Last month I participated in a panel on Development without Displacement at ULI Los Angeles’ annual Urban Marketplace event.

I think the topic was important and enjoyed the discussion with fellow panelists Alex Guererro, Hassan Ihkrata, and Ken Lombard, moderator Raphael Bostic and audience members. Thanks to ULI for the opportunity to participate.

I also co-facilitated a roundtable on Residents as City Builders with Ilaria Mazzoleni of cohousing group InHabitLA. I think building groups, co-housing and co-ops are great ways to diversity housing and let more residents actively shape their homes and the city. We will post more about this topic as we explore housing innovation and urban change.

On the Development without Displacement pane, I tried to make a few points. Two are drawn from recent research focused on the LA region:
1. LA’s most significant spatial and demographic trend is persistent segregation.
2. most evictions and displacement are caused by poverty and accompanying precarity.

I think it is important to emphasize these points, because it sometimes seems like our discussions of demographic and social change in LA are dominated by somewhat different assumptions:
A. New development is out-of-scale and destroying neighborhood character.
B. Gentrification is rapidly displacing poor people from LA.

All of these trends intersect and all of them impact people’s lives in different places, at different scales.  But I worry that our plans and policies are doing too little to address segregation and poverty. This is partly because they are difficult challenges, and no strategy for economic and community development has succeeded in solving them. Some of our inattention may also be because our fears of change can warp our priorities, leading us to try to address what I would consider to be second level challenges while our top problems continue to fester.

1. persistent segregation is the main social and spatial challenge facing the Los Angeles region

I used to assign Robert Sampson’s book Great American City to students in urban policy classes I taught. It provides a detailed look at how “concentrated disadvantage” in Chicago- that is, being poor in a neighborhood with high poverty rates- impacts residents’ life trajectories. The book is a good introduction to how place impacts peoples’ lives: racism, segregation, poverty, ‘blight,’ crime, unemployment, incarceration, and residents ability to improve neighborhoods.  Sampson and colleagues have more recently used a dataset following families in the Los Angeles area to assess segregation by income in Los Angeles over time.    While they entered the study wondering if LA’s characteristics as a newer, sunbelt city with more dispersed development patterns might make it less vulnerable to persistent segregation than Chicago, the results show severe neighborhood and individual segregation are a huge problem in LA.

The study examined patterns of change/persistence at both the neighborhood and individual levels. Both are important, because living in a high poverty neighborhood harms peoples future prospects above and beyond the many challenges brought on by individual or household poverty. They divided LA neighborhoods into five categories ranging from the most affluent to the lowest income. Between 1990-2000, “70 percent of affluent (top fifth) neighborhoods and a staggering 97 percent of poor (lowest fifth) neighborhoods remained in the same category across the decade.” From 2000 to 2012, “it is the affluent neighborhoods that are most durable; almost 90 percent of affluent neighborhoods remain so, versus nearly 70 percent of poor neighborhoods.”

The research also investigated individuals to see if residents remained in the same type of neighborhood, or if they ended up in wealthier or poorer places (due to moving or a neighborhood changing around them.) Between 2000 to 2013, “75 percent of individuals who resided in the most affluent neighborhoods at baseline preserve their neighborhood position thirteen years later, versus an average of about 40 percent among respondents who resided within the least affluent neighborhood stratum at wave 1. If we consider the bottom two-fifths as lower-income brackets, nearly 80 percent of adults who started in these lower two groups remain there over the course of the study.” Residents who moved during this period achieved slightly better outcomes in terms of ending up in wealthier neighborhoods, but nor by much, showing barriers to upward mobility.   

Sampson et al. "Urban Income Inequality and the Great Recession in Sunbelt Form: Disentangling Individual and Neighborhood-Level Change in Los Angeles." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 3(2), 102–128 (2017).

Sampson et al. "Urban Income Inequality and the Great Recession in Sunbelt Form: Disentangling Individual and Neighborhood-Level Change in Los Angeles." RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 3(2), 102–128 (2017).


Much of our economic segregation is a result of racial discrimination. Los Angeles is an ethnically diverse place, and the combination of this diversity, the removal of explicitly racist barriers to where people can live, and past white flight has led to the reduction of completely racially segregated neighborhoods. A study by the London School of Economics and Political Science shows that the percentage of Angelenos who live in neighborhoods ‘strongly segregated’ by race declined from 40% in 2000 to 33% in 2010. Another study of demographic patterns in LA since the civil rights movements, however, shows that most of the ‘pathways’ by which neighborhoods change lead to increased racial segregation rather than to integration. The three pathways to integration are desegregation of mainly white neighborhoods, gentrification of mainly non-white areas, and maintenance of diversity in places where no group has a majority share (most of which are in suburban areas).

Bader, Michael D. M.,and Siri Warkentien. 2016. “The Fragmented Evolution of Racial Integration since the Civil Rights Movement.” Sociological Science 3: 135-166.

Bader, Michael D. M.,and Siri Warkentien. 2016. “The Fragmented Evolution of Racial Integration since the Civil Rights Movement.” Sociological Science 3: 135-166.

The authors conclude that “Shifting processes require shifts in policies that promote racial integration. Policies that exclusively ensure that minorities can enter all-white neighborhoods will produce only modest gains toward integration, especially since many minorities have already gained footholds in majority-white neighborhoods.  Policies must also encourage whites to consider living in integrated neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods where the share of blacks is growing.”

2. Displacement mainly results from poverty and precarity rather than from development or gentrification

Sociologist Matthew Desmond recently won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City   Evicted is rightly celebrated for putting human faces (both tenants and landlords) to the crisis of urban poverty and evictions. His 2016 paper “Who gets evicted?” provides data from Milwaukee to help understand “individual, neighborhood, and social network characteristics” that influence why some low income renters get evicted while others don’t.

The results from a dataset of renters suggest that having children, losing one’s job, living in a higher crime neighborhood, and having a weak social/support network are associated with higher rates of eviction. Gentrification did not increase evictions. The authors note that “Most studies begin with a focus on gentrification and inquire about eviction.. Our study proceeded in the opposite direction, beginning with eviction and inquiring about gentrification. This approach led us to document a higher likelihood of eviction among renting families in disadvantaged neighborhoods, compared to their counterparts in transitioning areas of the city.”

Eviction isn’t exactly the same thing as displacement because there are additional reasons why people might involuntarily leave their homes. Still, most quantitative research on gentrification suggests that it does not lead to large increases in displacement. At the ULI forum, I said that in LA “we have displacement without development.” We continue to build housing in the LA region and in California at a rate that is significantly lower than in past decades. As a result, between 2005 and 2015, the state experienced a new loss of 800,000 people living near the poverty line.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t people being evicted or otherwise displaced because their homes are being demolished or remodeled to make room for newer, more expensive building- just that this is dwarfed by loss of homes due to poverty and housing shortages.

Gentrification is complex. It brings benefits and costs and is probably the least bad thing that happens to low-income urban neighborhoods in the United States. (This may be more of a condemnation of our urban policies and politics than apologetics for gentrification.) The following statements about gentrification give a sense of its impacts and complexity, I’ll source them and explore in more detail in a future post:

  • Impoverishment and stagnation of urban neighborhoods are much more common than gentrification
  • Gentrification is increasing in large American cities.
  • Gentrifiers are mainly younger, educated, childless whites and middle class people of color.
  • Gentrification can cause direct displacement and a small increase in overall displacement.
  • Gentrification does not cause vulnerable populations to leave gentrifying neighborhoods at greater rates than non-gentrifying areas.
  • Rents rise in gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Incomes and credit scores of existing residents rise in gentrifying areas.
  • Diverse housing (public, affordable, rent control and market rate construction) all help residents stay in gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Existing renters who stay in gentrifying neighborhoods show an increase in satisfaction with their neighborhoods.  
  • Gentrifying neighborhoods tend to become more economically and racially diverse
  • Gentrification happens more in areas that are already racially diverse.  

3. We need a pro-change coalition to pursue integration, prosperity and a better city and region

The third point I made at the ULI forum was that we need a pro-change coalition to address continued segregation + poverty-driven displacement.  To integrate LA and to reduce poverty (not to mentioning achieving environmental goals), I think we need to accelerate rather than slow change, and to reduce rather than erect internal walls between neighborhoods and cities.  How can we make it easier to “affirmatively further fair housing” with more subsidized and middle income homes in wealthy areas and more market rate homes in low income communities? How do we increase assistance to low income households and increase investments in poor neighborhoods? What would this agenda look like in plans and policies? These are big questions. I’ll come back to them in future posts.