Gentrification by the Numbers

What’s Happening and How to Help

by Tom King

Artists’ Theater of Boston developed This Place/Displaced to raise awareness of and create action surrounding gentrification, displacement, and related systemic injustices facing Boston-area communities.

Housing in Boston

How many hours would you have to work each week to afford to live in Massachusetts? 

If you earn MA minimum wage (currently $11.00/hr):

  • You’d have to work 84 hours each week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.
  • You’d have to work 104 hours/week to afford a twobedroom apartment.
  • Put differently, you’d have to earn $28.64/hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment working an average work week in Massachusetts.

And then there’s Boston. . .

“A household needs to earn an estimated $120,900 annually to comfortably afford a median-priced, 2- bedroom apartment in Boston.” ϕ

That’s the sixth highest housing wage in the country.

Rent increases outpacing income growth nationwide

  • “Adjusting for inflation, the median rent payment rose 61 percent between 1960 and 2016 [nationwide] while the median renter income grew only 5 percent.”
  • “The national median rent rose 20 percent faster than overall inflation between 1990 and 2016 and the median home price rose 41 percent faster.”

Our cities are experiencing a public health crisis because of the increase in evictions and displacement.
– Karen Narefsky

Income inequality increases; affordable housing decreases

  • “The number of low income families increased by 6 million nationally since 1988, while the number of affordable apartments declined by 2.5 million.” §
  • “While federal housing assistance lifted 4 million people, including 1.5 million children, out of poverty in 2012, currently just one out of every four families in need of housing assistance in America receives it. Those without assistance have to make impossible choices between paying for rent, food, healthcare, and other basic necessities, and are at a high risk of eviction and homelessness.” §

Housing crises become health crises

  • “Although a resident displaced from a particular neighborhood by new development might be able to move to a different, more affordable neighborhood, they will lose access to jobs, social support networks, and public transportation, among other things.” ϐ
  • “Evictions can lead to many health problems. According to a nationally representative study published by Harvard and Rice University researchers, evicted mothers are more likely to have depression and report worse health for themselves and their children. Disruptive life events like eviction and homelessness at a young age may have lifelong health impacts for developing children.” ϕ
  • “Evidence shows that access to stable, affordable housing in communities of opportunity has broad, positive impacts. It can lead to better health and education outcomes and higher lifetime earnings, especially for children.”

The Role of the Arts

The very folks whom artists, creative thinkers, and change agents want to engage can be displaced by the success of creative investments in their communities, particularly as predominantly white artmakers and consumers open creative spaces in communities historically marginalized by race, ethnicity, or class. What, then, should be the role of the arts and creativity in supporting just communities?

All individuals and communities have a right to cultural heritage, artistic expression, and beauty. What Malo Andre Hutson has called “creative, place-based community development strategies” can help existing residents and communities build resilience, make and maintain a sense of place, and preserve local knowledge and cultural memory.  This works best, as Dee Schneidman, Program Director, Research & Creative Economy at the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), has documented, when creative workers and change agents share a sense of place and engage community stakeholders—civic leaders, schools and other anchor institutions, local businesses, and residents—from the ground up.  Sharing and performing stories can create conversations between new and existing residents. Creators can work with community members on strategies of self-determination and self representation; create green spaces and spaces for reflection; and provide access to the arts and arts education. As Joe Kriesberg has observed, “[Community Development Corporations] and others are increasingly using the arts and creative place-making (and place-keeping) to claim (and retain) their communities’ historic and cultural narratives.”  Artists and creators can thus facilitate the process of“work[ing] with local community groups to help ensure that low- and moderate income residents can benefit from the expanded economic, educational, and social opportunities present in gentrifying neighborhoods,” argues Ingrid Gould Ellen.  The arts, in short, are a key component of “sustainable healthy communities”— economically strong, environmentally clean, and socially just communities[.]” 

Strategies for Activism

Insist that developers sign legally binding Community Benefits Agreements to ensure that existing residents have a voice in the process and benefit from development.

Support higher, fair, living wages so that folks can afford to live in or near the communities in which they work. Income disparity is a driver of displacement.

Join grassroots resistance movements:

  • Join protests and eviction blockades sponsored by community advocacy organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana (see “Ways to get involved,” next page).
  • Fight for equal access to educational opportunities.
  • Fight environmental racism.
  • Fight racial injustice and racially driven mass incarceration.

Advocate for governmental and community interventions in the so-called free market and market orthodoxy, through:

  • Creating more (and preserving existing) affordable housing, especially public housing outside the market;
  • Giving preference for affordable housing to existing residents;
  • Regulating rents, limiting annual rent increases and guaranteeing fair, rather than market level, rents (driven up by speculators);
  • Restricting conversion of rentals to condos;
  • Creating more inclusive zoning;
  • Building community land trusts, governed by the neighborhood, creating and preserving the supply of affordable housing into perpetuity. Under such agreements, land can only be sold for affordable housing (rather than speculative investment). Community land trusts take housing out of market speculation, which drives up prices.

Advocate for just cause eviction and right-to-purchase legislation, protecting tenants when speculators buy buildings and prohibiting owners from using no-fault eviction notices to move out existing renters.

Encourage your city to refuse tax breaks for wealthy companies moving into your area. Ask your city to require highly profitable tech companies (from biotech to Amazon) and anchor institutions (such as nonprofit hospitals and universities) to support and invest in the cities and communities in which they are located.

Raise up the bottom rather than try to trickle down from the top.
Richard Sennett


⟊ The National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach 2018: Massachusetts,” online (

§ The National Low Income Housing Coalition, press release, 19 June 2018, online ( 

∮ Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2018, online ( 

ϐ Karen Narefsky, “What’s in my Backyard?,” Jacobin 8 August 2017.

ϕ Lara Jirmanus, “Commentary. Doctor: Boston Evictions Tantamount to a Public Health Crisis,” WBUR online, 16 March 2017. 

❥ Malo Andre Hutson, “A Shared Future: We Live Here Too: Incorporating Residents’ Voices in Mitigating the Negative Effects of Gentrication,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 16 May 2018, online (

❖ Joe Kriesberg, “Strategies for Responding to Gentrification,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 4 June 2018, online (

☩ Dee Schneidman, “Creative Communities Exchange (CCX): Learning from New England Creative Economy Initiatives,” New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), June 2016, online ( 

⚘ Ingrid Gould Ellen, “A Shared Future: Can Gentrification Be Inclusive?,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 16 May 2018, online (


Tom King is delighted to work with ATB again, after directing DETSILY? and co-directing Much Ado about Nothing. Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University, King (Ph.D., Theatre and Drama, Northwestern University) has also helped create interdisciplinary undergraduate programs in Sexuality and Queer Studies and Creativity, Arts, and Social Transformation. Prior to his teaching career at Brandeis, he worked as an A.E.A. stage manager in Chicago (Remains Theatre, Wisdom Bridge Theatre).
Join us for our two remaining performances of This Place/Displaced on August 24 and 25 at 8pm!

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