Gentrification with a Twist

It’s a familiar story, at least on the surface: A neighborhood in decline is “discovered” by people with money, who snap up beautiful but run-down houses for a song, driving up prices and displacing longtime residents of lesser means.

But what happens when the residents are working-class African-Americans – and the gentrifiers are themselves an oppressed minority – for instance, the gay community?

“Flag Wars,” is a documentary by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras that attempts to explore these tensions in the Olde Towne section of Columbus, OH. In June PBS will broadcast the film as part of the P.O.V. Diverse Voices Project (check your local listings or www.pbs.org/pov), but it has already elicited a strong reaction in Columbus, where “Flag Wars” had its premiere in March. Some residents feel their neighbors and neighborhood were maligned.

Weeks before the film aired, P.O.V invited Shelterforce Editor Harold Simon to moderate an online discussion about gentrification and intergroup tension in general, “Beyond Gentrification: Strategies for Managing Community Change,” which we have excerpted here. You can view the full discussion (and post your own comments) at www.pbs.org/pov/pov 2003/flagwars/special_roundtable.html.
Participants in the roundtable were: Mtamanika Youngblood, senior vice president for community impact at United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta and former executive director of the Historic District Development Corp. in Atlanta; Radhika Fox, associate, PolicyLink, Washington, DC; Brad Lander, executive director, Fifth Avenue Committee, Brooklyn, NY; Theresa Singleton, research and information director, Housing Assistance Council, Washington, DC; Joe Molinaro, manager, Smart Growth Programs of the National Association of Realtors®, Washington, DC; Jill Slater, planner, San Francisco Planning Department.


Harold Simon: Atlanta has made a very strong and conscious effort to attract thousands of skilled and professional workers from the suburbs and other parts of the region. To “manage” the inevitable gentrification, the Historic District Development Corporation created a comprehensive plan. How did you decide on the mix and what were the key elements needed to make it sustainable over time?

Mtamanika Youngblood: As part of a strategic planning process in the late 1980s the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) created guiding principles to insure that the development process that occurred was true to what the neighborhood had been. Included in those guiding principles was a strong statement regarding non-displacement of existing residents, the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character and redevelopment that would recreate the neighborhood as mixed income. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District is in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. It’s sandwiched between upper income Inman Park and downtown Atlanta. Knowing there would be market pressures based on its location, the resident-led board decided on a residential development mix of one-third low-income, one-third moderate- income and one-third middle-income.

When HDDC began concentrated development in earnest, it spent an entire year acquiring lots and vacant structures. Essentially, it land banked. This allowed for “planned development” so that HDDC could determine the mix of housing costs. Depending on land costs, the organization cross subsidizes, whereby the market rate housing is used to subsidize the affordable housing that is built.

Most of the initial residential development was geared to low- and moderate-income families and individuals. Since the early 1990s, HDDC has been using a block-by-block development strategy, building new homes on vacant lots on the same streets where it rehabbed existing dilapidated structures.

HS: Given the funding realities today, how can small organizations land bank? Are there any other strategies used to guide the market and not be priced out of the market when your efforts are successful?

Radhika Fox: Given that we are in an economic downturn, it is theoretically the best time to “land bank” properties since land values have decreased. However, it is extremely challenging to find new resources in this diminished funding climate. One opportunity for community organizations to explore is partnering with local government to get access to vacant, under-utilized, or abandoned buildings. There are examples of city agencies turning these properties over to nonprofit organizations that then bring these buildings into productive reuse. In a variation on this idea, the city of Portland turns over portions of its land holdings to the community land trust.

However, the efforts of community organizations to advance equitable development and prevent displacement are only one piece of the puzzle. Locales must implement strategies that require the private market to contribute to the affordable housing stock in a community. For example, inclusionary zoning policies tie market rate residential development to housing affordability, while commercial linkage programs tie commercial development to housing affordability.

HS: Have you encountered any intergroup tensions and how have you dealt with them?

Brad Lander: We work hard to balance our mission – advancing social and economic justice in our community – with creating a comfortable space where people from different race and class backgrounds can work together. On the one hand, we want people to build common ground. On the other hand, we believe that if low-income and other disenfranchised people do not have a stronger voice in our neighborhood, we cannot achieve our goals.

Sometimes, of course, this provokes tension. When we have developed (or sought to develop) supportive housing for people with special needs, homeowners have sometimes fought against us. Our approach in these cases has been respectful community organizing. Rather than hide from the issue, we have knocked on every door on the affected blocks – bringing with us people from buildings we have developed and those who would benefit from what we are proposing. We have held open neighborhood meetings, where competing interests could be discussed. But we have also, at times, been strong advocates for things that community residents involved with FAC believed were needed in our community (e.g. housing for homeless people, or people with mental illness, or people returning from prison), even when we might have lost a vote on the affected block. Still, we believe our honesty and our approach have preserved relationships for the future.

HS: Does gentrification affect rural communities?

Theresa Singleton: Rural areas experience gentrification; however, it differs in important ways from the gentrification that occurs in urban communities. While urban gentrification typically affects a specific neighborhood, rural gentrification affects a whole town or county. Further, while urban gentrification typically involves issues of both race and class – two issues that are often conflated – in rural areas, gentrification is primarily an issue of class. Wealthy whites have migrated to amenity-rich rural enclaves to avail themselves of the natural beauty and resources these rural communities have to offer. In doing so, the influx of new people and new money changes the character of these areas and affects the native population in important ways. Many have referred to these changes as conflicts between “cowboys and cappuccinos.”

HS: What role should Realtors, as civic leaders, take in reducing inter-group tensions when they arise?

Joe Molinaro: Realtors help long-term residents in a price-appreciating community by assisting them to purchase housing using many available housing affordability programs, sponsoring homeownership classes and more. Realtors often work with local community-based nonprofit organizations to help long-term homeowners use their increasing equity to improve their homes. In addition, realtors and the Realtors Association often sponsor or participate in community-based activities to reduce tensions and improve community relations.

Recently, NAR began a Housing Opportunity program to provide better information to Realtors about programs in their states and communities that assist people in buying homes. And for many years, we have had a diversity program that includes a training program called “At Home with Diversity” that improves the ability of Realtors to effectively reach out to all racial and ethnic groups in their community. Our diversity program also includes programs to increase the success of minority Realtors and to reach out to minority organizations, including minority real estate organizations not affiliated with NAR.

HS: Like New York City and a handful of other places, San Francisco revels (rightly so) in its diversity. But that diversity has led to cultural tensions. How has the city managed such tensions, especially when culture and class intertwine?

Jill Slater: The primary source of tension is amidst different classes of residents in San Francisco. The diversity within San Francisco requires that developers, businesses, new and old residents must make compromises in order to coexist.

The Mission and the South of Market are both areas where there are tensions between new and old communities. The South of Market has long been home to a large Filipino community as well as the largest contingent of Single Resident Occupant hotels. It was the center of attention during the dot-com boom – start-up companies wanted their office space here and the new technology employees wanted to live in the district’s trendy, new live/work condos. The Mission is a very attractive real estate option to homebuyers, and is also home to the largest concentration of working class Latino families in San Francisco. It is an area with beautiful Victorian homes and vibrant tree-lined streets. The Mission district has great access to shopping and public transit and is one of the sunniest areas in San Francisco.

The responses of the community during this planning process [to change local zoning ordinances] indicate that residents of all income levels want good places to live, with services that make up a true neighborhood, with good urban design and the convenience of living, working and shopping in close proximity to one another. The owners and workers of the retail stores, offices and production/distribution/repair businesses also need good places in which to operate – enough space to conduct a viable business with the protection from conflict with adjacent uses.

Tensions are relieved when policy makers understand the complexity of a situation in which diverse stakeholders express their demands. All sides must be listened to and well served by the outcome of the legislation.

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