#117 May/Jun 2001

Beyond Gentrification

There is no reason why people who have worked so hard to build lives and improve their neighborhoods should not be able to stay there.

For 15 years, the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) has worked to turn around the lower Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn – building affordable housing, rehabbing dilapidated buildings and training residents for worker-owned cooperatives in bakeries and auto repair shops. They’ve been successful, but their success has brought with it new troubles. “Now that the neighborhood is nicer,” reflects director of organizing Benjamin Dulchin, “evictions are on the rise.”

It has gotten so bad that FAC has mounted a “Displacement Free Zone” covering 36 square blocks where tenants are facing escalating rents. FAC vigorously defends every tenant facing eviction within this area by petitioning and picketing landlords.

The experience of Park Slope is continually replayed in older urban communities throughout the country. After periods of disinvestment and decay, conditions begin to change and long-awaited improvement arrives – whether through the hard work of community builders like the Fifth Avenue Committee, targeted public redevelopment efforts or economic growth that brings new private investment dollars. But the biggest champions for change – the original residents – cannot afford to stay.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Does Gentrification Really Mean?

The Stages of Gentrification

Most of the communities that face gentrification have suffered population loss over the last two or three decades due to white and middle class flight, disinvestment and draining of resources into sprawling suburban developments. Specific community attributes that create the greatest vulnerabilities to displacement include:

• a high proportion of renters
• ease of access to jobs centers (freeways, public transit, reverse commutes, new subway stations or ferry routes)
• location in a region with increasing levels of metropolitan congestion and
• comparatively low housing values, particularly for housing stock with architectural merit.

While each story is unique, gentrification tends to unfold in stages. The first stage involves some significant public or nonprofit redevelopment investment and/or private newcomers buying and rehabbing vacant units. At first, this causes little displacement or resentment. This process may occur over several years, and initially may cause little change in the appearance of long-disinvested communities.

In the second stage, knowledge of the neighborhood, its low housing costs and its other amenities spreads. Now displacement begins, as housing costs rise and landlords begin to evict long-time residents in order to garner greater revenues by renting or selling to the more affluent. At this point, conflict begins to erupt. Newcomers include larger percentages of homeowners. Downpayment requirements increase. New residents are interested in urban and cultural amenities; artists, young professionals, gay and lesbian households and other cultural niches are often highly represented. With them come amenities that serve higher income levels – music clubs, boutiques, high-end restaurants and coffee chains.

In the third stage, as rehabilitation becomes more apparent, prices escalate and displacement occurs in force. New residents have lower tolerance for social service facilities, industrial and other uses they view as undesirable. Original residents are displaced along with their industries, commercial enterprises, faith institutions and cultural traditions. In the San Francisco’s Latino Mission District, for example, rents have escalated so rapidly in the past few years that nonprofit health clinics, Latino cultural arts organizations and the ever present auto repair shops have been forced to close – their spaces swept up by dot.coms and other office uses.

Strategies Needed

This process is felt most severely in historic communities of color. Versions of the story are playing out today in the cultural strongholds of New York’s Harlem, Miami’s Overton, Portland’s Kern community, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights, San Francisco’s Mission district, Los Angeles’ Figueroa Corridor, and Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, as well as their counterparts in countless other urban core communities across the country.

Community advocates would never say they don’t want new investment in their capital-starved urban cores. Yet organizers in these communities concede that either they did not adequately plan to anchor those whose lives they aimed to improve, or they did not have the tools or power at hand to substantively intervene in development projects they knew would be harmful to the community. FAC’s Displacement Free Zone, although effective as a community education and mobilization strategy, is enormously time consuming and localized in impact.

There is clearly a significant need for strategies that can draw new capital resources into these communities while allowing enough community control of development that current residents and appropriate commercial, industrial and community service amenities can stay. PolicyLink, a national research, advocacy, communications and technical assistance organization, has spent the last year gathering strategies, policy responses and organizing approaches to provide a roadmap to communities who aspire to implement these “equitable development” approaches. The resulting web-based toolkit is called “Beyond Gentrification: Tools for Equitable Development.”

First, Assess

A strategic assessment of the situation is a crucial first step, because it not only helps a community figure out what stage it is experiencing, but will provide a baseline of information that communities can then compare to their desired state of community.

For communities working to combat displacement, the very best time to start is at the beginning of community revitalization efforts. Most, however, come to focus on it when the elders, the disabled and those with the most limited incomes start facing eviction or when the indigenous businesses and service organizations can no longer afford rent in the neighborhood.

An assessment will usually involve community mapping efforts (see Shelterforce #113) that identify renter-to-homeowner rates, vacancy and abandonment rates, affordability indexes (rent or mortgage as percentage of household income) and spatial analyses of race and poverty. They should, of course, be tailored to the specific situation.

Action on Four Fronts

After an assessment, communities will have a better sense of what their priorities are, and be ready to take action. There are four major categories of action that can help in stabilizing a gentrifying neighborhood; together they form the basis for an anti-displacement strategy:

Preserving and Expanding the Supply of Affordable Housing. Whether communities are working to rehab and fill vacant buildings in depopulated urban cores or to improve community infrastructure in fully populated low-income neighborhoods, an explicit housing affordability plan should always be in place first. There are many parts to a comprehensive housing affordability plan.

First, stabilize existing renters. This can include assessing displacement rates, creating emergency funds for rental assistance, removing discriminatory barriers that renters face or creating rent stabilization policies such as eviction controls and rent increase schedules.

On the proactive side, developing limited-equity housing cooperatives and other forms of resident-controlled housing allows a neighborhood to stabilize by turning some of the high proportion of renters into homeowners. The democratic organization of co-ops also creates a structure that enables co-op members to play significant roles in neighborhood development.

Along with resident-controlled housing, building and preserving affordable housing can involve all three sectors: nonprofit-owned, public sector developed, and private housing with long-term affordability restrictions. In particular, legal mechanisms to ensure long-term affordability can preserve public investment in housing and take properties off the commercial market for a while.

Controlling Land for Community Development. Land use, tax and zoning policies all shape equitable developments; a housing affordability plan can’t succeed without taking them into account. Communities need to evaluate zoning and public land giveaways and steer them in the direction of their aspirations. This will include promoting inclusionary zoning ordinances, mixed-use and transit-oriented development and density provisions, all of which can encourage affordability and mixed-income areas.

Communities also need to take the initiative, mapping out the commercial, industrial, service and arts amenities they want to hold onto and negotiating with public and private actors to find creative ways to do this. The PolicyLink toolkit has collected a set of zoning, financing, and negotiating strategies that can help.

Income and Asset Creation. While stabilizing housing affordability and ensuring appropriate amenities are crucial components of neighborhood planning, income and asset creation are critical to ensuring resident well-being as the neighborhood economy improves. Providing needed resident services – childcare, transportation, a basic retail sector and access to health care – is a precondition for success. Tying public investment to local-hire and living-wage provisions or otherwise connecting land use decisions to local asset creation can significantly mitigate negative displacement pressures by bringing some of the benefits of the new investment to existing residents.

Financing Strategies. Proactive financing strategies can provide neighborhood-specific ways to fund the other three categories of action. They are generally most effective in communities that anticipate gentrification pressures prior to redevelopment efforts, since communities already suffering displacement face escalated real estate prices, and available capital will not go as far.

Options for funding are numerous, and can be directed at nonprofits, private developers, or even landlords. They include investments from labor union pension funds and regional business associations, exactions and fees on commercial developments, tax increment financing and eminent domain, bank investments under the Community Reinvestment Act, Community Credit Unions and tax abatements, credits and deferments.

Core Tools

Each of these categories includes dozens of tools. Here are some of the most important, with ideas about how they connect to each other and to other strategies:

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) take real estate off the speculative market and ensure long-term affordability for renters, low-income homeowners, community arts and nonprofit institutions and community-centered businesses. The Sawmill community of Albuquerque, for example, is building its vision of mixed income, Latino-rooted, mixed-use development on a brownfield-turned-CLT. Portland, Oregon, is using a CLT to ensure oases of affordability in a booming market. (See sidebar)

Limited-equity housing cooperatives are another affordability mechanism; they provide a method for renters to acquire their buildings and share in permanently affordable and democratically-controlled home ownership opportunities. A group of renters in a class action lawsuit over the uninhabitable conditions of their Colombia Heights apartments in Washington, D.C., reached a settlement to acquire ownership of their building for a dollar. They are forming a limited-equity cooperative to formalize resident ownership and make long-needed improvements to the building. If Columbia Heights can achieve the scale of co-operatives found in Harlem (which has more than 300), and combine it with rent stabilization and zoning protections, they will have strong anti-displacement protection.

Housing trust funds, created by legislation that dedicates ongoing revenue streams to affordable housing, represent one of the most promising financing strategies for combating gentrification, particularly if they are used to provide housing that includes long-term affordability restrictions. San Francisco, for example, channels fees from commercial development into a housing trust fund, along with federal HOME and Community Development Block Grant money and state and city revenues allocated to housing. These funds target households that earn 30 to 50 percent of the area median income.

Inclusionary zoning and below market rate (BMR) ordinances provide an ongoing framework for ensuring mixed-income communities. East Palo Alto, a historically African-American and growing Latino community on the edge of the Silicon Valley, recently enacted a BMR ordinance which requires one of every four units to be made available to people making no more than 30 percent of area median income. With significant new development underway, this provision will provide homeownership opportunities for many residents who would otherwise be forced to leave their community. These ordinances combine particularly well with the three core tools listed above.


Achieving any of these things takes political will, however, and that means organizing. The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice (FCCEJ) in Los Angeles points the way. FCCEJ has brought together labor unions, living-wage advocates and community organizations to demand housing and good jobs as part of the significant redevelopment investments in downtown sports and entertainment complexes. FCCEJ recently won a victory at the Staples convention center: an agreement that calls for 20 percent affordable housing set-asides, 70 percent living wage job targets, open space subsidies, parking set-asides and monetary assistance to local nonprofit development corporations.

FAC is also organizing. “We realized after talking to lots of organizations facing similar conditions across the city that we need to change citywide policies,” says FAC’s Benjamin Dulchin. FAC called together 200 actors in community development, neighborhood associations and urban planning to develop a proposal for a broad policy response. FAC has garnered leadership commitments to propose joint action on inclusionary zoning, tax abatements for rental support and mortgage conditions that hold new owners of apartment buildings accountable under agreements that prohibit eviction for specified periods.

There is no reason why people who have worked so hard to build lives and improve their neighborhoods should not be able to stay there. The types of dynamic policy responses to the forces of investment and development in the Beyond Gentrification Toolkit bode well for holding communities together, even as they revitalize and thrive.


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