Heather Ann Kaldeway and Christopher Hylarides on ‘Unslumming and slumming’ — Is unslumming the same thing as gentrification?


In this chapter, we turn to slums, unslumming, and even gentrification. Tricky!

As I prepared to write about this chapter, I found myself in complex conversations about it with my coworkers and with my husband, Christopher Hylarides. He and I tend to come at these topics from different angles: I focus on the social concerns while he focuses on the economics. Because we’ve watched the neighbourhoods around us change over the last 8 years and have talked a lot about the pros and cons of the changes we’re seeing, we decided to share this post.

Are “unslumming” and “gentrification” the same thing?

No, they’re not. There are three definitions that overlap here, and it’s important to be clear from the start:

  1. Rising income: A neighbourhood whose average income is going up.
  2. Gentrification: A neighbourhood which has an influx of high-income residents, which raises prices and pushes out the original low-income residents.
  3. Unslumming: A neighbourhood whose low-income residents are improving their lot, and though they can afford to leave, they choose to stay and invest in the neighbourhood.

Statistics tell us when a neighbourhood’s average income rises, but they rarely tell us why. Rising income does not tell us whether high-income people are moving in and pushing low-income people out (gentrification), or whether the original residents becoming more affluent (unslumming).

What this means for diversity

Remember, diversity is the key to all of Jacobs’ ideas:

  • A slum has LOW income diversity because it is filled with low-income people.
  • A gentrified neighbourhood has LOW income diversity because it is filled with high-income people.
  • An unslummed neighbourhood has HIGH income diversity because it is maintaining its low-income residents while raising some or most of their incomes, and drawing others into the neighbourhood who would have avoided it before.

Diversity self-destructs when a single use pushes out all other uses (i.e. the lack of mixed primary uses) or when a single population pushes out all other populations (for example, gentrification or slumming).

Unslumming, on the other hand, maintains and expands diversity.

Are our neighbourhoods unslumming or gentrifying?

A 2003 study by Columbia University’s Lance Freeman suggests that many up-and-coming New York City neighbourhoods are in fact experiencing “unslumming”, not “gentrification” (Note: ‘gentrification’ in this article refers to ‘rising income’):

“It’s a controversial issue,” [Freeman] told The Observer recently, “The research results were unanticipated. But the data says what it says.”

What his data says is this: Low-income people in gentrifying neighborhoods are, in fact, more likely to stay in their apartments longer than low-income people in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Not only does gentrification not cause displacement any more than the myriad other factors that result in poor people losing or leaving their homes, says Mr. Freeman, it actually provides an incentive to stay.

New York historian Francis Morrone tells us more about Freeman’s study (again, ‘gentrifying’ means ‘rising income’ here):

The data, [Freeman] says, tells us that the poor on average actually stay in their homes for a longer period of time in gentrifying neighborhoods than they do in non-gentrifying neighborhoods, even though their rents go up in gentrifying neighborhoods…

Freeman and others, such as Duke’s Jacob Vigdor (who reached similar conclusions in a study of gentrification in Boston), note that those opposed to gentrification often presume that the poor neighborhoods are stable to begin with, with settled populations… The opposite seems to be the case: Gentrification actually increases neighborhood stability, including among the poor.

Remember, slum neighbourhoods have incredibly high rates of turnover.

What Freeman found in this study is not that everyone stays put (that would be a dramatic change!), but that turnover among low-income residents slows down when the average income rises. This signals that more low-income residents are choosing to stay in the neighbourhoods he studied, and perhaps that their own incomes are rising and enabling them to pay higher rents. If this is the case, these neighbourhoods are unslumming, not gentrifying.

In Toronto, the places we watch most closely for “slumming conditions” are the high-rise apartment towers where low-income residents are most concentrated. In 2011, United Way Toronto published Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty, focusing specifically on the high-rises in each postal code:

Overall, what we see in the data are neighbourhoods where the population is generally fairly stable… Around half of all respondents have been in their neighbourhood for more than three years—with most of these for more than five… These findings do not appear to confirm the high rates of turnover that have often been reported to exist in the inner suburbs. (Vertical Poverty, p. 166–7)

Of the tower residents who do want to leave, 19.5% of them are leaving to find lower rents, and 29% of them are leaving to buy a condo or house. That’s right: more of them are leaving with enough money for a down-payment and a mortgage than are leaving for lower rent.

Jane Jacobs tells us to watch for increased stability as a signal that a slum neighbourhood is unslumming:

Unslumming hinges, paradoxically, on the retention of a very considerable part of a slum population within a slum. It hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businessmen of a slum find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must virtually all move elsewhere.

Income diversity can help a neighbourhood retain its low-income residents

As a neighbourhood unslums and income diversity rises, low-income residents are able to sell their goods and services to a wider clientele. Jacobs notes the disappointment of a New York cobbler who tried to keep his business going beside a new low-income project. He eventually had to close up shop because “[Their] shoes are so cheap and flimsy they can’t be repaired… Even so, they can’t pay for the work. There’s no use for me here.”

The lack of income diversity in his neighbourhood killed his business.

Unslumming neighbourhoods become more established as turnover of the original residents wanes. Soon, a different kind of migrant shows up: bohemians and artists set up shop, attracting people with money to spend. Jane writes:

In unslumming slums … this event has been accompanied by a directly related increase in diversity of incomes—and sometimes by a considerable increase in visitors and cross-use from other neighborhoods and other districts… [T]he range and prosperity of enterprises typically increases in unslumming slums.

Doug Saunders profiles many such neighbourhoods in his (highly-recommended) book, Arrival City: The final migration and our next world. He writes about the area around the intersection of South Redondo and West Adams boulevards in Los Angeles, where the Rodney King riots exploded in 1992:

In the decade after Los Angeles burned, swathes of the city’s core turned from poor neighbourhoods populated by black tenants who rented from absentee white landlords into Latino arrival cities whose residents struggled to buy their ghetto homes… But there was a difference in perspective and strategy. While poor black Angelenos were struggling to escape the neighbourhood as fast as they could and move into the suburbs… the Spanish-speaking arrivals were struggling to dig in, buy their homes and set up shop. (p.79)

Today, these local economies have diversified enormously. One resident and business owner comments, “I chose the location of my business based on what I could afford, which was hardly anything… but now I can’t even contemplate leaving this location—it’s in the middle of everything” (Arrival City, p.80).

Unslumming simultaneously creates and attracts people with a range of incomes, increasing income diversity in the neighbourhood and bringing liveliness and opportunities for long-term residents along with it.

Further Resources

Here are some other resources we thought about when writing this piece:


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Matthew says:

    Well said.

    How about unslumming without rent stabilization laws? Freeman’s study indicated that these played an integral role in the neighborhoods he studied. But he didn’t mention how things may have worked out elsewhere.

    1. Christopher Hylarides says:

      Hey Matthew,

      Rent stabilization most definitely plays a major role in any neighbourhood with any significant sized population that rents. Of course, details matter in how rent stabilization is applied. In many places, new leases are set at market rates and at the end of a lease as a tenant you’re switched to a monthly schedule and the rent increases are limited by government. This would normally have the effect of limiting increases in rent on the tenants, making it easier for the lower income residents to stay in their homes if the new market rental rates skyrocket.

      Some jurisdictions (New York City, is a good example) the government sets the rates for a good chunk of the rental stock, but the benefits don’t necessarily benefit the poor as almost anybody can get these rates. This story highlights one of the many benefits and problems with rent stabilization, though it did have the intended effect of keeping people in what is now a very high income neighbourhood, the question of “is it really helping poor people” remains unanswered. There’s also the “distorting” effect of underpricing rental housing, which can cause little new rental housing to be built, causing new residents to mostly buy homes and condominiums, further exasperating the problem of inequality within the neighbourhood. Markets are complicated things.

      So to answer your question, in jurisdictions without any rent control at all (meaning once your lease runs out, you have to re-sign at market rates) would probably push the poor that do not own their homes out much more quickly.

      1. Fixed the link for you. 🙂

        Matthew, I also listened to an interview with Freeman and he talked about this a bit. He said that prices there do react more quickly, but that landlords are also reluctant to let go of long-term tenants who they know will pay rent on time and treat the apartments well. Revenue is a factor, but it’s one factor among many.

      2. Matthew says:

        Thanks for the responses. I know NYC has very complicated rent laws, that most places do not have, that’s why I think it’s a bit of a special case. Boston abandoned its rent control laws a while back. I think rent control / stabilization is ultimately bad for the housing market, and thankfully, most people seem to understand that now. I don’t want neighborhoods to be torn apart by the influx of money, but I don’t want them to become disinvested either.

        Lance talks about how residents have an ambivalent attitude towards gentrification — though he does not seem to distinguish between that process and unslumming. Here in Boston, it seems that the anti-gentrification forces make a lot of noise, almost as if they’d rather neighborhoods stay poor than see investment. Are residents really getting pushed out in large numbers? There’s always going to be some turnover, but up until last year I would have said that there was not enough new construction to satisfy overall demand. That seems to be changing, finally, but maybe not fast enough to keep prices from sky-rocketing.

      3. Matthew, how do things work in Boston now? Are there no rules about how much landlords can charge? If you have been renting from the same person for years, can they suddenly double your rent?

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