How do researchers measure gentrification?

By Sonam Vashi

Few words cause as much passion and consternation in Atlanta as “gentrification”—a term that’s used to describe anything from a kombucha store opening to a Vine City vacant lot going for $200,000. But it can be hard to precisely explain what we mean when we say a neighborhood is gentrifying.

That’s also true for researchers, who may use different methods to measure gentrification: housing cost changes, mortgage lending frequency, college education rates. Using some metrics, neighborhoods that change rapidly might qualify as “gentrifying,” whereas others that are more slowly changing might not, and emphasizing a binary of “gentrified” and “un-gentrified” neighborhoods can erase the important nuances that have real implications for residents that are experiencing displacement. All of this can lead to confusion that affects public perception, as well as how governments and advocates respond.

Three different measures of gentrified areas in Atlanta during the 2000s. See more of the maps here. (Courtesy of Enterprise Community Partners)

Illustrating this very issue is a new map tool from affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners that uses three different models measuring gentrification. Using the maps, you can look at changes in nearly 100 U.S. cities over four decades, from 1970 to 2010, using different criteria to see what counts as “gentrification.”

The tool uses the following three metrics, showing different outputs on whether an area is gentrified or not:

  • The Freeman model classifies gentrification as occurring an area where the median household income and share of housing built in the prior 20 years are both less than the metro-area values. For an area to be gentrified, the share of residents with college degrees also has to be greater than the metro value, and there needs to be an increase in house prices.
  • The Ellen & O’Regan model calls an area “gentrified” if the ratio of the neighborhood’s household income at the start of the decade, compared to the metro average household income, is less than 0.7—and there needs to be at least a 10 percentage-point increase in the ratio of neighborhood to metro average household income over the past decade.
  • The McKinnish, et al model says an area is gentrified if the neighborhood average family income is in the bottom 20 percent of all urban neighborhoods nationwide and if there’s been a real increase of at least $10,000 in the neighborhood’s average family income within the last decade.

Interested in what Atlanta areas have been “gentrified” over the past few decades? Check out the tool here, and learn more about how researchers measure gentrification in this accompanying study.

Sonam Vashi is an award-winning freelance journalist in Atlanta writing about affordable housing for Saporta Report. Her reporting, which usually focuses on criminal justice, equity, and the South, has also appeared with CNN, the Washington Post, Atlanta magazine, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. She is the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, and she grew up in Gwinnett County.

2 replies
  1. Avatar
    OWEN B. Grown says:

    As a historic westside resident whose neighborhood is often labeled "a rising gentrified neighborhood", I hate how the G-word is used to describe everything in our neighborhoods. When people use the word too much, I want to respond "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Sharing this article would be a better response.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Chris Johnston says:

    By these models' reasoning, if I buy property in an undeveloped area, I am gentrifying it. Consider this in the square miles of Detroit that have been levelled to spare the bankrupt city the cost of providing services.Report

    Reply

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