#117 May/Jun 2001

Politics and Markets

On May 29, The Washington Post reported that in England, even the most conservative major party supports national healthcare, subsidized higher education and income supports for all families with children. […]

On May 29, The Washington Post reported that in England, even the most conservative major party supports national healthcare, subsidized higher education and income supports for all families with children. It’s important to get an outside perspective like this every once in a while, to help keep our priorities in order when our government debate tends to center around how much we should take from the poor and give to the rich. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, with the Bush tax cuts after-tax income will rise more than seven times faster among the wealthiest one percent of families than among the bottom 20 percent. And those tax cuts are being paid for by surreptitious cuts to the most basic of social programs. Community development will be hard hit in a number of areas. (See Washington News and Views)

But there are signs of hope. As I write, Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) has recently decided to become an Independent and caucus with the Democrats. This bold move will at least force a slowdown in the enactment of other parts of the Bush agenda.

Markets
Much as the policy arena affects us, it’s not all there is. Community developers and community builders work within the market. We know this, though we don’t tend to harbor any illusions of that market being perfect – or sufficient. There are certain segments of the population – specifically the poor – that the housing market isn’t going to serve. That’s why we need a national production program like that being proposed by Senator Kerry and Representatives Sanders, McHugh, and Lee. (See www.nhtf.org).

But while housing markets aren’t perfect or sufficient, they are real, and their operation affects low-income areas. We’re often reminded of this when we find ourselves face to face with an area that’s gentrifying. As rents skyrocket and existing lower-income people are displaced, talk of “market demand” can make the negative consequences seem inevitable. But they’re not. There are things than can be done to at least mitigate the effects. In this issue, Kalima Rose breaks down the complicated nature of gentrification, and gives us tools, ranging from community land trusts to political organizing, to make the extremes of the neighborhood change pendulum swing less harshly.

In fact, the major challenge of addressing gentrification isn’t how to do it, but when to start. Once the process has taken hold it’s often too late, or at least much more costly, to implement many of the necessary measures. But how do you tell when is the right time? We haven’t discovered any magic solutions to that question. But we start to ask it, by examining the dynamics of neighborhood change through the eyes of housers in three New Jersey cities that are in three different places of the cycle.

Markets don’t only affect low-income areas when they are booming. One of the problems in many low-income areas, argues Ada Focer, is not exactly that the markets are weak – it’s that they’re broken; there isn’t enough information about home sales and home conditions available to make for reasonable and consistent prices. A more “transparent” market, she says, would lower prices for nonprofits, make an atmosphere less conducive to fraud and help community builders identify unrealized potential.

Tenants Rise Again?
It’s been a two decades since there was a national tenant movement; for a long time the news from the local front was mostly about defensive battles. But these days, the news we hear about tenant organizing is both more frequent and more positive than it has been in a long time.
Tenant activist Judy Nicastro was not only elected to the Seattle city council (see Shelterforce #105 and #108), but she’s getting tenant-friendly legislation passed. (See short takes.) In New York City a group of tenant advocates has been convened by city comptroller and mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi to draft an aggressive, proactive tenant protection bill to bring to the state capital when rent regulations come up for renewal. In Boston, City Life/Vida Urbana is organizing tenants based on what they call a “union model,” with “locals” in each neighborhood, and has gathered tenant leaders from associations around the city to form a Tenant Organizing Committee to deal with issues broader than single buildings. Perhaps the clearest evidence that this organizing may be reaching into popular consciousness is an April 10th editorial in the Boston Globe – once a vocal supporter of rent control repeal – advocating its comeback.

In this issue we have two pieces on one of the most controversial and complicated results of tenant organizing: rent control. Dennis Keating and Mitch Kahn give us an analysis of the state of rent control today, and Bill Cavellini walks us through the aftermath of losing rent control in Cambridge, MA. It’s not enough to have some generous municipal funding programs, he says, (though those are good!); in some circumstances regulation is necessary

Send Those Letters
You, our readers, are the real experts in community building in all its many facets. Do you have an opinion about one of our articles? Something to add? Please let us know – send your letters to linda@nhi.org or 460 Bloomfield Avenue, Suite 211, Montclair, NJ 07042-3552.

OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE

  • Beyond Gentrification

    May 1, 2001

    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.

  • A round blue and orange sign on an urban street corner with a train on it reads "Welcome to the Ironbound"

    Tales of Three Cities

    May 1, 2001

    Even after neighboring Hoboken turned from working-class enclave to exclusive high-cost outpost, some think that will never happen to Newark...

  • The Price is Wrong

    May 1, 2001

    Imagine a vacant, boarded-up shell of a house at auction. The local community development corporation is bidding, though it has calculated that even if the price were zero, substantial subsidies […]