Painted gentrification sign on wall


Who Gets to Live Where, and Why? The Answer May Be Settled By Our Narratives

Why housing messaging is backfiring and recommendations on how to change course.

'I Love Gentrification,' by Daniel Lobo via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Painted gentrification sign on wall

‘I Love Gentrification,’ by Daniel Lobo via flickr, CC BY 2.0

Several weeks ago, social media ignited in outrage over a sign posted outside a small café in Denver. On one side, the sign read, “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014”. On the other side, it read: “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.” The backlash from community advocates was swift.

The owners of this cafe probably did not intend to create the firestorm they started—they just wanted to sell more lattés—but their gentrification joke-misfire raises a larger, more troubling point: The economic plight of low-income Americans is worsening, and we do not have the public support we need to scale policies that would improve their well-being nor to improve the racially/ethnically segregated neighborhoods in which they live, without displacing them.

Generally, many Americans feel personally empathetic toward those who are struggling, yet our public policies reek of a growing antipathy toward the poor that is difficult to dislodge.

Many of the same people, who in our polls say that they are in favor of better housing solutions for residents, fail to support affordable housing developments when they are proposed in nearby neighborhoods; fail to support legislation that would make it possible to build, create, or preserve existing affordable housing; and fail to support the organizations trying to help low-income people in their communities.

Millions of people are being displaced from their homes because their incomes are not keeping pace with rising housing costs, yet there seems to be very little sustained appetite to address or correct this issue. When we try to raise awareness and offer potential solutions, we often find ourselves largely in conversation with ourselves.

The Denver café reminds us, quite painfully, that despite decades of raising the issue of displacement in the face of rising rents, many people still do not see this as a call-to-action or a failure of public policy. A cursory glance at the comments section of the New York Times article that covered the Denver story shows how ambivalent most people are about this issue.

In a report that I co-authored with a colleague last fall titled, You Don’t Have to Live Here, we examined why housing messaging is backfiring and made some concrete recommendations based on empirical evidence about how to change course. In the report, we argue that we are advocating hard for better policies and programs, but seem to be missing the opportunity to change the public discourse about why housing matters, what “affordable housing” means, why housing is a shared public concern, and what needs to be done to fix this problem.

What We’re Up Against: What’s Backfiring on the Issue of Gentrification

Boiled down, the public narrative on gentrification simply says people don’t have a “right” to live in any particular place, nor do they have standing in a neighborhood simply because they (in this case, African Americans) have always lived there. You only get to live in a place because your efforts (getting an education and job) afford you the right to be there. And if you get priced out, so the logic goes, it is your responsibility to move to a place more consistent with your budget and work ethic. Surely, there are plenty of places left in the United States where housing is still relatively cheap, if people are willing to do the work to look.

This logic reflects the three, very powerful narratives that dominate the public discourse on the place-based work we do and is often responsible for the backfire we get when we try to build public support. And when these narratives operate together (as they often do on the issue of gentrification), it is a trifecta that leads to a predictable refrain—“if you can’t afford where you live . . .” :

  • . . . it is your own responsibility to solve that problem because decent housing is an outcome and a reward for making good choices in your life (The Narrative of Individual Responsibility);
  • . . . move to a place that better reflects your budget and paycheck (The Narrative of Mobility) and;
  • . . . any differences between groups in terms of access to affordable housing reflects differences in the work ethic and cultural values of those negatively affected groups rather than a structural, spatial, and system problem (The Narrative of Racial Difference)

As a result, navigating the public conversation so that it congeals around affordable housing solutions is challenging. As I’ve written before, the public perception of affordable housing often equates it to “public housing” which remains very negative and highly racialized in the public’s imagination. And the concept of “affordability” is still understood by most Americans as much more about how effective we are with our personal finances and budgeting versus issues that reflect broader public concerns.

Surviving the Backfire

Our first inclination in the face of triggering events like the Denver café incident is often to launch awareness or public education campaigns—to which we dutifully bring all the data that we can amass to help us articulate just how bad things really are.

But awareness is not the challenge we face. Most people know how bad the economic circumstances are for low-income families (hell, many of us in the middle class are in the same circumstances). And those who somehow missed this memo are unlikely to see the light just because we have detailed the challenges that low-income families endure when they are displaced.

Instead, this kind of “awareness raising” consistently backfires because it evokes a zero-sum, “what about me?”, separate-fates response. The response often reflects attitudes that do not recognize the struggles of low-income families as unique but as a challenge that we are all trying to stare down. Why focus more attention on the poor when all of us are feeling trapped by an increasingly fragmented social safety net, economic pressures to keep our families afloat, and a government that feels like it is in full-fledged free fall?

Quite frankly, if awareness were the issue, it would be much easier to dislodge, but as many of us already know—and what Christiano and Neimand argue in their March 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Stop Building Awareness Already, “Not only do campaigns fall short and waste resources when they focus solely on raising awareness, but sometimes they can actually end up doing more harm than good.” From a framing perspective, the harm is that you’ll end up raising the issues in a way that ultimately backfires and ends up reducing public support for the policies you were advocating.

So what helps?

Moving the Needle Requires a Strong Public Will-Building Strategy

To advance support for policies and programs that need scale, we must do a much better job of navigating the three dominant narratives (individual responsibility, mobility, and racial difference) that complicate our ability to communicate why our solutions matter. Here, I highlight some specific considerations to complement the broader range of recommendations in the report.

Gentrification Backfire No. 1: Stories about the displacement challenges that low-income residents face often backfire in the face of the individual responsibility narrative. Our task is to make the story big enough to help others see the issue as a shared structural, spatial, and systems issue that impacts every aspect of our communities and thus, requires a public response.

There is nothing wrong with providing a vehicle for the people most directly affected to tell their stories and to be heard, in fact, this is the hallmark of true community development. Be mindful, however, that it is very difficult to tell stories of displacement that do not backfire because, while people may be sympathetic to the circumstances of displaced residents, as one respondent to our research said, “It still doesn’t change your responsibility to get yourself out of that situation.” In other words, understand that personal stories of displacement rarely trump the very powerful narrative of individual responsibility.

To do this, we need to be strategic. First, be careful to anchor your response in the optimism of your solutions rather than the deep challenges many families face. The latter may have been what brought many of us to this work but it does not work well to engage people who are not already empathetic in this way.

Instead anchor your response in your solutions, which is important if you are to get people engaged over the long term. Building support for systems change, and not against the café (or the idea of “gentrification,” which has multiple and apparently competing meanings for people). Reinforce how providing a home for residents at all levels of the income spectrum is a structural, spatial, and systems issue that is deeply connected to everything meaningful in our cities. Talk about the “pathways to opportunity,” or the systems that need to be strengthened if low and moderate-income families are to thrive alongside their wealthier neighbors in our communities.

Most people forget the ways in which they were helped by our public safety net and the supportive systems around them, so reconnect the dots between their successes and those pathways. Anchoring your message there also gives you the added benefit of making it more difficult for people to default back to the “bootstraps” narrative. If the issue is cast as a structural one (for example, fundamentally about the transit system, accessibility of jobs, technology infrastructure, etc.), it becomes harder to argue that these are problems that can be solved by people simply “working harder.”

Two other caveats are important here. First, be sure to connect housing and the plight of low-income families with other positive attributes and outcomes for the region, from improved education and health to better employment and public safety. Connecting housing and the plight of low-income families to these other attributes helps us to align the value proposition for solving these issues with other community stakeholders.

Second, resist the urge to use the protests as a wholesale attack on business, wealth creation, or economic growth. If acquiring individual wealth is seen as being in opposition to creating opportunities for long-time residents, you will lose this narrative battle every time. Prosperity is a powerful motivation, value, and aspiration for most Americans, so avoid the inclination to play into a frame that pits low-income residents against the ability of small businesses to create wealth and thrive.

Gentrification Backfire No. 2: When we frame our communications in terms of “choice,” “housing markets,” and “moving to opportunity,” we inadvertently trip the wire that invokes moving as a powerful corrective for what ails our communities. Our task is not to remind people that gentrification forces people to move or to argue that poor people have few choices in our housing markets, but rather, to remind them of what they lose when others are forced to move.

The task here is to help people see how they are implicated in, and affected by, displacement in ways that they may not have even realized or acknowledged. Tell them why displacement should matter to them and why they have a stake in it.

More specifically, tell them what they lose if we do not act to build growth in a way that considers the impacts on low- and moderate-income families. What they lose when we continue to engage in policies that exacerbate racial segregation and hoard opportunity away from people.

  • when so many of our educators, child care workers and first responders live far away from where they work that it compromises their ability to deliver on the jobs they have been hired for.
  • when their grown children can’t afford to live in the once solidly working-class neighborhoods that have now become too pricey for “starter” families.
  • the talent that we are “leaving on the table” and the terrible consequences for our economy when only children from high-income neighborhoods get the benefit of an education that prepares them to be innovators while thousands of lower-income children cannot see their way to even finish high school.
  • and most important, tell them about the solutions that we have crafted to turn those losses into gains for everyone.

In other words, make it clear that this as a shared public concern and they have a stake in solving it.

Gentrification Backfire No. 3: Our attempts to raise the issue of racial equity backfire very quickly in the face of the powerful narrative of racial difference. Our task is not to shy away from the conversation about race but rather to be strategic in how we raise the issue so that it does not dissolve into cynicism, but rather gets the attention that it deserves in our work.

So often when race, class, or cultural issues are the headline of our communications, responses dissolve into cynicism and derision rather than corrective action. These same issues often undergird the tension over gentrification. The only caveat here is to raise them strategically.

The task is to introduce racial equity into the conversation in a way that gives people a reason (in addition to social justice) to resolve it. That is, we must help people to see their stake in solving some very difficult and emotionally charged dynamics that have plagued our cities and our nation for centuries—not an easy sell.

Tell them how the future will be won by the regions and communities with diverse talent, resources, restaurants, cultural activities, languages spoken, and more. This is in part because our economy, increasingly responding to the pressures of a globalized marketplace, is changing in ways that put a high value on diverse environments. By extension, those communities that remain highly segregated along race and class lines will miss out on opportunities to remain competitive, threatening the livelihoods of all who live in those communities. Help people to see that racial equity is the smart thing to do to ensure that our cities prosper, in addition to it just being the “right” thing to do.

A Public Will-Building Strategy Is Not a Panacea, But You Won’t Get Very Far Without a Good One

As housing pressures continue to rise in many cities across the country, we are likely to see more of these clashes between residents who feel threatened and “newcomers.” Such incidents are bellwethers of the underlying tensions that are created when economic growth is pursued without a concomitant strategy around equity and inclusion.

Surely these issues will not be solved simply by changing our language. Our work to bring capital, community-led solutions, and policy change are key to changing the dynamics on the ground. But without a strategy to build public will, we will not have the support we need to scale the programs we know will help.

Scale requires us to get more public support. Our ability to help guide our communities to a pathway forward, requires us to navigate successfully around the three narratives and the public perception of affordable housing that today operates against us.

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