Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Displacement?

5 minute read

Displacement—the forced relocation of existing residents and businesses was once a desired outcome of the "urban renewal" projects of the 20th century. In the 21st century, displacement is a highly contested, hard to trace, effect commonly linked to gentrification and urban revitalization.

Displacement is defined as the involuntary relocation of current residents or businesses. In contemporary times, displacement is often confused with gentrification, but while displacement can result from gentrification, it's critical to maintain clear distinctions between the two.

In contemporary times, displacement can result from any of a number of possible scenarios: foreclosure, eviction, rent increases, negligent landlords, and environmental catastrophe, for example. In the past, slum clearance, urban renewal, interstate highway system construction, and stadium construction created waves of displacement—some of which actually was an intended outcome of urban planning projects.

There is now a large body of evidence that displacement introduces extreme risks for those forced to leave their homes and places of businesses. The effects of displacement can include homelessness, loss of community, and loss of access to jobs and mobility. Displaced low-income residents often move to neighborhoods with fewer resources for economic advancement and quality of life. Moreover, displacement tends to create disparate impacts in the United States—Black and Latino residents are much more likely to face eviction than white residents, for example. 

The Gentrification Debate

The degree to which displacement results from gentrification and urban development is one of the most hotly contested debates in urban planning. The politics of urban development and planning frequently fragment according to public opinion on the connections between development, gentrification, and development. As stated by Diane Levy for the Urban Institute, "Public discussions of neighborhood change highlight considerable differences in how people view revitalization and displacement and what, if anything, should be done to affect it."

A conceptual framework can therefore be helpful for understanding the various causes and effects of displacement despite the confusion that controversy can create. Most concepts of displacement hinge on the numerous causes of displacement. For example, in a growth and equity analysis written in 2015, the city of Seattle distinguished between physical (direct) displacement and economic (indirect) displacement. "Physical displacement is the result of eviction, acquisition, rehabilitation, or demolition of property, or the expiration of covenants on rent- or income-restricted housing. Economic displacement occurs when residents and businesses can no longer afford escalating rents or property taxes," reads that document. The same document also identifies cultural displacement as individuals choosing to relocate as a result of the departure of neighbors and culturally related businesses. As implied by that explanation, displacement affects both individuals and communities, and needs to be evaluated specifically in either case.

Many of the causes and effects of displacement are obviously intertwined with the processes of gentrification. As neighborhoods begin attracting new, relatively affluent residents, whether as a result of deliberate planning or unintended consequences, landlords and homeowners are faced with new incentives to sell, raise rents, or otherwise recalibrate their situation to prevailing economic factors. Some of the resulting neighborhood change can destabilize the economic situations of current residents. The resulting rent and property taxes increases can compel eviction and foreclosure—two direct causes of displacement—if current residents aren't able to keep up with the new economic demands. 

With so many urban planning goals focused on economic development, many low-income communities see urban revitalization as a contemporary form of the urban renewal programs of the mid 20th century, with the same kinds of displacement effects for individuals and communities. Anti-displacement political movements are frequently in direct conflict with market urbanists who argue for new development as a tool of mitigating housing costs.

Research Challenges

Some of the controversy surrounding the causes and effects of displacement persist because of a well documented lack of quantitative evidence on gentrification-induced displacement. Researchers, and advocates committed to fighting against the forces of displacement, long struggled to provide meaningful estimates of the number of individuals and households displaced by gentrification. 

There is some research, however, that indicates gentrification can cause displacement. According to one study, after gentrification begins, residents with roots in the neighborhood are about 3.9% likelier to move out than residents in neighborhoods that haven’t yet started to gentrify.

In recent years, a large partnership of researchers from California, working together under the moniker of the UCLA-UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project, have gathered evidence of the displacement effects of planning policies in the state of California designed to reduce vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions by creating more transit oriented development. The Urban Displacement project has created a series of interactive maps designed to visually show the relationships between transit investment and neighborhood change.

Anti Displacement Strategies

"At its worst, gentrification can then lead to displacement, but not always," according to the summary of a report by the Kinder Institute of Urban Studies at Rice University. To prevent the potential cycle of development, gentrification, and displacement, advocates rely on a large collection of policies and tools that can help lessen the impacts of gentrification and ensure existing populations retain an essential role in the future as neighborhoods and cities change.

Strategies like those in the following list generally fall into one of three categories: 1) tenant protection laws, 2) housing-preservation programs, and 3) policies that improve access to housing. 

  • Rent Assistance
  • Subsidized Housing
  • Tenant Protections
  • Just Cause for Eviction
  • Legal assistance for at-risk renters
  • Community Land Trusts
  • Rent Stabilization (i.e., rent control)
  • Condo conversion protections
  • Eviction prevention programs
  • Rights of first refusal
  • Tax relief for income qualified homeowners
  • Foreclosure prevention programs
  • More Anti-Displacement strategies

As noted in the Urban Institute report quoted above, many of these efforts must be led by political leadership and effective municipal operation. "If a city does not proactively support the provision of affordable housing and become involved in efforts to manage gentrification forces, it will be that much more difficult for community organizations and developers to do so," reads the report.

Expanding the Concept

With so much focus in the United States on the debate about the displacement effects of new development and gentrification, it's important to recall that displacement takes numerous forms and caused by many forces, but displacement always occurs as an intense risk to those forced to leave their homes and places of business. 

Other than the rising cost of housing, medical crises, the loss of a job, or natural disasters can all cause the economic instability that can cause displacement. The displacement of businesses, caused by increased rent prices or even laws against practices like food vending, can also destabilize residents and communities. 

Furthermore, global political conflict and environmental disasters can cause displacement ion a massive scale. "Displacement levels are the highest ever recorded with roughly 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world, including over 21 million refugees, three million asylum-seekers and over 40 million internally displaced persons (IDPs)," according to a report published by the Global Alliance for Urban Crises in 2016.

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