Neighborhood Investment Doesn’t Have to Mean Displacement

The word “gentrification” is a loaded one and has a host of negative implications for people in the housing field, as well as for the people who live in neighborhoods targeted for or undergoing gentrification. However, if decaying urban areas across the U.S. are going to stop their downward spiral, it is going to require a variety of neighborhood investment–from within and from outside.

Around the globe, people are flocking to cities in search of jobs and a better life, but the current infrastructure in most urban areas cannot support current populations, much less explosive growth. Add to that the fact that many individuals who provide essential services in places like hospitals and schools can’t afford to live near the places they work, thus creating problems that feed on themselves.
Next week in New York City, global leaders are expected to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years.

The SDGs expand on a previous set of goals, approved in 2000, that were designed to lift people out of poverty. However, despite overwhelming evidence that housing is intricately related to improved health and education outcomes, better job opportunities and stronger communities, not one of the previous goals dealt specifically with housing.

Habitat for Humanity has been advocating for more than two years to get shelter added to the conversation, and we are delighted that one of the targets in the new SDGs calls for “access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing.” We are also pleased that housing is making its way into many local and national policy discussions.

What is most exciting, however, is that significant and varied investments are being made in many communities to create thriving and inviting places to live. Residents, local governments, nonprofits and investors are sitting down together to create plans for making improvements.

I have been very impressed with the Boston-Thurmond community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which continues to focus on new ways to support neighborhood residents. Until a few years ago, the area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, had been in decline for decades. A local Habitat team met with neighbors whose goals were very clear: Rid the area of its blighted, vacant housing, and do something about the crime. They had a vision—to make this neighborhood rich with history inviting to young families again.

The local Habitat affiliate announced plans to replace 16 of the worst houses with new ones. Because of that commitment, private developers purchased and renovated six more houses as well as historic apartment buildings in the area. Soon, churches, businesses, community leaders, Wake Forest University and other schools, plus a number of other groups came forward with their own resources and big ideas for change.

The results were amazing. After a first phase of improvements, crime dropped by 50 percent, and drug offenses were down more than 70 percent. In fact, when I was touring the area, I talked with a police officer named Billy, who was also a volunteer for the project. He said, “If you had been in this community three years ago, I would have been assigned to protect you.” With a grand sweep of his hand, he proclaimed, “Look at what we have done.”

This affiliate has expanded its original four-block area of focus to a 10- by 12-block area and has built, renovated, or repaired more than 140 houses in the neighborhood. Soon it will be dedicating a new housing education center; a construction technology center to teach home maintenance skills; and a volunteer lodge that will double the local organization’s capacity to host volunteer groups, which will again invest in the community.

The Boston-Thurmond Neighborhood Association has been rejuvenated, and Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods is continuing to engage residents in a community vision.

It is encouraging to see examples like this across the country, but we know so much more is needed. Our job as housing leaders is to convince others of the importance of adequate and affordable housing. We possess overwhelmingly concrete data about how critical housing is to the success of families and communities, and its often frustrating when others don’t share our understanding—a guess of mine for why this gap exists is because most decision makers grew up well housed, and have never experienced the challenges we often describe.

Knowing what we now know, how can we change the policy environment so that rejuvenating communities becomes an attractive investment to a broad base of support, and community members don't feel threatened by the specter of displacement?

Photos: Boston-Thurmond's Cherry Street before and after, courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit Christian housing organization that, since 1976, has helped more than 5 million people construct, rehabilitate or preserve homes in more than 70 countries. Jonathan serves on the boards of InterAction, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Duke Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and Industrial Heat. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Urban Steering Committee for the World Economic Forum. He is the author of a book titled Creating a Habitat for Humanity: No Hands but Yours.


  1. In 2005, the neighborhood I lived in was hit by the man-made floods caused by levee breaks after August 29 and Hurricane Katrina. Many of the older residents — who had been there since World War II — moved out. Their homes were demolished, and MacMansions took their places.

    Gentrification to us last hold-outs (many of us have been here since World War II) in the area means that the people who build the new houses don’t intend to stay. They plan to sell the houses to make a profit, i.e., “flip” the property, and go on their way to carry on the same buy-and-sell gambit yet again somewhere else. They are sometimes equated with the carpetbaggers who cheated and stole their way through the Reconstruction in the south.

    We used to have a sense of community here, grounded in our pride as Americans in the fact that we essentially won World War II. What do these people have to be proud of? They buy-and-sell and make money. They won’t be here ten years from now, if they are here five years later at all.


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