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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Social Policy

Gentrification Without Displacement? A Cautionary Tale from Brooklyn to Detroit


On my first day home for the holidays this past December, my family and I had only just finished lunch when my father headed out to a funeral for the matriarch of our local, family-run hardware store. In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, Leopoldi’s Hardware is one of the few shops that has survived waves of gentrification. As the door closed behind my dad, I felt that perhaps some things have not changed. Paying tribute to the Leopoldi family honored the community of my childhood, which seems more distant now than can be explained by the mere passing of time. Like a phantom limb, my childhood Brooklyn is sometimes present, even though it has largely disappeared.

The culprit of this neighborhood change is gentrification—and Brooklyn has become a globally recognized poster child for exactly that. Around the world, city-dwellers have started to refer to their own respective “Brooklyns,” a word that has evolved to broadly categorize a place as “bohemian,” “hip,” and ultimately, “expensive.”[1] Yet, more than simply the movement of people into and out of a neighborhood, gentrification is a process that unfolds through the structural forces of government and business, which create urban environments where only wealthy people—who are often White—can afford to live. And this happens at the expense of low-income residents who have lived there for generations.

In NYC and many cities around the country, the call for “gentrification without displacement,” has become a rallying cry to halt—or at least slow—the gentrification resulting from an influx of wealth and capital that is worsening urban inequality. Yet unlike many major US cities, Detroit is still in the early stages of gentrification. Its slow movement out of bankruptcy and recent attraction of corporations raise important questions for policymakers: what can be learned from the rapid transformation of Brooklyn, in order to prevent gentrification from displacing low-income communities of color in Detroit?

Defining Gentrification: A History

The term “gentrification” has entered into common parlance as a way to define neighborhood change resulting from wealthy residents moving into a community. The term was first coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in her 1964 book London: Aspects of Change. At the time, she sought to described the changes happening in the borough of Islington, an area of London that had been home to working class, West Indian immigrants, until young, creative professionals began to move in. Her choice of “gentry” underscores the class-based conflict inherent to this process:

“One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes…Shabby, modest mews and cottages…have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.”[2]

Since the 1960s, several other definitions have arisen to explain this phenomenon. In 1979, MIT Urban Studies professor Phillip Clay contributed a framework for gentrification that identifies stages. The first phase involves “pioneering” gentrifiers who move into a neighborhood in search of cheaper rent. Their presence encourages the second stage of gentrification—a wave of middle-class gentrifiers. In the third stage, corporate actors, such as real estate companies and chain retail stores, enter into the neighborhood seeking to profit from both groups of gentrifiers. This stage is also marked by the displacement of long-time residents. In the fourth and final stage, the neighborhood becomes so saturated by private developers, corporations, and the wealthy, that even the original pioneers can no longer afford to live there.[3]

In his recent book How to Kill a City, Peter Moskowitz proposes a fifth stage as a precursor to gentrification: Stage 0, which is often led by local government. In Stage 0, a municipality creates the conditions that make it possible for gentrification to occur, using tools such as zoning, tax breaks, and branding.[4] This stage, although less visible initially, wields incredible power to produce the ultimate consequence of gentrification: displacement. Such a phenomenon is what MIT professor Craig Wilder aptly sums up in his documentary My Brooklyn: “The process of gentrification in New York is not about people moving into a neighborhood and other people moving out of a neighborhood. The process of gentrification is about corporations sectioning off large chunks of those neighborhoods and then planning out their long-term development.”[5]

And that’s what Detroit can learn most from Brooklyn.

But First: Defining Displacement

In the context of gentrification, displacement often means precisely what one might expect: the forced movement of people out of their homes as a result of the influx of new residents. Although academics debate the statistical significance of displacement as a result of gentrification, the changing demographics of New York City neighborhoods and the voices of community members tell a powerful story about the relationship between gentrification and displacement.[6],[7],[8]

Yet, displacement can reach beyond the physical bounds of housing or property to threaten the culture of a community, as well as the safety of its members. If Detroit residents are in the early stages of residential displacement, recent studies have demonstrated that long-time Detroiters are already feeling the effects of cultural displacement. For instance, qualitative interviews with residents of Southwest Detroit, a historically Mexican-American neighborhood, have revealed early indicators of neighborhood change: “As change continues, they identified increased police presence, an influx of services that cater to higher-income clients, and shifts in governmental management as additional indicators to monitor. However, at the core of the lived experience of neighborhood change is a cultural shift in the community. As one resident put it, ‘It feels strange, like I’m not displaced but I am somehow.’”[9]

Signs of cultural displacement are rightful cause for fear, particularly among communities of color. The rise of criminalization in gentrifying neighborhoods has been well-documented. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Abdallah Fayyad describes the relationship between gentrification and an unequal, misguided promotion of ‘safety’: “When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved.”[10] While additional police presence may seem benign for white residents, it can mean an increased threat for people of color who experience police misconduct and violence at significantly higher rates.[11]

Displacement resulting from gentrification can take devastating forms: from cultural alienation to eviction, and violence. In order to prevent these consequences, it is essential to start at Moskowitz’s Stage 0: at local government. What follows are three key lessons from Brooklyn’s history of gentrification, which may be applied to the political and economic landscape of Detroit today.

Practice Fair Zoning

Zoning ordinances are among the most powerful tools that municipalities use to control land use. These rules define whether property can be developed as commercial, industrial, or residential buildings. By setting the terms of development, local governments significantly influence both the physical streetscape and social landscape. In the United States, racial zoning practices have long been used to segregate cities and suburbs, contributing significantly to the urban inequality that we see today.

Zoning-induced gentrification is the most recent version of this legacy. In Brooklyn, some of the most intense gentrification that has taken place has been rooted in rezoning practices. Williamsburg, for instance, once an industrial neighborhood home to immigrants and low-income residents, underwent rezoning in 2005. The plan converted a 175-block area from industrial to residential use and required developers building up to the maximum height to keep at least 20% of the units affordable to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers.[12] However, the threshold defining “low” and “moderate” income in New York has consistently been contested as too high. In 2005, low income was defined as earning up to $50,250 per year for a family of four, and moderate income was defined as $50,250 to $78,000.[13] Yet income has not kept pace with rising average rents in Williamsburg, which increased by 78.7% between 1990 and 2014, adjusted for inflation.[14] The data on the economic and racial makeup of the neighborhood tell a compelling story of displacement. Between 2000 and 2015, Williamsburg saw the greatest percent increase of New Yorkers within the wealthiest tier of income (earning $75,000 or more, annually). It also saw a double-digit decrease in the percentage of Hispanic residents and a significant increase in the percentage of white residents.[15]

While Williamsburg’s rezoning is not solely responsible for the massive gentrification and displacement in the region, it created a housing market that ultimately catered to the wealthy at the expense of existing residents. Detroit urban planners and city officials may learn from the consequences of rezoning in Brooklyn by practicing zoning in a more just and equitable way: through inclusionary zoning to increase the supply of affordable housing, and by right-pricing new units to meet the needs of existing residents.

Although the City of Detroit passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2017, the measure provides limited benefits to the lowest-income Detroiters. The ordinance requires that developers who receive public subsidies must reserve 20% of housing units for people who earn 80% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI). However, because AMI is based on a metropolitan statistical area, the median income is inflated by cities outside of Detroit.[16],[17] Whereas the median household income for the metro area is $56,142, the median income in Detroit is only $28,099.[18],[19] By reserving a limited number of affordable units for people who earn 80% of AMI—which, at $42,900, is significantly higher than the median income level of Detroit residents—the City has enacted a blunt tool, similar to the one that failed in Williamsburg.[20] Future amendments to the ordinance should consider increasing the percentage of affordable units required of developers above 20% and setting income limits reflective of Detroit’s levels. 

Reduce Developer Subsidies

If zoning provides a powerful tool for spurring gentrification, then redevelopment subsidies serve to sharpen it. Both throughout New York City and within Brooklyn specifically, public subsidies for private development have generated vast disparities in the availability of market rate and affordable housing options, resulting in the concentration of wealth in the highest income brackets.

The link between rezoning and subsidies is made clear by New York City’s history of deindustrialization. In the early part of the 1900s, New York was home to a significant number of factories and factory workers. Yet wealthy residents saw an opportunity to profit from land and property designated for industrial use. In 1922, a group of powerful men created the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an organization that developed a plan to rezone substantial portions of industrially-zoned land to residential and commercial purposes. Without land that permitted factories to operate, deindustrialization in New York City took place well before the rest of the country. In effect, rezoning led first to the displacement of industrial jobs and subsequently to the displacement of low-income workers.

The displacement of industrial jobs, in particular, set the stage for employment challenges that devastated the city’s economy by the 1970s. Between 1959 and 1989, New York City lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs, increased employment in the finance, insurance, and real estate industries by 25%, and increased employment in the service sector by 52%.[21] The loss of middle class jobs sent the city into an economic spiral. What saved it was a neoliberal solution from then Mayor Abraham Beame and developer Richard Ravitch: the use of pension funds from the teacher’s union to bail out the city. This moment of near-bankruptcy motivated a critical ideological shift away from social spending, towards subsidies for private development.[22]

In the decades that followed, the city consistently used subsidies to lure developers to invest in real estate across New York—without asking for affordable housing in return. For example, the 421a Program, which began in 1971, was one of the first to provide tax breaks to developers. Although later amendments to the program have made this tax break contingent on meeting affordable housing requirements, generations of developers have seized the opportunity to build luxury housing.[23] In Brooklyn, a study of 61 buildings developed under 421a between 2008 and 2012 found that only 6 percent of 4,395 apartments were rented below market rate. Moreover, all of the units that were rented at the lower rate were concentrated in five buildings.[24]

Gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn further illustrates the danger in providing developer subsidies without incorporating community benefits. In the 1990s, the MetroTech office was built with the goal of attracting financial services jobs. This development not only displaced 250 residents and 750 jobs, it also required the city to invoke eminent domain and cost taxpayers $300 million in subsidies for construction. By 2008, it was clear that few local residents were participating in the economic benefits that developers had promised to bring.[25] Moreover, the overhaul of Downtown Brooklyn has had significant consequences for small business that previously had flourished: a 2008 survey revealed that 57% of small businesses reported being forced to move out or having shut down as a result of new development.[26]

In Detroit, early investors have already started monopolizing the market—in part, by taking advantage of substantial developer subsidies. One key actor is Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans and Bedrock Detroit. Bedrock, Gilbert’s real estate firm, currently owns more than 90 properties in the downtown area, and in 2018, Gilbert was the recipient of the largest tax subsidy ever awarded in Michigan: $618 million to construct four developments.[27] As the city strives to recover from financial crisis, the temptation to provide subsidies in return for investment is intense. Yet to learn from the gentrification of Brooklyn is to resist seeking quick economic wins that have long-term, devastating consequences for community members. Should short-term development of this type continue, the city must pursue community benefits, and ensure that negotiations with developers are made transparent.

Track Displacement

Too often, residents who suffer the consequences of gentrification are unable to reverse its effects by the time that its symptoms unfold. Developments go up; new residents move in; landlords increase the cost of rent—and yet all of these outcomes were preordained by policies rooted in the interests of the wealthy. One way to mitigate this process is by tracking gentrification and displacement more diligently, and to wield this information through community organizing. In Detroit, the first studies of gentrification have focused on qualitative research that provide a nuanced picture of cultural displacement, since residential displacement is in its early stages. As the city garners increased interest from outside investment, citizens may consider tracking the burdens and consequences of development on local residents more systematically, before symptoms of gentrification, like displacement, become widespread.

From Brooklyn to Detroit: A Cautionary Tale

If there’s anything that I have learned from my childhood in Brooklyn, it’s that the only thing constant is change. Yet the shifting urban landscape need not require the displacement of communities. As cities across the United States balance their budgets against dwindling federal support, they must remain committed to policy and planning that serves all residents, and particularly low-income groups.

Detroit may be in the nascent stages of gentrification, but the history of gentrification in Brooklyn reveals that preventing displacement requires early intervention. Through fair zoning, reducing developer subsidies, and data collected through community organizing, Detroit may be able to forge a new path into an equitable urban future.



Jana Pohorelsky is a Master in Public Policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has worked on issues of housing, homelessness, and workforce development from within nonprofits and the public sector in New York City and Detroit.



Photo by Steven Pisano


[1] Kai Wright, There Goes the Neighborhood, podcast audio, March 9, 2016,

[2] “How Ruth Glass shaped the way we approach our cities,” UCL Urban Laboratory, last modified Jan. 13, 2015, accessed Feb. 12, 2019,

[3] Willy Staley, “When ‘Gentrification’ Isn’t About Housing,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2018,

[4] Peter Moskowitz, How To Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality, and The Fight for The Neighborhood (New York: Nation Books, 2017).

[5] Jillian Steinhauer, “The Real Story Behind the Gentrification of Brooklyn,” Hyperallergic, February 1, 2013, accessed February 12, 2019,

[6] Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi, “Gentrification and Displacement New York City in the 1990s,” Journal of the American Planning Association 70, no. 1 (2004).

[7] Kathe Newman and Elvin K. Wyly, “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City,” Urban Studies 43, no. 1 (2006).

[8] Andrew Small, “Mapping the Modern Transformation of New York City,” Citylab, May 5, 2017,

[9] Stephanie Quesnelle, Ayana Rubio, and Noah Urban, Turning the Corner: Final Local Analytical Report—Detroit (Detroit: Data Driven Detroit, 2018).

[10] Abdallah Fayyad, “The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” The Atlantic, Dec. 20, 2017,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Diane Cardwell, “City Is Backing Makeover for Decaying Brooklyn Waterfront,” New York Times, May 3, 2005,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ivan Pereira, “Williamsburg leads NYC in gentrification, report says,” AM New York, May 11, 2016,

[15] Small, “Mapping the Modern Transformation of New York City.”

[16] Tyler Scott, “Detroit City Council passes affordable housing ordinance to fight gentrification,” Michigan Radio, Sept. 19, 2017,

[17] “Inclusionary Housing Requirements,” Detroit City Council, Sept. 19, 2017, accessed Feb. 15, 2019,

[18] “Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI Metro Area,” Data USA, accessed Feb. 15, 2019,

[19] “Detroit, MI,” Data USA, accessed Feb. 15, 2019,

[20] Scott, “Detroit City Council passes affordable housing ordinance.”

[21] Moskowitz, How to Kill a City.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “421-a tax exemption,” Wikipedia, accessed Feb. 15, 2019,

[24] “How Your Tax Dollars Are Wasted To Build Luxury Apartments,” Gothamist, March 18, 2015, accessed Feb. 15, 2019,

[25] Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) and the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, Out of Business: The Crisis of Small Businesses in Rezoned Downtown Brooklyn (New York, 2008).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Louis Aguilar, “Gilbert seals $618M tax incentive package for 4 Detroit projects,” The Detroit News, May 22, 2018,