Public Policy Forum Blog

Gentrification in Milwaukee?

Gentrification. The very term stirs strong emotional responses in many people, particularly in cities with neighborhoods that have undergone dramatic transformations. But what exactly is it, and should we be concerned or encouraged by the level of gentrification taking place in Milwaukee neighborhoods?

The latest issue of Governing magazine tackles the subject of gentrification in America’s 50 largest cities, including Milwaukee. The analysis offers a definition of the phenomenon, examines where it is occurring (and not occurring) at the Census tract level, and considers its impacts on individual neighborhoods and residents.

While a universally agreed-upon definition of gentrification may not exist, Governing defines it as lower-income areas where both incomes and home values are increasing at a relatively fast rate. Specifically, they define a Census tract as gentrifying if its median household income and median home value were in the bottom 40th percentile of all tracts within their metro area in 2000, and since that time have been in the top third percentile for growth in both median home values and percentage of adults with bachelors’ degrees.

Based on this analysis, 16 of the 132 lower-income Census tracts in Milwaukee have gentrified since 2000, including seven tracts located primarily within the adjacent neighborhoods of Riverwest and Harambee, and three tracts in Bayview. The remaining six are scattered in other city neighborhoods.

According to the analysis, gentrification is occurring in a significantly smaller percentage of Milwaukee’s lower-income neighborhoods than average among the 50 largest U.S. cities. While 12.1% of lower-income Census tracts in Milwaukee have gentrified since 2000, almost 20% of lower-income tracts within the 50 largest U.S. cities gentrified during the same period. In four U.S. cities (Portland, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and Seattle), at least 50% of lower-income tracts have gentrified, illustrating the tremendous change that has occurred in those metro areas.

Most people would argue that some amount of upward movement in incomes and home values is a positive sign for lower-income neighborhoods. It can mean neighborhood residents themselves are producing the positive change and/or that a struggling neighborhood is becoming more stable. That change becomes concerning, however, when it leads to displacement of neighborhood residents who would have preferred to continue living where they were. While it’s difficult to say whether displacement is occurring in Milwaukee’s gentrifying neighborhoods, it appears to be less of an issue here than in a majority of other large U.S. cities. 

Joe Peterangelo