The tangible signs of gentrification are not hard to miss: new “luxury” high-rises and businesses catering to affluent newcomers, rising rents in older buildings, and displacement of long-time residents. But influxes of more affluent, white residents also usher in a cultural shift and conflicting views about public space. And this can result in increased police engagement as new neighbors make complaints about other neighbors.
The body of evidence documenting heightened NYPD enforcement in gentrifying neighborhoods is growing: higher stop and frisk activity by the NYPD in gentrifying neighborhoods, irrespective of local crime; more 311 complaints originating in either racially diverse or gentrifying neighborhoods of New York City; and a recent lawsuit against the NYPD linking increased enforcement to gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Complaints from newcomers to gentrifying neighborhoods about noise and how public space is used can pose a threat to prevailing notions of community—an attempt to dictate who belongs and how belonging is defined. These complaints can lead to an increased police presence, which is not merely a consequence of neighborhood change, but also a powerful tool for incoming, affluent residents to re-define how a community operates and regulate access to public space (see, for example, recent pieces in Quartz and Metro Politics).
Police enforcement is thus a critical weapon against community preservation, and increasingly one of national interest: national news outlets are now regularly reporting on the police responding to white residents complaining about innocuous everyday activities (for example, ‘Permit Patty’ calling the San Francisco police to complain about an 8-year-old black girl selling water to raise money for a trip to Disneyland). These incidents are, in part, demonstrations of who has the power to shape notions of community and who has the most to lose.
Heightened neighbor-driven police engagement in longstanding communities of color also increases the potential for more immediate, serious consequences. The Atlantic explains that Eric Garner’s death at the hands of NYPD officers occurred in a neighborhood of Staten Island near new economic development and with increasing complaints for low-level offenses.
To explore increasing police engagement due to resident complaints in gentrifying neighborhoods, we looked specifically at 311 calls that were referred to the NYPD for “quality-of-life” complaints. We used publicly available data on 311 service requests referred to the NYPD, only including calls from residents that could be viewed as quality-of-life complaints against neighbors. More than 108,000 complaints were analyzed across the city for 2017, almost 87 percent of which were noise complaints; this is up from 34,227 NYPD-referred quality-of-life complaints in 2011. In 2017, the data confirms that police directly responded to these complaints at least 92.5 percent of the time. Separately, we also asked questions of all New Yorkers about their views regarding recent police encounters.
WHAT WE FOUND
The highest quality-of-life complaint rates occurred in lower-income communities of color with the largest influxes of white residents.
We looked at census tracts where the median household income was below the citywide average acrossall tracts (in 2011)—areas that were not already too affluent to gentrify. Then we further divided these lower-income census tracts into those with a majority of residents who identified as people of color, and those that were majority non-Hispanic white. Next, we measured the growth in non-Hispanic white residents for each tract over the 5-year period between 2011 and 2016, grouping them into high and low-influx tracts (with high-influx defined as an increase in non-Hispanic white residents that amounted to at least 5 percent of the 2011 tract-wide population).
Of the 1,049 lower-income tracts analyzed citywide, 873 were lower-income communities of color, and 172 of these experienced large influxes of white residents. These 172 tracts are spread throughout the city, but are mostly clustered in the gentrifying areas of Brooklyn (Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Lefferts Gardens, South Williamsburg, and pockets of southwest Brooklyn) and uptown Manhattan. Another 176 lower-income tracts were majority white, 56 of which experienced large influxes of white residents.
Citywide, all quality-of-life complaints referred to the NYPD increased by more than 166 percent from 2011 to 2016. But the increase was significantly higher in those lower-income, majority person-of-color tracts with large influxes of white residents than those without large influxes of white residents. By 2016, the quality-of-life complaint rate across these changing lower-income communities of color was nearly 50 percent higher than in other lower-income communities.
The rise in complaints is not just associated with race, but also class: in those lower-income, majority person-of-color tracts with large influxes of white residents, median household income rose by more than $10,000 from 2011 to 2016, or 27 percent (compared to an increase of less than 10 percent in those lower-income, majority person-of-color tracts without large influxes of white residents).
Unfortunately, the data on 311 service requests does not allow us to identify characteristics of either the person making the complaint or who the complaint is directed towards. Instead we focus on characteristics of the neighborhoods where complaints are made. While the data does not allow us to determine the direction of the complaint (new residents complaining about long-time residents, long-time residents complaining about new residents, new on new, or long-time on long-time), there is ample anecdotal evidence that many complaints are coming from new residents. For instance, the Brian Lehrer Show held a call-in segment called “Gentrifiers, When Do You Call 311?” One caller from Harlem—a rapidly gentrifying area experiencing dramatic increases in 311 quality-of-life complaints—explained that many complaints are the result of gentrifiers “not understanding or accommodating existing cultural norms, such as loud block parties or music.” Similarly, interviews of residents in gentrifying West Harlem conducted for BuzzFeed News found that a subset of newcomers who were white said they called 311 to complain because they didn’t feel comfortable approaching long-time residents themselves.
311 complaints for quality-of-life issues were significantly more likely to end in a summons or arrest in lower-income communities of color that experienced the largest influxes of white residents.
Only seven out of every 1,000 NYPD-referred quality-of-life complaints resulted in a summons or arrest in 2016—the rarity of these enforcement actions is not surprising, given that more urgent issues are directed to 911 rather than 311. But in spite of their relative infrequency, summons and arrest outcomes are three times as common in lower-income communities of color with high influxes of white residents, compared to lower-income, high-influx communities that were already predominantly white in 2011.
Citywide, these changing, lower-income communities of color were home to 8.5 percent of all residents, but 17.7 percent of all summonses and arrests resulting from NYPD-referred quality-of-life 311 calls.
Despite the relatively low frequency of summonses and arrests resulting from non-urgent quality-of-life complaints investigated by the NYPD, the disproportionately high incidence in changing neighborhoods of color highlights the scope for selective enforcement across all manner of NYPD policing, not just stop-and-frisks and enforcement of misdemeanor and felony offenses, for example.
Visit our Data Notes page for more detailed information on the summons and arrest data used in this analysis.
The largest increases in NYPD-referred complaints occurred in communities of color with large influxes of white residents accompanied by new housing development. But within these areas, the complaint rate increased significantly faster where new, city-financed affordable housing development was also present.
Across lower-income communities of color, complaint rates—and increases in complaint rates—are higher in areas where there has been more new housing construction. Clearly the availability of new, market-rate housing helps fuel an influx of more affluent residents. But the more surprising finding is that complaint rates increased even faster in areas that were home to new, city-financed affordable housing—more than 33 percent faster in areas of high construction that also had affordable housing development than in high housing construction areas without affordable housing.
What could explain this finding? One possible explanation is that new developments with affordable units are occupied by individuals across the income spectrum, including more affluent, predominantly white newcomers, who are now in even closer proximity to lower-income people of color. For city-subsidized affordable housing, rents are set such that units are deemed “affordable” for households with incomes as high as 165 percent of area median income, and developments often include a mix of market-rate and affordable housing units within the same building. For the 1,888 affordable housing projects completed between 2014 and 2018, nearly half of the units (48 percent) were designated as affordable to households earning between 51 and 120 percent of area median income. For the remaining 52 percent of new units, a majority were for those making more than 120 percent of area median income or priced at market rates. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t release data on the occupants of affordable units, so we don’t know if the occupants are new to the neighborhood or any other demographic information such as age and race/ethnicity.
Another possibility is that affordable housing itself isn’t the culprit, it’s just more likely to be built within areas of high housing demand and new construction that are particularly susceptible to neighborhood conflict.
Regardless of the relative importance of these different factors, the upshot for the city remains the same. City-financed affordable housing is intended, in part, to help long-time residents of marginalized communities stay in the communities they call home. But if staying in these communities means facing a changing cultural landscape that doesn’t resemble the old one and increasingly places long-time residents at risk of heightened police engagement, then city housing policy has failed them.
The city must be wary of building affordable housing that attracts a new mix of residents prone to more neighbor-on-neighbor complaints without addressing how police should respond to these non-urgent, quality-of-life conflicts. The non-urgent nature of the original complaint belies a far more urgent crisis of residential displacement and over-policing low-income communities of color.
The 311 data reveals rising quality-of-life complaints referred to the NYPD in gentrifying neighborhoods. And these police encounters can undermine the existing sense of community with potentially serious consequences.
Police harassment. New Yorkers in heavily-policed communities are more than four times as likely as those in lightly-policed communities to report being harassed by the police while participating in everyday neighborhood activities, according to a recent study on broken windows policing by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
These police encounters are also more likely to leave people of color feeling unsafe, as heightened police presence in communities of color increases the likelihood of police misconduct and potentially serious consequences. According to our own annual survey of New Yorkers, 58 percent of low-income blacks and Latinxs who experienced an encounter with police over the past year said it made them feel unsafe and worried about what would happen to them, compared to less than 30 percent of low-income whites and Asians who had a police encounter.
So police encounters are more likely to leave low-income people of color feeling unsafe, and influxes of white residents in low-income communities of color are resulting in more and more quality-of-life complaints that bring the police into these communities—at least 92.5 percent of all quality-of-life complaints analyzed for 2017 resulted in a direct police response to the complaint, based on the recorded “resolution” to the complaint.
Detachment from law enforcement. While some residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are evidently quite comfortable calling the police for quality-of-life complaints on their neighbors, low-income New Yorkers of color are generally more likely to avoid contacting the police because they feel it would have made them feel less safe. Clearly police harassment can have immediate, serious consequences. But it can also harm residents in marginalized communities over time in a more subtle, yet similarly dangerous way: by leaving them disconnected to local law enforcement that they rely on for protection.
More than 21 percent of low-income black New Yorkers said they avoided contacting the police because it made them less safe, compared to only 9 percent of low-income white New Yorkers.
This finding is particularly troubling because residents in neighborhoods experiencing influxes of white residents are making more complaints that are referred to the NYPD, and the resulting police interactions can leave low-income residents of color feeling unsafe and increasingly detached from law enforcement in the changing communities they call home.
As gentrification proceeds relatively unchecked across the city, new sets of neighbors are interacting in residential buildings and public community spaces, where different cultural norms and individual preferences can pit neighbors against neighbors. One unfortunate result of these interactions is increased police engagement as more 311 complaints are made and referred to the NYPD. How police approach these non-urgent, quality-of-life complaints can have lasting consequences, especially for long-time residents in communities of color that face increasing pressure to adapt to a new set of economic conditions and changing community norms.
Escalation of police investigations from non-urgent 311 complaints into criminal enforcement actions is relatively rare—less than two summonses and arrests were recorded per day in 2016. But these enforcement actions are just one small component of rampant over-policing in communities of color. And this over-policing has far-ranging consequences, from costly fines to criminal records and, even worse, police brutality.
But even in the absence of an official enforcement action, heightened police engagement that comes with new housing development is part of a broader cycle of disruption and displacement. While the cycle may be triggered by new development and the residential mobility of more affluent residents, it is also fueled by quality-of-complaints that bring more police into communities and leave low-income New Yorkers of color facing more and more police encounters in the neighborhoods they call home—while they can still afford to.
While there are no doubt benefits from stable, racially and economically integrated neighborhoods, this analysis has highlighted another way that long-time neighborhood residents are adversely impacted in transitioning neighborhoods.
Halting the increasing criminalization of gentrifying neighborhoods won’t be achieved by a single city or state policy change. Meaningful reform needs to put the concerns and well-being of long-standing residents in historically marginalized communities on equal footing with the concerns, of newer, more affluent residents. And reform must be shaped by residents from communities that bear the brunt of police enforcement. Communities United for Police Reform has organized numerous community groups to fight for significant reforms aimed at achieving more police transparency in their interactions with the public, public reporting of enforcement activity, ending discriminatory profiling and establishing meaningful oversight. Further progress towards achieving these goals would be achieved by expanding and strengthening the Right to Know Act to deter NYPD abuse, prevent unnecessary police encounters, and require greater transparency in their interactions; and by passing the Police Statistics and Transparency (STAT) Act to require greater data reporting and transparency.
In the spirit of the STAT Act, the intent of this report is to bring more transparency to the different ways that police enforcement practices continue to impact marginalized communities—even when triggered by something as small as a noise complaint.