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Tenants Rights Organizations

What is gentrification?

Although the phenomenon of neighborhood transformation and upgrading dates back to earlier in the 20th century, the first documented use of the term “gentrification” in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass described the influx of the “gentry” into working class London neighborhoods and their subsequent transformation. Today, gentrification is generally defined as “the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city into middle-class residential or commercial use”. Although the emphasis has traditionally been on the influx of the middle and upper classes, in its origin the term inherently implied the displacement of working class households. As described by Glass, “[o]ne by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower…[o]nce this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

While the vast majority of literature and media attention on gentrification focuses on class-based analyses, the deep history of racial residential segregation and income inequality in the United States results in gentrification being a clearly racialized process. Gentrification is often associated with white middle class households moving into low-income and communities of color. A number of scholars have clearly tied gentrification to historical patterns of racial residential segregation and inner city disinvestment and decline. These neighborhoods experience the “double insult – a ‘one-two’ knock” of disinvestment, neglect and white flight in the 1950s through 1970s and then the forces of gentrification and displacement in the 1980s through today.

A wide range of actors are involved in the gentrification process, including individuals, developers, builders, business improvement districts, lenders, planning consultants, government agencies, insurance firms, news media, and real estate agents, among many others. Local, state, and federal government policy and subsidy for things like mixed income housing, beautification, transit improvements and the like set the conditions for and catalyze gentrification processes by improving neighborhoods and making them attractive for private investment. Often gentrification research and activism focuses either on macro-forces of housing and labor markets or micro-processes of individual preferences.

What is residential displacement?

Residential displacement occurs when a household is forced to move from its residence or is prevented from moving into a neighborhood that was previously accessible to them due to conditions which:

1) are beyond the household’s reasonable ability to control or prevent (e.g., rent increases);

2) occur despite the household’s having met all previously-imposed conditions of occupancy; and

3) make continued occupancy by that household impossible, hazardous or unaffordable.

Displacement manifests itself in many forms, from physical (i.e., evictions or service disruption) to economic (i.e., rent increases).  Displacement can result from gentrification when neighborhoods become out of reach for people or can occur at earlier stages through disinvestment, increasing vacancies and facilitating demographic turnover.

Adapted from Grier and Grier (1978) and Marcuse (1986)


Gentrification may lead to displacement, and/or displacement may lead to gentrification – but not necessarily.