Gentrification is a contentious process with some big winners and some big losers. We know a lot about the typical winners—developers, high-income home owners, restaurateurs, and the proverbial hipsters—but we have incomplete information about the losers. Census Bureau data demonstrate that displacement is a reality for low-income minorities with low levels of educational attainment in some gentrifying or gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The problem with the data is it doesn’t show us where people go when they leave. We need to improve our data collection methods to understand where dislocated people go when they are priced out or evicted from a gentrifying neighborhood. Only when we have this information at our disposal will we have a more accurate picture of the true costs of gentrification to our most vulnerable communities, and to our society as a whole.
Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene have undergone a dizzying residential and commercial gentrification process over the past ten years. In 2002, the city rolled out the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan to encourage residential and commercial development, which included a rezoning initiative. Buildings previously zoned for 5 or 6 stories rose to 30 or 40 stories. Developers built 3,000 units of luxury condominiums right in downtown Brooklyn in just a few years. Property values in downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene skyrocketed, and so did the rents; today, it’s one of the most expensive places to live.
Some argue that gentrification is a “rising tide that lifts all boats,” and identify the “black bourgeoisie” homeowners of Fort Greene as big winners. It may well be true that many African American homeowners have benefited greatly from gentrification- some are able to sell their homes at record profit, or renovate and rent out, creating additional sources of income. But this isn’t the whole picture.
According to 2010 US Census data, the black population in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill declined by a third between 2000 and 2010. In 2000, blacks made up 65 percent of the population, with 34,570 people. In 2010 they made up 47 percent, with 23,713 residents.
Here’s another way of looking at displacement: The Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy analyzes data from the Census and the American Community Survey. It aggregates data for Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, which includes the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill. In 1990, 49% of this population was black and 29% was white. In 2009, only 29% of the population was black and 45% was white.
Data from the Furman Center also reveals that the disabled population in Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, which includes blacks, whites and Hispanics, has rapidly declined by 50% between 2005 and 2009. There's no other way of looking at it: data clearly shows that low-income black people and the disabled are leaving and wealthy, highly educated wealthy white people are moving in.
Where are people going? Anecdotally we hear that some people are moving to the distressed neighborhoods of East New York, Browsnville and Sheepshead Bay where the cost of living is low; sadly, so is the quality of life in these poverty-stricken communities. Another interesting trend is “reverse migration.” Many displaced people of color are packing up their lives and moving to the south in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves.
The truth is we can’t be sure where they’re going because the Census Bureau doesn’t track this information. We must put pressure on the Census Bureau to find a way to track where people go when they leave a gentrifying neighborhood, and if possible, why they left. This data must continue to protect identities and privacy, and address the fear that many people have, especially undocumented immigrants, about sharing their information with the government. If this presents a challenge for the Census Bureau, they should seek support from the open source community to create a platform that allows for this kind of sensitive data collection.
If our development interests place an undue burden on our most vulnerable citizens, this is information we need to have. Economic development is inevitable; so is the movement of people in this increasingly globalized world. But development must not come at the expense of equity and diversity, which our government says it so values. Our economic interests must take into account the effects on the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people- and knowing what those effects are is key to making good policy decisions.