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date: 23 March 2018

Population Changes at Place: Immigration, Gentrification, and Crime

Summary and Keywords

Immigration and gentrification are two sources of population change that occur in geographic communities. Immigration refers to the inflow of foreign-born residents, while gentrification involves middle- and upper-income residents moving into poor urban communities. Scholars have speculated that both types of population change may be related to crime rates. The nature of those relationships, however, is debated. Classic criminological perspectives, such as Social Disorganization Theory, suggest that these population changes are likely to result in increased crime rates. More recent perspectives proffer an opposing viewpoint: that immigration and gentrification may lower crime rates. Some research suggests that these opposing arguments may each draw empirical support but under differing social conditions or circumstances. Regarding the effects of immigration on crime, one theory is that immigration is most likely to be a crime-protective factor when it occurs in places where there is a well-established immigrant population base and institutional supports. And immigration may contribute to higher crime rates in places that lack the strong preexisting immigrant population and institutions. Study design variations also appear to impact the findings that researchers investigating the immigration-crime relationship have found, with longitudinal studies more consistently reporting the immigration works to reduce (rather than increase) crime. With respect to gentrification, scholars suggest that its effects on crime are likely to hinge on factors such as the racial composition of the place, the timing or stage at which the gentrification process is observed, or the degree to which gentrifying neighborhoods are surrounded by poor non-gentrifying neighborhoods or by other communities that have already progressed through the gentrification process.

Keywords: immigration, gentrification, population change, social disorganization, revitalization, communities, crime

Two Forms of Population Control: Immigration and Gentrification

Criminologists frequently hypothesize that crime rates vary because of changes to the population of geographic places. Two forms of population change believed to affect the crime rates of places are immigration and gentrification. Immigration generally refers to the movement of foreign-born individuals into a country for purposes of establishing permanent or semi-permanent residence. Gentrification is generally thought of as an internal migration process in which middle- or upper-income individuals and families move into lower-income urban communities to renovate housing and raise economic and social characteristics to a desired standard.

Immigration and gentrification are interesting issues. They are controversial because of their potential to change communities in varied ways. Some changes, such as improvements in the labor supply or an elevation of a population’s human capital skills, may be seen in a positive light. Other changes, such as heightened competition for jobs or disruptions in long-standing cultural and social structures, may be viewed negatively. Most important for this article, these forms of population change may affect crime rates. Although there are multiple theories that propose mechanisms by which immigration and gentrification influence crime, they can be usefully classified into two broad categories: (1) population composition theories and (2) social organization/social control theories. Population composition theories are those that assert that immigration or gentrification affect crime by altering the prevalence of crime-prone individuals within communities. Social organization/social control theories suggest that population changes alter community social organization in ways that impact the community’s capacity to regulate law violating behavior.

This article aims to provide a broad overview of theoretical arguments and empirical research that address the connection between crime and immigration, as well as between crime and gentrification. Although the information reviewed may apply in an array of settings, the focus of the article is limited to theoretical and empirical work that has emerged within, and is concerned with, crime in the United States. The next section of the article reviews the diverse theoretical arguments that have been put forth in efforts to understand how immigration and crime are related. Following that will be a thematically focused review of studies that empirically assess the immigration-crime relationship and offer insight into the veracity of extant theories. In the next two sections, attention shifts to a discussion of theories and empirical research focused on the impact of gentrification on crime rates in geographic places. The final section of the article identifies some fundamental readings that would serve as useful additional background for those who are interested in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the connections that may exist between immigration, gentrification, and crime.

Theorizing Immigration and Crime

According to data from the 2015 American Community Survey, roughly 13.5% (or 43 million) of residents in the United States are immigrants (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). Slightly less than half of the foreign-born are naturalized citizens, and the remainder do not have U.S. citizenship (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). Since immigration in the United States is governed by specific legal policy, discussions of this topic often draw a distinction between immigrant residents who are officially authorized to reside in the United States from those who lack official authorization. Demographers at the Pew Research Center estimate that at present about one-fourth of the immigrants residing in the United States lack official authorization (Passel & Cohn, 2016). This distinction between “authorized” and “unauthorized” immigration is a potentially important issue to consider in analyses of the connection between immigration and crime; yet because data on the undocumented are difficult to acquire, criminologists primarily have examined how the overall levels of immigration, and changes in that level, affect crime rates. As is articulated in the “Crime Propensity and Social Disorganization” section, that work proposes competing arguments about the nature of the relationship between immigration and crime.

Crime Propensity and Social Disorganization

Although concerns about the influence of immigration on crime have prevailed in the United States since its colonial beginnings (Mears, 2001), social scientists’ interest in this topic has been uneven over time. Peaks of interest have generally occurred during periods of substantial immigration, such as in the periods near the beginning and ends of the 20th century (Hagan & Palloni, 1998). In their efforts to explain the potential influence that immigration may have on crime, several theoretical arguments have emerged.

The first argument is that immigration changes the population composition, increasing the prevalence of individuals who exhibit crime-prone demographic or social characteristics. This argument does not necessarily suggest there is any inherent crime-proneness of foreign-born individuals. Rather, it posits that those who immigrate are likely to exhibit human capital, social, or demographic characteristics that are empirically linked to greater involvement in crime. For example, empirical evidence indicates that criminal offending is higher for males than females (Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996), for adolescents and young adults relative to older adults (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983), and for the poor rather than for those with higher incomes (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2006; Braithwaite, 1981; Elliott & Huizinga, 1983). Data from the American Community Survey suggests that recent immigrants are more likely to have these demographic and socioeconomic characteristics than native-born U.S. citizens (U.S. Census, 2016). Thus, it is plausible that immigration affects the population composition in ways that could put upward pressure on the crime rate.

A second classic argument asserting that immigration produces more crime is found in Social Disorganization Theory, the most famous explanation of why crime varies across communities. This theory is founded on the idea that crime rates fluctuate as a function of “social disorganization.” Social disorganization is a condition that occurs when communities are unable to effectively regulate the behavior of individuals within them. Social organization and social control are believed to flourish in places with higher economic resources, ethnic homogeneity, and a stable resident population. These conditions facilitate the development of networks of association, or social ties, between community residents and local social institutions (e.g., churches, schools, civic associations). Moreover, they enable residents to better develop a shared set of values and to agree on the social norms by which the community and its members will be governed (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993). In addition, stable communities are more apt to develop “collective efficacy,” which refers to mutual trust and a willingness to intervene for the benefit of the community (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). In sum, residential stability helps communities forge the combination of shared values, norms, social ties, and collective efficacy that is believed to be necessary to strongly constrain rule breaking and criminal behavior.

Since rapid and frequent changes in population are believed to disrupt social organization and control, immigration is seen by Social Disorganization Theory as a potential driver of higher crime rates. According to this perspective, communities that are experiencing high levels of immigration are likely to exhibit poor organization and collective social control for several reasons. First, immigration is believed to disrupt the density of social networks and associational ties between residents. In part this occurs simply because it takes time for ties to develop. In a community undergoing constant change, this process may be hindered. But this may also be true because as “outsiders” with different language, religion, or interactional styles than native citizens, immigrants may not be readily received or welcomed by existing community residents. Hence, even with the passage of time, there may be a reluctance to establish social ties between neighbors in higher immigration communities. Second, an inflow of immigrants may propagate feelings of fear and distrust among non-immigrants leading to a withdrawal from community activities and affairs. A consequence of this is a weakening of local social institutions and their ability to regulate behavior with communities. Finally, because immigrants may have (or be perceived to have) a different set of values from non-immigrants, communities of high immigration may have more difficulty in establishing common values and agreeing on the norms and rules that guide behavior. In sum, the social disorganization perspective suggests that population changes are detrimental to the regulation of crime in communities. Because immigration produces population change, this theory argues that it should lead to higher rates of crime.

Immigrant Revitalization

Although the argument that immigration leads to higher crime rates has deep roots in both criminological theory and American culture, there has long been a counterargument suggesting that immigration lowers crime rates. Since the late 1990s the chorus asserting that thesis has grown louder. Like the traditional immigration-crime theories reviewed above, theories asserting that immigration reduces crime can also be divided into those that emphasize changing population composition and those that highlight changes in social organization and social control.

Population composition arguments posit that immigration decreases the prevalence of crime-prone individuals in a community. Why might this be the case? Several reasons are apparent. One is that immigrants are a highly selective group of goal-oriented individuals willing and able to endure great obstacles to find and capitalize on achievement opportunities. Engaging in crime is a sure-fire ticket to losing those opportunities. Hence, it is argued that the achievement orientation of many immigrants leads them to flatly reject all risks that would be associated with violating the law. Another reason is that many immigrants contradict common assumptions about wealth, education, and skill. Rather than being poor or uneducated, they are highly educated and skilled workers who come from families of means. And even when their social (e.g., poor, undereducated) or demographic (e.g., age) characteristics suggest an elevated crime-propensity, other personal traits, including self-motivation, entrepreneurial spirit, and high aversion to risk suggest that they will have little inclination to be involved in crime. In sum, there are many reasons to think that immigration changes the population composition of places in ways that may lower the prevalence of individuals inclined to commit crimes.

Along with changing the population composition of places, it has recently been argued that immigration revitalizes or strengthens social organization and social control in communities (Lee & Martinez, 2002; Martinez, Stowell, & Lee, 2010). Recall that the contemporary developments in the social disorganization theory tradition highlight the importance of social networks, social capital, and collective efficacy for maintaining lower crime places. Consistent with this line of reasoning, one version of the “immigrant revitalization” thesis suggests that immigration increases social ties among neighbors and improves collective efficacy. How might this occur?

One reason for these beneficial effects may be that immigrants often select communities where other immigrants already reside. Their shared experiences are a source of solidarity that makes them more willing to look out for one another and to ensure that their collective communities thrive. In some cases, immigration produces high concentrations of immigrants that result in tightly knit immigrant enclaves, which transmit numerous benefits (Reid, Weiss, Adelman, & Jaret, 2005; Zhou, 1992). Immigration also may improve the social control capacity of communities by increasing the share of households with multiple adult-headed families (Ousey & Kubrin, 2009). Two-parent immigrant families may locate within communities where single-parent households are relatively common. With time, this process works to increase the adult/non-adult ratio, increasing the potential for collective supervision of the community, of regulating the behavior of adolescent residents, and for the development of voluntary community organizations that work for the betterment of the community. A third possibility is that immigration has worked to replenishes the population and residential structure of communities, particularly in large cities that were effectively hollowed out by deindustrialization and the suburbanization of middle- and upper-income residents during the 1970s and 1980s (Sampson, 2017). By reducing housing vacancy rates immigration facilitates the formation of local organizations and the collective monitoring of the community while reducing the number of “staging areas” for crimes to occur. When vacancy rates are high, there are many spaces available for criminals to convene, for drug sellers to make deals, for vandals to deface, and for thefts and attacks to be carried out. As immigration increases the demand for living quarters and thereby works to eliminate these potential sites of unregulated criminal activity.

Contingent Effects of Immigration

The arguments presented in “Crime Propensity and Social Disorganization” and “Immigrant Revitalization” sections appear to be incompatible visions of the immigration-crime relationship. Yet, a third perspective argues, in effect, that a blend of those two may best encapsulate the immigration-crime nexus in the United States. This latter perspective asserts that immigration has conditional rather than universal effects on crime. More specifically, immigration may serve as either a crime-inducing or crime-constraining factor, depending on the community context in which immigration plays out. One foundation that underlies this more complex and nuanced view of the immigration-crime association is the concept of “contexts of reception” (Portes & Rumbaut, 2006). This concept suggests that communities vary in the extent to which they are favorable or unfavorable contexts for immigrants.

Areas that are favorable contexts of reception are likely to be those that have long been immigrant gateways and have an established stock of immigrants who have well-developed social networks, have ascended to community leadership positions, and whose social and political climate considers and is sympathetic to the needs of immigrants. In these kinds of communities, immigration flows tend to work as reinforcements that bolster the community, supplying additional labor, skills, and social capital that are easily integrated into the existing institutional structure.

In contrast, communities that are unfavorable contexts of reception may not have a well-established immigrant base and immigration may be relatively new population trend. Alternatively, these may be places where there is a legacy of competition or conflict between native-born and immigrant residents. Often immigrants are drawn to these communities to help fill labor demands in growth industries, are viewed with great suspicion and perceived as a hostile threat to a community’s traditional way of life. Non-immigrant citizens in these latter contexts often hold animus toward the foreign born and blame them for myriad negative outcomes such as unemployment, crime, or insufficient social supports. The political environment in these latter places also is likely to be anti-immigrant, with political initiatives centered on finding ways to restrict opportunities for immigrant incorporation. In sum, immigration is viewed as an unwelcome source of change that increases conflict, weakens social ties, and feelings of mutual trust. Consequently, immigration in these latter contexts of reception are expected to produce an increase in crime.

Finally, it is worth noting that because the “favorable” and “unfavorable” contexts of reception described above may best be viewed as opposite poles on a continuum, most places sit somewhere in between. And if that is the case, the “average” community may be a context of reception that facilitates a weak immigration-crime relationship. In other words, the social, economic, and political conditions of communities in the middle of this continuum facilitate neither a strong crime-reducing nor crime-enhancing effect of immigration.

Empirical Research on Immigration and Crime

Social science research on the connection between immigration and crime dates back many years (Wickersham Commission, 1931; Taft, 1933), and interest has varied along with the size of immigration flows in the United States (Hagan & Palloni, 1998). Scholarship on the immigration-crime nexus increased greatly during the late 20th century as both rates of immigration and rates of crime increased markedly from 1960 to 1990 (Hagan & Palloni, 1998). Indeed, there has been tremendous growth in the number of empirical studies focused on the connection between immigration and crime in the 21st century. A recent meta-analysis of macro-level studies of the relationship between immigration and crime in the United States identified more than 50 studies published in the span between 1994 and 2014 (Ousey & Kubrin, 2018). And there are no signs that interest in this topic is waning.

Studies have examined the relationship between immigration and crime across geographic communities of widely varying size. Some research has considered whether greater immigrant populations—or changes in immigrant populations—are associated with crime rates in highly populated metropolitan areas or in large cities (e.g., Butcher & Piehl, 1998; Martinez, 2000; Kubrin & Ousey, 2009; Ousey & Kubrin, 2009, 2014; Stowell, Messner, McGeever, Raffalovich, 2009; Wadsworth, 2010). Other studies have examined smaller “neighborhood-like” units such as census tracts (Cancino, Martinez, & Stowell, 2009; Kubrin & Ishizawa, 2012; Lee, Martinez, & Rosenfeld, 2001; MacDonald, Hipp, & Gill, 2013; Martinez & Stowell, 2012). And a few studies investigated the immigration-crime relationship at multiple levels of analysis simultaneously (Lyons, Vélez, & Santoro, 2013; Ramey, 2013).

In general, evidence from these studies lacks uniformity. For example, while Shihadeh and Barranco (2010) reported evidence that greater Latino immigration may be associated with higher crime rates for African Americans, Ousey and Kubrin (2009) found that cities that experienced increased immigration between 1980 and 2000 exhibited greater decreases in violent crime rates (see also, Martinez, Stowell, & Lee, 2010). And the most common result reported in prior studies is a null or non-significant relationship between immigration and crime (see Ousey & Kubrin, 2018). One interpretation of the varied results that emerge in prior studies is that prior studies are hopelessly inconclusive as to whether there is an association between immigration and crime. But a closer reading of the literature suggests two key takeaway lessons. The first takeaway lesson is that the overall relationship between immigration and crime is weak. The second takeaway lesson is that the lack of uniformity in prior studies is indicative of the fact that the direction and magnitude of the immigration-crime association depends on other factors, which are not held constant across previous studies. Hence, to better understand what prior research tells us about the immigration-crime relationship, these other factors must be considered.

Group Specific Effects of Immigration on Crime

One consideration is whether the effect of immigration on crime varies for different ethnic/racial groups. In other words, does immigration have the same or a different effect on crime among Latinos, Asians, Europeans, or other groups? Some of the earliest explorations of the connection between immigration and crime suggested that at least certain types of crime may more prominent for some immigrant groups than for others (Taft, 1933; Sutherland & Cressey, 1978). Consistent with the hypothesis that there may be different effects, numerous studies have investigated whether immigration affects crime for ethnic or racial groups (Feldmeyer, 2009; Harris & Feldmeyer, 2013; Kubrin, Hipp, & Kim, 2016; Lee, Martinez, & Rosenfeld, 2001; Light, 2017; Martinez, 2000; Shihadeh & Barranco, 2010). This research has focused primarily on the effects of Latino immigration (Martinez, 2000; Shihadeh & Barranco, 2013; Martinez, 2000; Light, 2017), although a small number of studies also consider other ethnic groups (e.g., Davies & Fagan, 2012; Kubrin, Hipp, & Kim, 2016; Reid et al., 2005).

Martinez (2000) investigated whether the immigration of Latinos into 111 U.S. cities was predictive of homicide rates, both for the total population and for Latinos. He finds that Latino immigration is not significantly related to the overall homicide rate or to the Latino homicide rate. He also explored whether the relationship between Latino immigration and Latino homicide varied when homicides were disaggregated by motive type (e.g., felony homicides, acquaintance homicides, etc.). His analysis indicated that cities with greater Latino immigration have higher felony homicide rates but lower acquaintance homicide rates. Latino immigration was found to have no association with family/intimate or stranger homicide rates.

Shihadeh and Barranco (2010) hypothesized that Latino immigration would increase homicide rates specifically among blacks. This is because they posit that Latino immigrants take low-skill jobs from non-Latino blacks. Using 2000 Census and crime data for 117 U.S. cities, Shihadeh and Barranco found that greater Latino immigration altered the ethnic composition of low-skill job markets in ways that were detrimental for low-skill blacks, which led to higher homicide rates among blacks. Harris and Feldmeyer (2013), in contrast, did not find that Latino immigration affected homicide rates for blacks or Latinos but did so only for whites.

Kubrin, Hipp, and Kim (2016) expanded on prior research by considering the multidimensionality of immigrant groups using data from census tracts in Southern California. They measured the crime impact of immigrant concentrations defined in three alternative ways: (1) by race, (2) by the region of the world from which they originated, or (3) by their destination or settlement location in California. They reported that all three measurement strategies provide better explanation of crime than the simplistic and commonly used immigration measure: the percentage of foreign-born people.

According to Light (2017), prior studies that examined the immigration-crime association for specific ethnic/racial groups are limited because of a reliance on cross-sectional data. This limitation means they insufficiently address the essential question regarding the consequences of population changes on changes in crime rates. To address this concern, Light uses a longitudinal research design to examine the connection between Latino immigration and crime rates for several racial groups. By examining Centers for Disease Control death records for the 1990–2010 period, he estimates the relationship between changes in Latino immigration and changes in homicide victimization rates for whites, blacks, and Latinos in 132 metropolitan areas. His findings contradict some earlier work (e.g., Shihadeh & Barranco, 2010; Harris & Feldmeyer, 2013). For example, Light’s results indicate the association between changes in Latino immigration and homicide rates is negative for all racial groups, although the association is significant only for blacks and Hispanics. Thus, he concludes that increases in Latino immigration are associated with lower rates of homicide for blacks and Latinos.

Cross-Sectional Versus Longitudinal Research

The discrepancy between Light’s analysis and earlier group-specific analyses of the immigration-crime nexus highlights the important point that longitudinal analyses are better suited to address the question of interest in this article: How do population changes (i.e., changes in immigration levels) affect changes in crime rates? At present, cross-sectional studies of the immigration-crime nexus far outnumber longitudinal studies. However, a welcome development is that the number of longitudinal studies has increased markedly in the 2000s (e.g., Light, 2017; MacDonald, Hipp, & Gill, 2013; Martinez, Stowell, & Lee, 2010; Ousey & Kubrin, 2009, 2014; Stowell, Messner, McGeever, & Raffalovich, 2009). Results from these studies generally reiterate that results differ notably between cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.

Butcher and Piehl (1998) analyzed whether metropolitan area immigration levels and crime rates in 1980 and 1990 varied together. They found that for both years, metro areas with greater immigration exhibited higher crime rates. However, when they considered whether change in the level of immigration is associated with change in crime rates, they find no significant association. Wadsworth (2010) examined city-level data on immigration and crime in 1990 and 2000. He also examined whether this relationship differed when analyzed cross-sectionally versus longitudinally. In his cross-sectional analysis, Wadsworth found evidence that cities with higher shares of foreign-born population had higher rates of homicide and robbery. Yet his longitudinal analysis indicated that over time increases in immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime. Numerous other longitudinal studies also report evidence that over time changes in the immigrant population share are negatively associated with rates of crime (Light, 2017; MacDonald, Hipp, & Gill, 2013; Martinez, Stowell, & Lee, 2010; Ousey & Kubrin, 2009; Ousey & Kubrin, 2014; Stowell, Messner, McGeever, & Raffalovich, 2009). Indeed, it appears that evidence from longitudinal studies of the immigration-crime relationship is far more supportive of social theories, such as the revitalization perspective, which argues that increased immigration works to lower crime rates. This conclusion is supported further by a meta-analysis of twenty years of immigration-crime studies (Ousey & Kubrin, 2018). Ousey & Kubrin (2018) report that while the average immigration-crime association in cross-sectional studies is weak, positive, and not statistically significant, the average association in longitudinal studies is negative, of greater magnitude, and statistically significant.

Contextual Variation in the Immigration-Crime Relationship

As discussed earlier, some theories suggest that the broader social and political context of place has an important impact on the extent to which the population changes associated with immigration produce higher crime rates or lower crime rates. Recall the “contexts of reception” concept. It suggests that in places with a well-established immigrant population base and a more highly developed set of immigrant-supporting social and political institutions, immigration may act as a crime inhibitor. In contrast, in places that are non-traditional immigrant destinations there is more likely to be an anti-immigrant orientation, and social and political institutions may work to exclude rather than assist foreign-born residents—leading immigration to be a disruptive form of social change that elevates crime rates.

Several 21st-century studies have extended immigration-crime scholarship by specifically considering whether the direction and magnitude of the immigration-crime relationship varies systematically across contexts. Lyons, Vélez, and Santoro (2013) examined whether the immigration-crime relationship varied across cities as a function of city-level differences in immigrant political opportunities or the extent to which a city is politically receptive to the demands and concerns of immigrants. Using data from nearly 9,000 census tracts nested within 87 large U.S. cities to test this idea, they found that tracts with greater immigration had lower levels of homicide and robbery rates, on average, than tracts with less immigration. Moreover, the protective impact of immigration on crime appeared to vary systematically across cities in relation to immigrant political opportunities. In cities in which Latinos and Asians were more incorporated into governmental bureaucracies and the police force, increases in immigration were associated with larger crime decreases than in cities where Latinos and Asians were less incorporated into political and governmental institutions. Using longitudinal data from 1980–2010, Ousey and Kubrin (2014) studied relationships between changes in immigration and multiple types of homicide across U.S. cities. Drawing on the context of reception argument, they hypothesized that crime-constraining effects of immigration were most likely to occur in well-established immigrant destination cities where immigrant-involved social institutions were most likely to be strongest. In contrast, the crime constraint associated with immigration was expected to be weaker in new immigrant destinations because of less developed institutional supports for immigrants. Their findings indicated that cities experiencing increases in immigration generally saw decreases in overall homicide rates as well as decreases in most homicide subtypes. However, on average, the association between changes in immigration and homicide subtypes was significant only for drug homicides. Yet their results supported the thesis that the immigration-homicide association varied across cities. In cities with a larger preexisting immigrant population, the negative association between immigration and homicide rates (total and homicide subtypes) was stronger. Some additional studies find a similar pattern (e.g., Ramey, 2013), but others find different patterns of variation (or non-variation) in the immigration-crime association across contexts (Light, 2017; Harris & Feldmeyer, 2013; Shihadeh & Barranco, 2013). Clearly more research is needed to fully improve understanding of the conditions under which the immigration-crime connection may fluctuate.

Undocumented Immigration and Crime

Due to a rapid growth in research, much has been learned about the immigration-crime relationship in the past two decades. Yet, due to data limitations, research has not sufficiently addressed whether there is a relationship between undocumented/unauthorized immigration and crime. Fortunately, this gap in the social science literature is beginning to close. Using recently available estimates Green (2016) examined whether state-level variations in measures of undocumented immigrant populations are related to rates of violent crime and drug crime arrests. He reports limited evidence of an association between undocumented immigration and violent crime. However, a significant positive association between undocumented immigration and drug crime arrest rates is observed. In contrast, other recent research suggests that increases in the undocumented immigrant population are associated with lower levels of drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests (Light, Miller, & Kelly, 2017). As the first studies of this issue, these are suggestive findings. But, much more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about the empirical association between undocumented immigration and crime.

Theorizing Gentrification and Crime

The concept of gentrification is defined somewhat differently in social science studies, and researchers have not reached complete consensus on how it should be measured. Generally, it refers to a neighborhood change process that includes an in-migration of middle- and upper-income residents, an upgrading of the economic or class characteristics, and an expansion of economic investments in the community and its institutions (Smith 1998; Hwang & Sampson, 2014). It also has been conceived to include an improvement in the value of the housing stock within a community and the emergence or reemergence of businesses to service the needs and tastes of the new wave of residents (Boggess & Hipp, 2016). Finally, some definitions of gentrification require that gentrifying communities be those in which social class improvements were first preceded by a process of disinvestment and population exodus (Wyly & Hammel, 1999).

Although often conceptualized as an economic upgrade, gentrification is a hotly debated topic. This is because gentrification may yield deleterious consequences including displacement of disadvantaged populations, disruptions of existing social support networks, increases in economic inequality and elevations of racial and class conflicts (Betancur, 2002; Papachristos, Smith, Scherer, & Fugiero, 2011; Smith, 1996). In addition, scholars have offered numerous arguments that assert that gentrification is related to crime. However, as was true for immigration, there are competing hypotheses about how gentrification effects on crime rates play out. On one hand, there are arguments that posit that gentrification increases crime. On the other there are arguments suggesting that gentrification lowers crime. These competing perspectives and the rationales behind them are discussed next.

Gentrification as a Criminogenic Form of Social Change

There are several mechanisms by which gentrification may conceivably increase crime in places. First there is a straightforward criminal opportunity argument. This argument asserts that by bringing in residents or families of greater economic wealth, gentrification elevates the number of attractive crime targets for those who are motivated to offend. At the same time, to the extent that new upper-income residents are perceived as outsiders by existing residents, gentrification may reduce between-neighbor social cohesion and trust, as old residents may be unwilling to watch over the property and belongings of the new residents. Second, there may be a strain theory mechanism at work. Namely, gentrification may increase within-neighborhood inequality or threaten changes that will displace current residents. These effects may foster feelings of relative deprivation, envy, or anger among longtime residents who may resort to violence, vandalism, or theft in response. Finally, Social Disorganization Theory would suggest that gentrification is a source of social change and therefore is likely to disrupt existing community organization and informal social control capacity. As new residents replace other long-term residents, there is likely to be an attenuation of social ties, community organizations, and collective efficacy—at least temporarily. Hence, gentrification is likely to increase crime rates by creating social disorganization and a weakening of a community’s capacity to agree on and enforce its governing principles.

Gentrification as a Crime Limiting Form of Social Change

Gentrification may not, however, bring all bad news. An alternative line of thinking suggests that gentrification improves communities in many ways, including by lowering crime rates. The crime-reducing effect of gentrification may occur in several ways. First, gentrification may have a compositional effect on communities. Gentrification is likely to elevate the highly educated share of a community’s population. It may increase the proportion employed in stable jobs with regimented hours and high income. Because social class and crime are negatively associated, these compositional changes to the social class of the community should reduce the prevalence of individuals with higher crime propensity. Second, because gentrification raises both the average income and the home values of the community, it elevates the local tax base. This should improve the quality of local schools, which will presumably increase school commitment and lower dropout rates. Gentrification also may bolster the density of social ties and the potential for involvement in local civic associations and organizations in a community. At the same time, because residents are better off economically, they are more likely to have disposable income that may be supplied to such organizations through voluntary donations or through requisite organization membership dues/fees. Each of these is likely to improve the capacity of the community to reach a consensus on values and to ensure that the behavior of residents and visitors accords with widely endorsed behavioral norms. In other words, rather than acting as a social change that disrupts institutions and social organization, gentrification may enhance social organization and thereby reduce crime rates.

Contingent Effects of Gentrification on Crime

While the two preceding arguments suggest that gentrification produces either an upward or downward pressure on crime rates. But a third explanatory framework suggests that the link between gentrification and crime is not simple, straightforward, and universal. Rather, the effect of gentrification on crime is conditional. That is, both the direction and the strength of the association depends on the situational, structural, or temporal context in which it takes place. For example, we might expect that the impact of gentrification on crime depends on the economic and social condition of the community prior to the onset of gentrification. When gentrification takes place in a neighborhood where deindustrialization processes have fully depleted it of nearly all economic and institutional resources, it perhaps serves as beneficial force of recovery that revitalizes and improves the community it in myriad ways, including by lowering crime. Alternatively, if gentrification works to displace residents who are struggling economically but are otherwise engaged in the community and its institutions, it may be a disruptive force that reduces community cohesion and fosters animosity between competing populations (i.e., long-term residents and gentrifiers). Likewise, the gentrification-crime relationship may depend on where in the “gentrification cycle” it occurs. For example, the initial conditions encountered in a community at the onset of a gentrification process are likely to be quite different from those that occur several years later. Those differences in condition may moderate the direction and or strength of gentrification’s impact on crime. Moreover, as the process of gentrification advances in a community, there may be tipping points or threshold effects; perhaps gentrification has a significant effect on crime rates in its early stages but a rapidly declining effect as more of the community transitions from lower to middle income. In sum, there appear to be plausible reasons to think that the effect of gentrification on crime involves some important nuance. The next section discusses studies that have investigated the empirical relationship between gentrification and crime, including those that explore contingencies in the relationship.

Empirical Research on Gentrification and Crime

On the heels of a steady wave of social science research reporting on the gloom and doom caused by deindustrialization, population exodus, and institutional decay in urban communities, McDonald (1986) offered that gentrification was a potential source of optimism and revitalization for urban neighborhoods. Focusing specifically on the impact of gentrification on crime, McDonald outlined the possibility of both a positive and negative relationship, as is discussed above. Examining time trends in crime data from 14 gentrifying neighborhoods in five cities, McDonald reported evidence suggesting that gentrification reduced personal (violent) crimes. However, evidence of a gentrification impact on property crimes was weaker. He concludes that gentrification indeed may be working to counter the downward decay of urban centers, serving as a source of hope for safer central city communities.

In contrast to the optimistic spirit found in McDonald’s conclusions, Taylor and Covington (1988) pointed out that multiple theories lead to an assertion that gentrification will increase crime rates. Arguing from a relative deprivation perspective, they posit that gentrification will widen the economic disparity between long-term and new residents, resulting in feelings of injustice that encourage violent crime. Moreover, based on Social Disorganization Theory, they hypothesize that gentrifying communities will experience less informal social control and more violent crime for two reasons. First, in-migrants in gentrifying communities are likely to be young, childless professionals who are likely to engage in activities away from home, meaning they are less available to keep watch over the neighborhood. Second, because gentrification advances unevenly, it will increase population heterogeneity, which inhibits social organization and social control. Testing these hypotheses with data from neighborhoods in Baltimore, Taylor and Covington reported stronger support for the social disorganization theory than the relative deprivation theory. Specifically, in gentrifying neighborhoods, changes in violent crime were more consistently and strongly related to changes in population stability than to changes in economic status.

A subsequent study by Covington and Taylor (1989) examined whether gentrifying Baltimore neighborhoods are different from other neighborhoods in terms of changes in robbery and larceny between 1970 and 1980. From Social Disorganization Theory, they derived the assertion that gentrification will produce population turnover and heterogeneity, which will dampen the social control of criminal behavior. Based on a rational offender perspective, they predicted that gentrification will increase crime by increasing the number of attractive crime targets for motivated offenders who are nearby. Results of their analyses are generally consistent with expectations from these theories. Compared to non-gentrifying neighborhoods, those undergoing gentrification experienced increases in robbery. Moreover, the gentrifying neighborhoods did not experience the same trend of decreasing larceny rates as was observed in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Based on their results, they also rejected an argument suggesting that gentrifying neighborhoods closely resemble stable, middle-income, lower-crime communities. Rather, they showed that the gentrifying communities in their study were socially disorganized both prior to, and after, gentrification had taken place. Hence, they found that despite an increase in house prices and a greater presence of professional households, gentrification is more like a “patchwork” process that combines pockets of revitalization and deprivation that are associated with higher levels of crime.

Although most data on the gentrification-crime relationship is centered in the United States, Van Wilsem, Wittebrood, and De Graaf (2006) analyzed data from individual respondents distributed across more than 2,500 neighborhoods in the Netherlands. They considered whether risks of theft, violence, and vandalism are related to neighborhood socioeconomic upgrading—gentrification. In addition, they examined mediating mechanisms by which gentrification presumably exerts its impact on crime. Specifically, they investigated whether gentrification affects crime by increasing population instability or by driving up either economic or ethnic heterogeneity. Results indicated that risks of all types of crime were higher in neighborhoods that had undergone socioeconomic improvements over the period of study observation. However, the relationship between neighborhood gentrification and crime did not appear to work through either ethnic- or income-heterogeneity. Indeed, controlling for those two forms of heterogeneity had little impact on the association between neighborhood socioeconomic improvement and risks of victimization. In contrast, the effect of gentrification on crime did appear to be mediated by residential mobility. The effect of gentrification on victimization was notably weakened when residential mobility is taken into consideration in their analysis. Thus, their results supported the thesis that residential mobility is a key mediator that helps to explain how gentrification relates to crime. Neighborhoods that underwent more dramatic socioeconomic improvements saw a greater increase in residential instability, which then increased risks of crime victimization. Thus, the findings in Van Wilsem et al. (2006) are more consistent with social disorganization theory’s emphasis on interpretation of the gentrification-crime relationship than with alternative theories, such as relative deprivation, which highlight intra-neighborhood social class heterogeneity and conflict.

Factors Shaping the Gentrification-Crime Relationship: Time, Race, and Space

Building on the preceding studies, 21st-century analyses have investigated nuances and contingencies in the gentrification-crime relationship. These latter studies have done this by considering the possibility that gentrification’s impact on crime may differ meaningfully depending on historical and cyclical timing; racial composition of neighborhoods impacted; preexisting economic conditions of neighborhood; or whether a gentrifying neighborhood is an isolate surrounded by non-gentrifying neighborhoods or is embedded among other gentrified neighborhoods.

Kreager, Lyons, and Hays (2011) used data from the city of Seattle covering the period between 1982 and 2000 to study whether the dynamics of urban revitalization were related to changes in crime rates. They contend that in contrast to the arguments of Social Disorganization Theory and early studies of gentrification, the revitalization processes of the 1990s may have undermined crime-producing social conditions (e.g., poverty) and increased formal controls and thereby reduced crime in gentrifying neighborhoods. This is because they suggest that the gentrification of the 1990s was more “consolidated,” involving both higher-income individuals moving in and an influx of corporations and businesses. Moreover, they propose that the effect of gentrification on crime may differ according to its “stage” of progression. Specifically, in communities where gentrification is newly emerging, its effects may be consistent with social disorganization, thus leading to elevated crime rates. Contrarily, once gentrification becomes more advanced and widespread in a neighborhood, further gentrification is associated with lower crime rates. They tested their hypotheses of period-specific effects of gentrification with longitudinal data on gentrification—measured by changes in socioeconomic characteristics and by mortgage investments—and separate indices of total, property and violent crime. Findings suggest that neighborhoods in Seattle that witnessed the greatest economic investment were high crime places in prior years but experienced the largest declines in crimes in the 1990s. In addition, they found evidence of a curvilinear relationship between a measure of mortgage investment and measures of total and property crime. While increased mortgage investments in the 1980s were associated with increases in crime, the opposite relationship was evident in the 1990s. They interpret these findings as evidence of a “tipping point” whereby the nature of the gentrification-crime changes. In early incomplete stages of gentrification, it works to disrupt social control and increases crime. But in later more consolidated stages of transition, further gentrification becomes a force of crime reduction.

Papachristos, Smith, Scherer, and Fugiero (2011) studied the gentrification-crime connection in Chicago neighborhoods between 1991 and 2005. They measured gentrification by one of its most recognizable symbols, coffee shops, and consider whether changes in the number of coffee shops is correlated with changes in homicide and robbery counts. It is argued that coffee shops represent a “real-time” indicator that taps into both the economic and cultural dimensions that gentrification encompasses. Importantly, they also interrogate the possibility that gentrification is a racialized process with differing effects across racial groups. Their contention is that whites, blacks, and Hispanics may experience gentrification differently not only because of individual differences but because of disparities in the neighborhood contexts in which members of these groups reside. Yet prior research on the gentrification-crime relationship has neglected to consider the possibility of such differences. Results of their analysis suggest that coffee shops may be a useful indicator of gentrification that is also associated with crime rates—but primarily in non-black neighborhoods. While an increase in coffee shops in Chicago neighborhoods during one period was associated with lower overall counts of homicides and robberies in the subsequent period, race-specific analyses suggest that the growth in coffee shops is primarily associated with crime declines in white and Latino communities. In contrast, in black communities, over time coffee shops were associated with increases in robbery counts. In sum, the Papachristos et al. (2011) study suggests that both the form and the effect on crime of gentrification differ by race. For white and Hispanic neighborhoods, a proliferation of coffee shops is indicative of gentrification and related to decreases in violent crime. In black neighborhoods, coffee shops are less prevalent, even in those that are gentrifying. But when an increase in coffee shops does occur in black neighborhoods, this is associated with more, not fewer, robberies.

Finally, Boggess and Hipp (2016) proposed that the spatial context in which gentrifying neighborhoods are embedded helps to determine how gentrification affects crime. They argue that gentrifying neighborhoods surrounded by neighborhoods characterized by concentrations of disadvantaged people are less likely to impart crime-reducing effects than neighborhoods surrounded by ones that have already gentrified. Presumably this occurs because neighborhoods in the former situation may be vulnerable to victimization from motivated offenders residing in impoverished adjacent communities. To investigate the argument the gentrification-crime relationship in a focal neighborhood is dependent on conditions in the surrounding neighborhoods, they explore data on home values and crime in census tracts in Los Angeles during the 1990s. Results suggest that increases in home values—a measure of gentrification—are associated with higher crime rates, but this relationship was affected by whether changes in nearby neighborhoods were considered. For example, the impact of gentrification on robbery and assault rates was found to be twice as large once changes in nearby neighborhoods are accounted for. Moreover, a significant effect of changes in home values on burglary was found only after the changes in surrounding neighborhoods were considered. Boggess and Hipp (2016) also found that changes in home values on crime are contingent on whether initial home values in a neighborhood were low or high. Specifically, they report that crime increases were greater in gentrifying neighborhoods with initially high home values than in neighborhoods with low home starting values.

Viewed together, the findings from available research indicate that gentrification is not simple, straightforward, or linear. Rather, gentrification is a complex economic, social, and cultural process whose dimensions and effects have not yet been completely and clearly delineated. Not surprisingly, the effect of gentrification on crime also appears to be complex, with much nuance and contingency. Evidence indicates that it may work to elevate crime for some racial groups, spatial contexts, or some temporal periods while having the opposite effect for other racial groups, contexts, and periods. Yet it is important to note that this area of research remains relatively young, and thus, more research is needed both to confirm what previous studies have revealed and to illuminate new avenues of understanding on the nexus between gentrification and crime.

Further Reading

Boggess, L. N., & Hipp, J. R. (2016). The spatial dimensions of gentrification and the consequences for neighborhood crime. Justice Quarterly, 33, 584–613.Find this resource:

Covington, J., & Taylor, R. B. (1989). Gentrification and crime: Robbery and larceny changes in appreciating Baltimore neighborhoods during the 1970s. Urban Affairs Quarterly, 25, 142–172.Find this resource:

Hagan, J., & Palloni, A. (1998). Immigration and crime in the United States. In J. P. Smith & B. Edmonston (Eds.), The immigration debate: studies on the economic, demographic, and fiscal effects of immigration (pp. 367–387). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Find this resource:

Hwang, J., & Sampson, R. J. (2014). Divergent pathways of gentrification: Racial inequality and the social order of renewal in Chicago neighborhoods. American Sociological Review, 79, 726–751.Find this resource:

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Kreager, D. A., Lyons, C., & Hays, Z. (2011). Urban revitalization and Seattle crime, 1982–2000. Social Problems, 58, 615–639.Find this resource:

Lyons, C. J., Vélez, M. B., & Santoro, W. A. (2013). Neighborhood immigration, violence, and city-level immigrant political opportunities. American Sociological Review, 78, 604–632.Find this resource:

Martinez, R., Jr., & Lee, M. T. (2000). On immigration and crime. In G. LaFree & R. J. Bursik Jr. (Eds.), Criminal justice 2000: The changing nature of crime (Vol. 1, pp. 485–524). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.Find this resource:

Martinez, R., Jr., Stowell, J. I., & Lee, M. T. (2010). Immigration and crime in an era of transformation: A longitudinal analysis of homicide in San Diego neighborhoods, 1980–2000. Criminology, 48, 797–829.Find this resource:

Mears, D. P. (2001). The immigration-crime nexus: Toward an analytic framework for assessing and guiding theory, research and policy. Sociological Perspectives, 44, 1–19.Find this resource:

Papachristos, A. V., Smith, C. M., Scherer, M. L., & Fugiero, M. A. (2011). More coffee, less crime: The relationship between gentrification and neighborhood crime rates in Chicago, 1991 to 2005. City & Community, 10, 215–240.Find this resource:

Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2006). Immigrant America: A portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Ousey, G. C., & Kubrin, C. E. (2009). Exploring the connection between immigration and violent crime in U.S. cities, 1980–2000. Social Problems, 56, 447–473.Find this resource:

Ousey, G. C., & Kubrin, C. E. (2018). Immigration and crime: Assessing a contentious issue. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 1.1–1.22.Find this resource:

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