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Gentrification: Housing Market Booms as Locals Bust

In this essay Nathan Palmer uses gentrification to illustrate how simple individual choices can lead to collective issues.

Gentrification is what happens when the middle-class starts buying houses in poor neighborhoods. The neighborhood quickly flips from being predominately poor to being predominating non-poor and like a snapped towel a wave of change pushes the long-time locals out of their homes (Glass 1964; Hackworth and Smith 2001; Smith 1996). Disproportionately the people losing their long-time homes are people of color and the ones getting their dream homes or turning a profit from flipping the neighborhood are white (Freeman 2006)[1].

The homes in poor neighborhoods are cheap and thus attractive for people with low paying careers (e.g. artists) and for real estate developers trying to buy up land in anticipation of a future booming housing market (Zukin 1989). Over time as middle-class individuals and families move into a historically poor neighborhood, their presence changes the housing market. The values of the properties begins to rise and more people want to move into the area. The shift in the housing market can be dramatic, especially if other social factors are present like tax breaks or financial incentives from the local government to encourage growth or a company moving it’s operations into the area (and with it a lot of new jobs).

Rising property values generate desperately needed money for local services, but it also raises the cost of living in the area. Long-time locals watch their monthly rent climb or they are evicted after their landlord’s sell their property for “redevelopment.”

Highland Park, a neighborhood just outside downtown Los Angeles, is gentrifying at warp speed. “According to RealtyTrac, home values have soared about 200 percent from March 2000 to 2014.” Marketplace, a national public radio program, sent their Wealth & Poverty team to Highland Park to report on the human experience of gentrification and in the piece below, the people who gentrified it.


This is what gentrification in Highland Park looks like. Click the next button on the left hand side of the map below to watch the median income of the area shift from $4,704 in 1980 to $41,121 in 2010[2].

Gentrification is inherently a social issue. Each individual home buyer is doing what they feel is best for them. But when market conditions and social forces combine, lots of people make the same individual choice and a social problem is born.

To understand gentrification you must have a sociological imagination. That is, you must understand a personal trouble in context of the social issue that surrounds it. We can’t understand gentrification at the individual level alone. Each of the gentrifiers who move in and the long-time residents forced out have an individual story, but that story is but a single page in the book of gentrification.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How could gentrification be seen as both a good thing and a bad thing?
  2. Conflict theorists would ask, “who benefits from this?” How would you answer this question?
  3. In the Marketplace clip, the people interviewed resisted being labeled as gentrifiers. Why do you think they responded this way?
  4. Think of another social problem that requires a sociological imagination to fully understand. Describe both the social problem and how a sociological imagination can lead to a fuller understanding. For a refresher on the sociological imagination check this out.


  • Glass, Ruth. 1964. London: Aspects of Change. London: Centre for Urban Studies and MacGibbon and Kee.
  • Hackworth, Jason and Neil Smith. 2001 “The Changing State of Gentrification.” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie (92) (4): 464–77.
  • Smith, Neil. 1996 The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Zukin, Sharon. 1989 Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Freeman, Lance. 2006. There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

  1. Update Dec-08-14: I should note that Freeman argues that gentrification is more complicated than my original statement indicated. Freeman did not find a direct cause and effect between the influx of white non-poor into a neighborhood and the displacement of poor people of color. My thanks to Dr. Syed Ali for pointing this out and you can read his excellent summary of gentrification in Contexts here. ↩

  2. Note that each map is adjusted for the inflation rate at the time the data was collected, so this isn’t a one to one comparison.  ↩