Next City

Gentrification: A History

The history of gentrification in America starts in the 1960s, when the term was coined.

Over the next five and a half decades, communities have wielded varying tools and strategies in response to gentrification’s challenges. We think it’s worth a fresh look at the ideas that animate this conversation.

Follow the origin of gentrification and its evolution in the United States, from 1964 when Ruth Glass coined the term, all the way through to 2018 and the creation of Opportunity Zones.


The term “gentrification” is coined by Ruth Glass.

Ruth Glass

“One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class – upper and lower … Once 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.”


In February 1970, after more than a decade of resisting efforts by Robert Moses to destroy their Lower East Side homes, residents convinced the city to adopt their plan to preserve their buildings, many of which become part of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.

Robert Caro publishes The Power Broker, a 1,200-page critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal projects in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Power Broker by Robert Caro

November 1976

The murder of a Harvard student in Boston’s “Combat Zone” — the city’s experiment with confining vice to a single neighborhood — sparks a police crackdown in the red-light district.


The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit is passed into law allowing developers to apply for a tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of a building’s rehab. (Just three years later, Congress increased the max to 25 percent.) The program makes renovating old industrial buildings attractive to developers. States follow suit with similar programs. Factory conversions take off like never before.

In 2000, Congress creates the New Markets Tax Credit program, which incentivizes development in distressed census tracts. Eventually, the two tax credit programs grow to leverage tens of billions of dollars a year for economic revitalization and housing projects, which often utilize space in former factory buildings.

March 1982

An article titled “Broken Windows” appears in The Atlantic Monthly, detailing the crime-prevention tactics that would come to underpin the policing strategies of many U.S. cities a decade later.

In December 2017, the same magazine publishes another story detailing how those crime prevention tactics often began showing up shortly before or after a neighborhood’s demographics shifted in ways that reflected gentrification.


Pittsburgh officials and philanthropists establish the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which establishes a cultural district in the city’s ailing downtown and invests heavily there. The success of the district prompts hundreds of other cities to create their own cultural districts, offering tax credits and other incentives to spur development.


California passes the Ellis Act, which provides landlords a way of changing their rent-controlled apartments to market rate. Today, critics cite the act as a driving force behind mass evictions in gentrifying San Francisco.

Nearly 20 years later, San Francisco created the Small Sites Program, in 2014. For tenants facing imminent eviction from qualified buildings, the program provides low-interest loans for nonprofit affordable housing developers to acquire the buildings at market price from the previous landlord, allowing tenants to stay in place. By 2018, the program has helped save tenants in nearly 200 rental housing units across more than 25 buildings. Many of these buildings are in and around the Mission District, considered an epicenter of the city’s gentrification.


The LAPD begins arresting homeless people on “anti-camping” charges on Skid Row, an area of the city that is now, against all odds, beginning to attract middle-class condo shoppers.

The city now has plans to redevelop the entire area, prompting activists in the summer of 2018 to call for an inclusionary growth plan.


Under the influence of real estate industry lobbyists, New York State legislators pass into law several loopholes, including one that allows NYC landlords to flip rent-stabilized apartments into market-rate apartments by gradually increasing the rent each time a tenant moves out until the rent hits a certain threshold, upon which the apartment loses rent-stabilized status. Because of this, over the next 15 years, NYC loses more than 152,000 rent-stabilized apartments.


Starbucks opens its first location in Manhattan. Now, there are 240 Starbucks in the borough. Mapping data analyst Aleksey Bilogur calculated that from any random point in Manhattan, a Starbucks will be on average 1,350 feet away.



For the first time, a Manhattan apartment sells for more than $2,000 per square foot. (Today's average is $1,773).


Richard Florida publishes The Rise of The Creative Class, selling governments across the world on the notion that distressed inner-cities can be revived by an influx of cafe-going creative professionals.

In 2017, Florida publishes The New Urban Crisis; he details how cities are facing increased inequality and deeper segregation, and recognizes some of the challenges overlooked in his earlier book.

Richard Florida
Construction in Williamsburg


In a study of Brooklyn Heights, Loretta Lees coins the term “super-gentrification,” which she defines as “intensified regentrification in a few select areas of global cities like London and New York that have become the focus of intense investment and conspicuous consumption by a new generation of super-rich ‘financiers.’”

Over the next decade, NYC city planners rezone large swaths of the city, adding density in mostly working-class communities of color while limiting density in many already wealthy white communities of the city. This leads to a pattern of tenant harassment and displacement in working-class communities of color to make way for large-scale luxury development.

Hurricane Katrina


Hurricane Katrina floods New Orleans, a pivotal event that drives many of the city’s poorest residents out, some of them permanently. Since the storm, New Orleans has become both richer and whiter.

In an effort to preserve the diverse racial and economic population in which the city’s culture is rooted, New Orleans has explored an inclusionary zoning plan to require affordable housing in unsubsidized developments located in desirable neighborhoods that are close to jobs and amenities. As has happened in multiple states, state legislators have repeatedly threatened to preempt any such plan.

February 2011

After half a century, Washington, D.C. loses its black majority, a milestone many take as a sign of the city’s gentrification.

By 2018, large swaths of the city are unrecognizable from just a few years prior, with newer and larger developments popping up along various corridors. Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, are some of the last areas yet to experience gentrification. But many feel it will arrive soon, thanks in part to several large development projects in those areas.

January 2012

Tony Hsieh launches the Downtown Project, a grand plan to transform seedy downtown Las Vegas into an urban tech hub. Nearly five years into the project, results have been mixed, CNBC reported in 2016. Critics pointed to a less-than-robust tech scene, layoffs and shuttered businesses as major stumbling blocks, while others applauded the community's transformation. Hsieh acknowledges that in hindsight, he would have done some things differently.

Tony Hsieh


Philadelphia launches the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP), a real-estate tax break for longtime residents to protect them from rising property taxes. The policy is closely watched as a replicable remedy for gentrifying cities trying to reduce displacement of working- and lower-middle-class residents. As originally passed, LOOP limited the tax break for residents to ten years, but in 2018, Philadelphia City Council amended the program to eliminate the ten-year limit, making the tax break permanent for eligible homeowners. The next challenge: marketing and outreach for the program, which only reaches a fraction of those eligible.

Milshire Hotel

November 2014

Chicago passes an ordinance meant to stop SRO owners from turning the dingy single-room dwellings into “vintage” $1,250-a-month micro-units marketed to young professionals. Despite the policy, it’s likely that the SROs will continue to go the way of the loft. Young renters “want the grit that they’re seeing in Brooklyn and Harlem,” one developer told the Washington Post.



Sociologist Matthew Desmond publishes Evicted, documenting the interconnected lives of landlords and tenants and the new reality of living under the constant threat of eviction. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out,” he writes. The book sparks a nationwide conversation about housing and tenant rights.

AMI Cheat Sheet

March 2016

After a highly-contentious debate, New York City passes its first mandatory inclusionary housing ordinance, offering private developers the chance to build taller, denser buildings than current zoning allows, in exchange for setting aside a percentage of units in those buildings as permanently affordable. The debate revolves largely around whether the affordability levels set by the policy are affordable enough to meet the needs of the city’s most vulnerable rent-burdened households. Some also question the need to allow more market-rate development in exchange for affordable housing.

The city doesn’t help itself by also announcing 15 mostly working-class communities of color to be the first to get rezoned under the new mandatory inclusionary housing policy, hearkening back to the New York City’s prior era of “slum clearance” under Robert Moses, destroying neighborhoods of color wholesale to make way for other development.

Atlanta Beltline

September 2016

Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who proposed the Atlanta BeltLine concept, and Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, resign from the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the private-sector organization responsible for fundraising, advocacy, and affordability for the landmark rails-to-trails park.

In a letter announcing their resignation, Gravel and Smith said the original vision was one of inclusivity, and that the Partnership’s role should be to ensure people of all income levels can continue to live on all parts of the 22-mile corridor. But, they wrote, “while there have been success stories that we can be proud of, our coalition’s progress has not been commensurate with the scale of the challenges at hand.”

CASA Bronx


After an extended tenant campaign for the right to counsel in housing court, New York City passes legislation to fund universal access to legal counsel in housing court for qualified tenants, based on income. Other cities explore similar measures.

Homeless in Seattle


The Seattle City Council passes landmark legislation to tax large corporations, to raise revenues dedicated to addressing the housing and homelessness crisis in the city. A month later, after opposition from business groups, the city repeals the bill. San Francisco will have the chance in November 2018 to vote on a similar measure for their city.

Meanwhile, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduces a bill in the U.S. Senate to provide a renter tax credit for qualified families, praised by many low-income housing activists as providing badly needed relief for a nation where housing costs have been rising faster than incomes for years.


In the 2017 tax reform bill, Congress created the Opportunity Zones tax incentive for investors. Billions of dollars worth of investment in low-income areas are already being planned under the new policy, which has no annual statutory limit, unlike the tax credit programs. Transparency and accountability for benefits to low-income communities are a major concern.

For all the attention paid to gentrification, the process has not lifted the urban poor out of poverty and has only lessened the concentration of poverty in a select very few urban neighborhoods. Since 1970, the number of poor persons living in urban high-poverty neighborhoods has doubled to four million, and the number of such neighborhoods has nearly tripled to more than 3,000.

Read more at Next City about how urban policy is tackling the challenge of gentrification, ensuring that changing cities don’t leave out or leave behind low-income communities or people of color.