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Growth of gentrification raising more red flags

It’s not just their imagination.

Residents around downtown, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the waterfront concerned about gentrification now have numbers to validate their fears.

A new Cleveland Federal Reserve analysis shows that neighborhoods around downtowns all over the country – including here – are becoming richer, better educated and whiter.

The study combined household income with the percentage of residents who are college-educated and the percentage who are white to produce what the researchers dubbed a “socioeconomic status index.” While race itself is not a measure of anything – except in the most twisted minds – the researchers note that it is “correlated with measures of economic status, such as wealth,” making it a key factor when assessing gentrification.

In Buffalo Niagara, the proportion of high-status residents living in or near downtown nearly doubled, from 11 percent in 1980 to 21 percent by 2010. That places Buffalo 50th out of the 118 central cities analyzed.

While hardly gentrified to the degree of New York City, Chicago or Portland, Ore., where more than half of downtown residents fit the high-status profile, the increase points to a changing demographic around downtown Buffalo.

The authors – Fed research economist Daniel Hartley and Brown University associate professor Nathaniel Baum-Snow – speculate that the changes may be driven in part by “increases in labor demand by certain types of industries in downtown areas.”

That’s certainly the case in the Fruit Belt, a working-class, heavily African-American neighborhood where residents have expressed the very real fear that they will be priced out by newcomers who want to be near the burgeoning Medical Campus.

Is this trend toward richer, whiter downtowns good or bad for a region?

Hartley would only call it “interesting.”

“We are trying to explore what might be driving it,” he said by email. “How much is it explained by a change in the aggregate income, education, and racial demographics in metro areas versus how much is it driven by changes in where within the metro different income, education, and racial groups live?”

Translation: Is a rising tide lifting all boats, or are those with the yachts moving into Buffalo’s revitalized areas while others get swept out? And if it’s the latter, what can be done about it?

That’s what Veronica Nichols, coordinator of the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force, has been asking for years. She said the task force and others have pushed for everything from parking permits for residents whose on-street spaces are commandeered by Medical Campus workers to property tax freezes to protect homeowners. They also want training to make sure that residents can get some of the jobs being created – the same jobs that are attracting newcomers and driving up rents and housing prices.

None of that seems too much to ask to ensure that the changing face of a booming Buffalo includes the people who were there during the bust.

The Fed study ended with 2010. But the development that sparked Buffalo’s resurgence over the preceding decade continues to accelerate – and so will gentrification unless elected officials and policymakers step in to protect existing residents.