyn at the peak of the real estate boom. But this archetype, while not inaccurate, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Displacement, which is distinct from gentrification, occurs in many different forms, places, and moments. While gentrification refers to a process of neighborhood change —one that encompasses local increases in real estate investment, household income, and educational attainment — displacement occurs when housing or neighborhood conditions force moves.

Displacement can be physical (as building conditions deteriorate) or economic (as costs rise). It might push households out, or it might prohibit them from moving in, called “exclusionary displacement.” It can result from reinvestment in the neighborhood — planned or actual, private or public — or disinvestment.

Displacement without gentrification

Thus, displacement is often taking place with gentrification nowhere in plain sight. In fact, stable neighborhoods at both the upper and lower ends of the income spectrum are experiencing displacement.

On the upper end, our Urban Displacement Project shows that in total, the Bay Area’s affluent neighborhoods have lost almost twice as many low-income households as have more inexpensive neighborhoods. For instance, in Berkeley, since 2000, affluent neighborhoods have lost 672 low-income households – almost one in five – while its few remaining low-income neighborhoods lost 278 (4%), and its gentrified neighborhoods actually gained 135 low-income households. Across the Bay, Mountain View also lost one in five low-income households from its affluent neighborhoods, while experiencing almost no displacement in its low-income and gentrified neighborhoods.

On the lower end, neighborhoods such as Pittsburg — in the outer areas of the region and experiencing minimal gentrification and investment — are also losing low-income homeowners, often to foreclosure. Other neighborhoods, like the vicinity of Diridon Station in San Jose, lost their low-income households decades ago in the 1980s, via redevelopment projects that have been slow to materialize.

Still others, like the Monument Corridor in Concord, are experiencing the eviction of tenants now in anticipation of future demands related to the tech economy. At the same time, traditional working-class communities like Redwood City are deliberately remaking themselves to cater to new demand.

Displacement patterns

When households leave, where do they go?  Whether pushed out of more or less affluent areas, low-income households most likely end up in different low-income neighborhoods. More than twice as many low-income households moved into inexpensive areas as into more affluent. The region’s two biggest cities, San Francisco and San Jose, have accommodated almost half of the in-movers, mostly in their lower-income neighborhoods. And when low-income households move into more affluent areas, it is typically to places like Brentwood or Fremont.

These patterns are of concern because low-income neighborhoods tend to lack the quality of amenities and opportunities available in middle- and higher-income areas. Constricted mobility patterns like this show the value of HUD’s redoubled effort to affirmatively further fair housing. Living in a more affluent – or revitalizing — neighborhood gives low-income families better access to education and a higher quality of life.

mobile-home park in Palo Alto

This mobile home park in Palo Alto, which may shortly be displaced by new development, exemplifies the challenges of maintaining affordability in affluent enclaves. (Photo:

But even more effective than opening up new areas to fair housing is preventing the low-income households already there from being forced to leave. Anti-displacement policies stabilize communities and ensure access to opportunity.

The challenge we face is how little is known about what works best to keep families in place. Cities have been slow to adopt new policies. In coming months, we will discuss our results in more detail, including offering case studies of policies that have been effective.


Comments to “Displacement: The misunderstood crisis

  1. Many renters provide stability to neighborhoods. Yes, I have a rent stabilized apartment. I could not afford to live in San Francisco otherwise. I belong to the neighborhood association, shop in the neighborhood, take transit everywhere and vote. When there is a problem with traffic, sidewalks, noise, I know where to seek solutions.

  2. @TJ – From what i’ve seen and experienced with what’s been happening in SF and Oakland is that neighborhoods are being gentrified, and as a result people are getting displaced. This happens quite a bit for low-income and working class families who may have lived in certain neighborhoods or homes for generations, and now because of rising costs of rent and stagnant wages, and more affluent tech people moving in — people are losing their homes and being forced out. It’s great to have “community building” when the whole community benefits, not just the people who can afford it.

    • But that’s my point: you’re talking about renters, and I’m talking about homeowners. Home ownership is good for neighborhoods and renting is not. Full stop. Who gets to rent is almost besides the point. Whether it’s poor people renting with the help of rent control and/or public assistance or rich tech a-holes, renting is transitory and only benefits the slumlords, er…I mean…landlords. But that’s besides the point.

      What strikes me most about all of this non-sense about gentrification is that nobody is talking about the elephant in the room — overpopulation. We are forced to compete when there are more people than resources. Space is a resource we are very short on here. So people will compete for it, and in any competition there are winners and losers.

      Bleeding-heart liberalism won’t do anything for the losers in this game. If you really want to fix the problem, then let’s educate our populace about zero (or better: negative!) population growth.

  3. I’m still not clear on this: Why is gentrification a bad thing? I live in the Richmond Annex and every new family that moves in fixes up their house, makes long-term plans to stay and makes the whole neighborhood better for it. This should be called what it is: “community building.”

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