“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

Photo via Flickr user Roberto Zingales (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.” 

Study Methods and Implications

The research is part of the Healthy Neighborhoods Study (HNS), the nation’s largest community-based participatory action research study focused on the health impacts of neighborhood change. A goal of the study is to support organizing, advocacy, and planning for healthy and equitable community development and prevent displacement. HNS includes a network of more than 50 people, including academic researchers, Resident Researchers, grassroots community organizations, regional planning agencies, and advocacy groups that represent nine communities across Eastern Mass: Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Brockton, Fall River, New Bedford, and the boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

As a Participatory Action Research Project, residents trained as researchers ask questions, collect and analyze data, and take action. Knowing that their neighbors are being displaced further and further from their communities, resident researchers sought data to understand moving patterns, better support displaced residents, and advocate for change. 

The study shows the power of combining quantitative “big data” with the experiences, insights, and analysis of residents — in short, those most affected by policy, planning, and development decisions. The Moving Mapper study importantly addresses critiques about biases and racism in Big Data by having the residents lead data analysis decisions.

Based on residents’ experiences with displacement and neighborhood changes, the study’s academic and Resident Researchers looked at moves to and from Boston-area neighborhoods between 2009 and 2019 using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax Data.

“Big data not only can help answer research questions, like recent residential mobility patterns, that previous research could not, but can also illuminate a multitude of economic and social issues,” said Erin Graves, Senior Policy Advisor and Analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “With the help of the Boston Fed, the authors used a vital method, participatory action research, to help make connections between the data set and lived experiences of households to understand patterns of social and economic inclusion. This type of research is essential to the Boston Fed’s work to understand the communities we serve in the First District.”


About the Healthy Neighborhoods Study

We believe that the people most impacted by neighborhood changes caused by displacement, gentrification, inequity, environmental injustice, climate change, and now COVID as well, have unique insights and are best equipped to understand the problem and define solutions. That’s why the Healthy Neighborhoods Study is being done in partnership between planners, advocates, academic researchers, community-based organization leaders, and 50 resident researchers in nine communities leading work on the frontlines for environmental justice, housing justice, equitable development, and community health. The research network includes the Conservation Law Foundation, the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and nearly 1,000 residents in the Greater Boston region collecting on-the-ground data to determine what matters most for health in their communities.  

The Healthy Neighborhoods Study is led by Dr. Mariana Arcaya, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Health (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Vedette R. Gavin (Conservation Law Foundation) and supported with funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Moving Mapper analysis was led by Dr. Madeleine Daepp (formerly Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now at Microsoft Research).

Community-Based Partners

Massasoit Community College


Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation

Everett Community Health Partnership/Joint Committee for Children’s Health Care in Everett

Greater Fall River Partners for Healthier Community

Lynn United for Change Empowerment Project

Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition

Southcoast YMCA

Alternatives for Community and Environment

Research Partners

Conservation Law Foundation

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston