Concept explainer for GEOG 320 – Urban Geography

Published by: Christopher Turnbull on December 12, 2022

What is Gentrification?

The process in which urban neighborhoods, typically with low-income residents, get transformed by wealthier groups. Reinvestments into housing and businesses attracts more wealthy residents, while displacing the lower-income families. Rising rents, property taxes, and the overall cost of living forces poor inhabitants in the neighborhood to move somewhere else. Communities and cultures are destroyed because of gentrification.

The Good and the Bad

  • Good for the economy and local/state governments. Good for builders, developers, landlords, mortgage lenders, government agencies, real estate agents, are more.
  • Boosting capitalism boosts racism:
    • Exploitation of low-income neighborhoods, especially by how they are racialized.
  • Bad for low-income residents who can no longer afford to live in these neighborhoods.
  • Urban areas today are trying to balance development with affordability.
  • Affordability also being affected by the ongoing global pandemic, especially for everyday items (food, medications, gas, technology, etc.).

Where is it happening?

  • Gentrification is happening all over the U.S. (and in other countries as well) with increasing displacement of low-income persons, especially for people of color and other minority groups.

Gentrification of Boston, Massachusetts

Being referred to as “hyper-gentrification” due to the rapid changes brought on by property exploitation, displacement, and capitalism. A study conducted in 2020 by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) ranked Boston the third-most gentrified city in the U.S.

Top 5 most intensely gentrified cities in the United States:

  1. San Francisco
  2. Denver
  3. Boston
  4. Miami
  5. New Orleans

This study showed that 21.3% of Boston’s neighborhoods were gentrified between 2013 and 2017 (11th highest in the U.S.).

Roxbury is particularly vulnerable because 81% of the residents are renters. The neighborhood was listed as having multiple opportunity zones, which are areas that are in the most need of investments. These areas typically house more lower-income families and persons of color. Other opportunity zones include Jamaica Plain and South Boston. However, a majority of Bostons neighborhoods have already been gentrified.

South End, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester have seen the largest declines in people of color, due to young white professionals moving into the neighborhoods, displacing the poorer residents.

The median income for Black and Brown families living in the Greater Roxbury area, a neighborhood within Boston, is a measly $30,000.

Median Net Worth of Households

  • White households: $247,000
  • Black households: $8.00
  • Latino households: $28.60

According to the City of Boston, roughly 65% of residents are renters with more than half of those residents spending up to 30% of their income on rent. Many people of color are being forced to move towards more affordable locations. Housing prices have gone up drastically while availability has gone down. Competition for affordable housing in Boston is intense. One of the affordable housing projects in Boston received 3,000 applications for 62 available units.

What’s being done in Boston?

  • Boston’s Mayor, Michelle Wu, announced $40 million in funding to create and preserve 700+ income-restricted housing units in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Chinatown, Hyde Park, and Roxbury.
  • Wu had also formed the Rent Stabilization Advisory Committee back in April 2022. The purpose of this committee is to evaluate how rent control would work in Boston.
  • In addition to what Mayor Wu has done to help low-income residents, the executive director of MassHousing in Boston has suggested getting the government to work with building owners and investors to resolve conflicts when tenants get behind on rent.
    • Tensions arise between tenants and landlords when the tenants fall behind on their payments
    • Comes down to whoever has the mortgage (landlords).
    • The government can work with landlords/investors to extend the mortgage / deal with issues.
  • Another issue that still needs to be addressed is homeownership and wealth disparities between white and black families. These issues resulted from redlining policies and structural racism.
    • In Boston, roughly 30% of Black residents and 17% of Latino residents own their home, compared to 44% for white residents.


Racist policies that were created in the 1930s by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). These policies created risk areas in cities where banks should and shouldn’t provide loans and mortgages. High-risk areas, which were often predominantly inhabited by minority groups, made it difficult, if not impossible, for residents to get financial services. Redlining policies eventually became illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the effects are still felt today (homeownership and wealth gaps between white and black families).

Boston HOLC Redlining Map
Boston Area HOLC Map. Red zones represent “high-risk” areas where loans/mortgages should not be approved. Generally, a higher proportion of minority groups lived in these areas.

Post-Redlining Policies

Financial deregulation in the 1980s and 90s allowed financial institutions to market new services to minority groups. There was an opportunity for profits in these communities. This led to subprime lending, which were loans given to those who have poor credit or who have a higher risk of being unable to pay back loans. Subprime loans have higher interest rates, which cost the borrowers more, while giving lenders higher profits. Rampant speculation in the global financial markets ultimately led to to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which major financial institutions, banks, and investment houses collapsed. Homeowners across the United States became unable to pay their mortgages, resulting in foreclosures and declining property values.

Mapping Gentrification

A comprehensive map put together by William Stancil for the University of Minnesota Law School on low income displacement and concentration in U.S. Census Tracts from 2000 to 2016. Oranges and reds depict areas of economic expansion and a net decline in low-income populations while blue colors depict areas of economic decline and a net increase in low-income populations.

Gentrification Map
Low Income Displacement and Concentration in U.S. Census Tracts, 2000 to 2016. Map by William Stancil/University of Minnesota Law School.

Additional Resources