Interview w/ H. Jacob Carlson – 2020 Graduate Student Paper Award Winner

2021 Winter, Vol. 34, No.1 

H. Jacob Carlson, a postdoctoral scholar at the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University, was the winner of the 2020 Graduate Student Paper Award. Jake’s innovative research agenda leverages the urban and political sociological traditions to address new questions about democracy, housing, and changing cities. We reached out to ask him to discuss his research, and we’re including his responses below. Thanks to Jake for participating in our interview series!

What were the main findings of your paper?

The paper “Measuring Displacement” tested three common ways that we measure “displacement” to see how well they line up with each other. Displacement implies two criteria: that someone moved, and that the move was in some way “involuntary.” Not all displacement studies capture both of those aspects, and I show that depending on our measurement choices, the amount of displacement across neighborhoods can vary quite widely.

I go on to show that our measurement choices can also mask sociologically important processes. In particular, I discuss the limitations of commonly used cross-sectional neighborhood data that don’t trace individual mobility patterns. I show that people are simultaneously displaced out of neighborhoods as well as displaced into them. I also find that in some cases households are displaced from their home, but not their neighborhood. Those households find some way to stay close to their existing community and social ties, though likely under precarious circumstances. In both instances, we will need future research on the conditions under which people manage to move into and within gentrifying neighborhoods.

What motivated you to study this particular research topic?

I’ve been obsessed with this puzzle in the gentrification research: that quantitative studies consistently show that gentrification is not associated with increased displacement. It has always seemed strange to me, given my own experience living in a gentrifying neighborhood, as my prior experience as a community organizer. Everyone has stories of landlords trying to push out tenants through rent increases, harassment, or eviction. So why wasn’t much of the quantitative research finding this?

That led me to explore different ways that our methodological choices might be masking different aspects of the gentrification process. This paper took on one piece of that, which is how we measure the dependent variable, displacement.

What theoretical debates or methodological challenges interest you the most, and how do you see your research contributing to them?

I’m interested in the tradeoffs of our methodological choices. Perfect data doesn’t exist, and the “better” data is often inaccessible (especially for poor graduate students). There will always be limitations, but we should be clear about what our data is actually measuring, and how well it corresponds with what we want to measure for our research questions.

This paper shows that when we measure who moves, without asking why they move, we’re missing a big part of the story. Displaced people move under fundamentally different situations than other types of movers. There are interesting issues with both of them, but we should be clear what we’re actually looking at.

Relatedly, I’m also interested in effect heterogeneity. Why do people in similar situations respond differently? When a precarious household in a gentrifying neighborhood is presented with another rent increase, do they leave the neighborhood entirely? Try to find a cheaper place in the same neighborhood? Or do they hunker down and further stretch their budgets? What conditions predict those different outcomes? Future research is looking at whether gentrification induces displacement pressures more in some cities than others.

What impact do you hope that your findings will have?

I hope it provides an empirical and theoretical contribution gentrification-displacement debates. I hope it also expands our understanding of who is affected by displacement, and what happens to people after displacement occurs.

What are some future directions for this project?

While this study is only for New York City, I want to expand the analysis to include moves to the suburbs, which is a big part of the story. I’m interested in more qualitative work on the conditions under which people attempt to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods. I also want to do a similar project with how we measure gentrification. I’m also looking at how the legacy of segregation across different cities affects gentrification and displacement patterns. Relatedly, I’m going to be working on some collaborative research on how to help reduce the negative effects of gentrification through various “social housing” projects that have been gaining traction in the US and around the world.

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