District of Change: Gentrification and Demographic Trends in Washington, DC

No discussion on urban revitalization is complete without addressing the issue of gentrification. This byproduct of redevelopment has proven to be a persistent source of tension between new and old inhabitants of urban communities throughout the country. Researchers describe gentrification as the process by which individuals with a relatively higher socioeconomic status move into lower-income neighborhoods, eventually resulting in the displacement of existing residents.

Much of the impetus for these trends arises from local government policies and private developers who target development in communities to attract new residents to a city. From 2000-2010, this was the case in Washington, DC when Mayor Anthony Williams’s investments in higher-end amenities in previously neglected neighborhoods resulted in an increase of 30,000 residents after five consecutive decades of population loss.

Researcher Lisa Sturtevant examines the gentrification that resulted from this policy in her study, “The New District of Columbia: What Population Growth and Demographic Change Mean for the City.” Rather than focus on the extent of gentrification in urban areas, as many studies have previously done, Sturtevant is interested primarily in the characteristics of those moving in and out of the city and the broader regional affects of gentrification.

Additionally, in light of the District of Columbia’s increasing white population and the decline of the African-American population from 60 percent of the total population in 2000 to 50 percent in 2010, Sturtevant seeks to discover the role that race may play in gentrification-related mobility patterns. She does so by performing statistical analyses on the American Community Survey’s 2006-2010 public use microdata sample to determine whether the recent demographic shifts in the District of Columbia provide evidence of displacement caused by gentrification.

The study finds that a significantly greater number of households from the ages of 18-24 moved into the city than moved out and that most of these were single-person households. In terms of race, 53.7 percent of new migrants are white, a significantly higher number than non-movers, out-migrants, and within-city movers, while 41.4 percent of out-migrants are African-American, compared with 26.1 percent of in-migrants. Whereas higher income white households are more likely to stay within the city, higher income black households are more likely to leave than those with lower incomes. Further, black households with higher educational attainment are significantly more likely to leave the geographic region altogether. Overall, Sturtevant finds evidence of displacement in the significantly higher likelihood that those who moved out of the District of Columbia were from lower income and less educated households.

What are the long-term ramifications of regional structural shifts like those observed in Washington, DC? In addition to commonly cited cost-related reasons for moving, Sturtevant suggests that evidence of higher-income black households leaving the region may have to do with a sense of detachment from the redevelopment process. Because these more educated and skilled households are bypassing the traditional neighboring destinations, it will become increasingly difficult for these more distressed communities to recover from the economic recession.

The study also finds familiar patterns in the migration behavior of new residents: residents arrive as young singles and leave when they become married and have children. The transience of new residents complicates plans for sustained urban population growth, while the socioeconomic characteristics of those coming and going show evidence of reinforcing residential segregation, particularly as black households that remain in the region are increasingly those that are lower-educated and less skilled.

Broader studies on the subject may yield additional insights on the long-term effects of gentrification on regional development. Sturtevant acknowledges the limits that the study’s narrow regional focus places on generalizing her findings about the effects of gentrification in urban areas. She also restricts her analysis to black and white households, ignoring the possibility of disparate effects of gentrification on different ethnic populations. The policy implications of the study remain pertinent, however, as the findings strongly caution against redevelopment policies that can have far-reaching and largely negative regional effects that may offset the originally intended local economic gains. As the case in DC demonstrates, successful revitalization plans may not necessarily translate into improved quality of life for a city’s residents and may in fact drive the residents most in need of assistance to leave the city altogether.

Article Source: Lisa Sturtevant,”The New District of Columbia: What Population Growth and Demographic Change Mean for the City,”Journal of Urban Affairs, May 2014. 

Feature Photo: cc/(Ted Eytan)

Corey Chan
Corey Chan is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in social policy and community empowerment issues.

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