What We’re Learning

HNS is making valuable contributions to what we know about how gentrification, climate change, and health relate to each other. We’re identifying new connections, pathways, and measures that show how, from the perspective of residents and front-line advocates, these types of neighborhood changes impact health, well-being, and quality of life in communities.

We ask and answer the questions that will provide neighborhood residents, advocates, and academics alike with usable information. Together, we use this to take action toward healthy, equitable, and just community planning and development.

Moving Mapper

The Moving Mapper

“Invisible Train” of Gentrification and Displacement Forcing People Further From Their Neighborhoods

New study and online mapping tool can help local leaders understand regional moving trends across Greater Boston

Residents of many Greater Boston communities are being forced out of their neighborhoods and into homes much further away from the city center as investment in new development booms and housing costs continue to skyrocket. This pattern isn’t new, but these moves aren’t tracked across city lines, so regional solutions are often limited.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association uses resident-driven analysis and Consumer Credit data to provide a snapshot of statewide moving patterns and an online mapping tool to illustrate how this trend is playing out in the real world, giving community leaders and planners a much clearer picture of where people are going.

The research was completed as part of the Healthy Neighborhoods Study (HNS). Researchers used credit scores and credit risk, indicators of socioeconomic status, to analyze moving trends. The team found that when residents with lower credit scores and lower access to credit move from Boston-area neighborhoods, they go to a more limited geographic set of new areas when compared to more advantaged residents. These results align with community concerns that economically disadvantaged people are being forced to move further from the inner core and have little choice in where they are relocating to. 

“This research confirms what many people in my community have been saying for years,” said Ronel Remy, Community Organizer for City Life, Vida Urbana; and former Brockton Site Coordinator for the Healthy Neighborhoods Study. “People are being pushed out along an invisible train track farther and farther away from Boston. And that was planned. Someone made that decision for our communities years ago.”

A key product of the study is the Moving Mapper, a web-based tool based on consumer credit data that enables users to examine moving patterns within and between communities across the state. Researchers developed maps with insights on moves, as well as guidance on how to use the tool for those looking to dig deeper. Typically, development decisions are made at the city level, and this tool allows people to examine this phenomenon at a regional scale, since people are being forced into new places across the region.

“Looking at trends from both angles helped contextualize and center the experiences and insights of residents which are often seen as anecdotal pieces of this puzzle – seniors moving out of one neighborhood, for example, or an immigrant community moving into another,” said Andrew Binet, PhD candidate at MIT and paper co-author. “By combining different types of knowledge and expertise, we were able to both substantiate what community-based researchers were seeing and experiencing in their communities and attain a deeper understanding of the phenomena.”

The findings will help community-based organizations, local advocates and planners understand the regional implications of skyrocketing housing costs and the moves people are forced to make as a result. It also illustrates that this is a regional problem that will require a regional solution. Seeing where people go when they move will help researchers and policymakers identify places where there is a strong need to better support the challenges many households in the Boston region are facing.

“We know that where people live affects their health, but people live in multiple places over the course of their lives,” said study co-author Madeleine Daepp of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Taking a regional perspective can help us understand and begin to address housing costs and other factors that, through residential moves, spill across existing jurisdictional boundaries, and to create more opportunities for stability for neighborhoods in the metro Boston area.”

As an example of how the data can be used, Kathleen O’Brien, an Everett resident and HNS Site Coordinator, observed that Moving Mapper results showed the close connection that Everettt and Chelsea have, with both advantaged and disadvantaged residents moving between the two at high rates. It also solidified anecdotal stories of residents moving out of Somerville to Everett as gentrification intensified over the past two decades. “It’s helpful to have these data laid out visually, so that when community groups from Everett and Chelsea work on anti-displacement measures, we have the evidence and tools to show what we have always heard from our residents.”

“We aren’t just seeing moves. We’re seeing forced moves that are caused by social and economic forces which create ripple effects in communities,” said Reann Gibson, Senior Research Fellow at Conservation Law Foundation and manager of the Healthy Neighborhoods Study. “It’s so important to listen to residents to deepen our understanding of their lived experiences, to identify the data that best captures those experiences, and to interpret the findings in a way that truly demonstrates the impact of displacement on health and wellbeing. We must now use this data to enact real change in these neighborhoods.”

Financial Security

‘It feels like money’s just flying out the window’

Gentrification is something you feel in your body

Boston is one of the country’s most expensive housing markets, which has ripple effects on communities like Chelsea, Lynn, and New Bedford. Luxury condos arise where supermarkets might be needed, and fancy coffee shops displace mom and pop stores.

“Gentrification doesn’t just happen around you,” says Gail Rodrigues. “It’s something you feel in your body.”

Rodrigues is the coordinator of community health and wellness at the Southcoast YMCA (New Bedford) and a Site Coordinator with the Healthy Neighborhoods Study (HNS). Her observation ties together the two hypotheses recently tested by the HNS:

  1. Financial security is a pathway through which gentrification affects health
  2. Stress is a pathway through which gentrification affects health

Together with Andrew Binet, a post-doc at MIT’s DUSP, and others in the Healthy Neighborhoods Study Consortium, Rodrigues presented the findings (which were also published in Cities and Health) to a HNS’s 30+ Resident Researchers. Residents Researchers are community organizers, activists, and leaders in nine gentrifying Eastern MA neighborhoods who have actively helped shaped HNS research and can immediately apply it in their community work.

While it’s easy to imagine that the greatest harm of gentrification is when long-time residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods by rising rents and real estate prices, this research looked more deeply at the impacts of gentrification on individuals and communities by focusing on financial security and stress – and their relationships to health.

150 individuals living in HNS neighborhoods were interviewed, and the analysis focused on 40 who were most financially vulnerable. That could mean they had a household income below $30,000; or they found it “somewhat hard” or “very hard” to cover monthly bills; or they were unemployed.

Interviewees, asked about their experience living in a gentrifying neighborhood, what financial pressures they faced, and the role of stress in their lives… “overwhelmingly reported that the physical, social and economic changes happening in their neighborhoods exposed them to financial risks.” They identified those risks as unaffordable housing, economic inequality, a rising cost of living, and difficulty in saving.

The health effects of gentrification can be very direct, said the respondents, citing the scarcity and unaffordability of nutritious food, the exhaustion brought on by having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, the lack of time for exercise or other forms of self-care.

But often respondents described a more winding path to poor health: gentrification leads to financial problems, which results in stress, which produces ill health.

One respondent described the impact of financial pressure this way: “It just doesn’t leave us with the mental capacity to take care of ourselves and notice, ‘Hey, I’m not doing so well.’” A respondent from Chelsea said “I’m always stressed. Stressed so much…which kind of carries on into my ability to seek help, and stuff like that.” Another reported “At one point, I got really stressed out, and I couldn’t eat, and I was a mess.”

While gentrification increases financial stressors, it simultaneously eats away at the buffers that typically allow individuals and communities to cope with stress and hard times, namely jobs, social cohesion, and collective efficacy.

Buffers are extremely important and tend to be collective rather than individual: a sense of identity and belonging; churches; neighborhood associations; and family and friend relationships. A woman in Roxbury said, “One big barrier we have in our community is social cohesion…because of economics, money…It’s sad because things are so expensive and money is short. And people can become isolated and they don’t want to come out.”

The lack of social cohesion can make it hard or impossible for communities to fight gentrification or mitigate its harms.

Rodrigues suggested in her presentation that communities can regain a sense of control over the changes happening in their neighborhoods by urging policymakers to invest in buffers such as rent control, affordable housing, social and cultural institutions, and well-paying jobs. “It’s the collective that suffers, not just the individual,” she said. And the solutions will also be collective.

Ownership of Change

Ownership of change

Ownership of Change: Implications for Neighborhoods and Health Equity

You’re walking down the street and you notice a new housing development in your neighborhood. It has a gym – for residents – and a dog park and a fancy coffee shop. You take a look at the condo prices. You may love your morning caffeine, but this building feels – not right. It feels like it was meant for some other neighborhood – one where people are used to paying top dollar for a one-bedroom condo. You go about your day a little disconcerted. Who brought this building here? Who is it for? And what’s next? In our communities this is far too familiar.

While past academic research includes measures of how much control people feel that they have in life and, separately, ways to study neighborhood characteristics, no measure had yet existed for measuring the experience of empowerment over neighborhood change processes specifically. Residents knew that ownership of change was a necessary component of urban development that supports community health but needed more evidence to be heard. As researcher Andrew Binet of MIT put it, “Naming it is the first step in moving the needle.”

The Healthy Neighborhoods Study’s (HNS) latest research findings, published in the September 2022 issue of Social Science and Medicine, connects this unease with the decision-making power and health of residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Researchers created a tool for measuring and scoring what researchers have named “ownership of change.” Ownership of change: Participatory development of a novel latent construct for neighborhoods and health equity research, emerged as the result of workshops in which HNS Resident Researchers, like Celinet Sanchez of Lynn, described experiencing disconnection and alienation caused by some types of neighborhood changes, and hypothesized that experiencing such feelings could be associated with health.

The next step was to develop a tool that could measure ownership of change and compare it with measures of health and well-being already documented in HNS communities through our survey tool. Working with academics, resident researchers identified and refined four questions to ask respondents:  whether they: 1) notice changes, 2) feel like these changes are “for them,” 3) feel like the average person in their community has a voice in these changes, and 4) are personally involved. Changes could be in any of seven domains, including housing, commerce, public spaces, jobs, parks, transportation, and policing. These dimensions reflect Resident Researchers’ lived experience of changes underway in their neighborhoods.

Taking answers from the HNS survey on well-being and using qualitative data from in-depth interviews, researchers found that people who report having higher levels of ownership of change are more likely to also have higher levels of physical health, mental health, and happiness than people who report having lower levels of ownership of change.

Celinet Sanchez is a Resident Researcher originally from the Dominican Republic. She has experienced gentrification both in her childhood home of Washington Heights in Manhattan, and in her adult home of Lynn, Massachusetts, where she works on housing for disenfranchised people, especially non-English speakers. With other researchers, she helped develop the research and survey questions, conduct the surveys, score the measure, and make meaning of the data.

Sanchez describes rapid changes in downtown Lynn, including high-priced condos, specialty shops, and cosmetic changes that don’t speak to her culture or offer things that long-term residents can afford. Neighbors say to her, “I don’t see myself purchasing products from these places. I don’t see myself purchasing a condo.” When she asks them, “Do you see yourself in this community in 5 years?” many say no, expressing that in five years, Lynn may no longer be a place “for them.”

Residents have learned from other gentrifying communities’ experiences that changes as big as a condo development or as small as a little free library mean something. They are signals, of sorts, about who changes are for.

Co-Principal investigator Mariana Arcaya says that experience and related feelings of exclusion is exactly what this research establishes as a “real thing” with inequitable health impacts. The HNS team created a theory of how people experience ownership of change that helps explain how these inequalities can be produced. “Most importantly, the theory shows structural racism, particularly anti-Black racism, affects neighborhood conditions, people’s individual circumstances, and the way people understand changes in their neighborhoods based on history,” she says Resident Researchers really wanted to show that people have learned from past experiences of not being considered, and that history helps residents make meaning out of the changes they see. Too often, the history has been that Black and other communities of color lose out while people with money make more money.

When people see changes, they assess how well the changes align with the neighborhood’s needs, what information they have, and how much power they feel over the changes.  Arcaya points to “decades of research showing that experiences of belonging and being valued and included versus those experiences that leave people feeling powerless over things happening to them, stressed, and excluded have important impacts on our  psychological states and  physical bodies.”  In conceptualizing and naming ownership of change, HNS has uncovered that it is not just what changes in a neighborhood that matters for health, but how these changes occur and who has control over them.

When we think about the relationship between health and place, we must think about power and how to redistribute it. To feel ownership, communities need to know how the changes they see will benefit them and feel confident that these benefits will be real and aligned with the community’s priorities. 

So how can this new tool be applied to increase equity and health? Advocates can now measure ownership of change to evaluate the impacts of neighborhood development and to work for health-promoting policies, programs and processes that increase ownership of change. Researchers aspire to enable explicit conversations about how and why structural racism shapes ownership of change. In the end, histories of exclusion must be repaired to increase levels of ownership of change.