Talking About Revitalization When All Anyone Wants to Talk About Is Gentrification

Talking gentrification graphic
Image credit: SVG SILH

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?:

  • You’re trying to set up financing for a project, but the people you’re talking to don’t seem to realize that you will have to cover an appraisal gap because the sales price of the finished house will be less than what it cost you buy and rehab it.
  • You’re working on a project that will bring badly needed amenities to an isolated place that has been systemically disinvested from for decades and whose poverty and other indicators show no sign of changing, and someone worries at a public meeting if you’re bringing gentrification.
  • You’re promoting homeownership for low-income people in a market where ownership is more affordable than renting and there is an abundance of income-restricted rental, but someone says you are serving people who don’t need it.

If the attendance at the October 4 Reclaiming Vacant Properties session “Advocating for Revitalization When All Anyone Wants to Talk About Is Gentrification,” is any indication, many people are wrestling with scenarios like these. Usually breakout sessions on the last day of a three-day conference are somewhat sparsely attended, as people drift toward flights that will get them home for dinner. But this one, despite its Friday placement, filled a large space to standing-room only capacity.

The session was specifically focused on the assumptions based on hot market experiences that get projected onto places where rapid appreciation is not only not present, but not impending, and the challenges this causes for doing work in those areas. We also set a goal to brainstorm some messaging strategies in response to those assumptions. Carey Shea,  director of Special Initiatives at Home by Hand, and I put together the panel after hearing frustrations around scenarios like those above.

Even at Reclaiming Vacant Properties, one of the few national conferences focused primarily on high-vacancy areas, non-gentrifying neighborhoods at times were referred to as “pre-gentrifying markets,” as if that were the inevitable trajectory. That doesn’t seem to match the facts on the ground. A national study by City Observatory found in 1970 there were 1,119 high-poverty census tracts within 10 miles of the central business district of the country’s 51 largest metropolitan areas. By 2010, that had almost tripled to 3,165. Of those original 1119, only about 100 had their poverty rate dip below the national average in that time. (As moderator of this session, I insisted that we not debate whether and when gentrification was coming to those areas. Here’s why.)

Panelist Melvyn Colon, executive director of Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance in Hartford, Connecticut, spoke about how different the economic situation is in Hartford from what it was in Boston when he watched gentrification overtake Jamaica Plain, and how people are bringing experiences and expectations from places like Boston to Hartford where the issues are different. He told of facing strong suspicion of homeownership programs and being accused of pandering to predatory investors when he was trying to introduce standards for Opportunity Zone investments so they would benefit the community.

Panelist Oji Alexander, executive director of Home by Hand, spoke about how the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, geographically isolated and still lacking in services and infrastructure, is not experiencing the kinds of cost pressures that other parts of the city are, and is in fact still facing problems like appraisal gaps. (In part this is isolation; in part it’s discrimination.) Former residents who want to return after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina still can’t come back because there is nothing for them to come back to.

Shea, founder and coordinator of the Neighborhood Homes Investment Coalition, spoke about the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act, a bill that would create a federal tax credit to fill the gap in financing for one- to four-unit buildings, which dominate many of the markets in question. Tools for working with these smaller buildings are sorely lacking in the affordable housing financing world. Having the right tools available, Shea suggested, would help developers work with neighborhoods that have a large number of distressed one-to-four family homes in a way that realistically meets their needs.

The audience also chimed in with many stories from places all over the country. Listening to what everyone said, combined with some pre- and post-session conversations, I’ve come up with a set of tips for navigating some of these scenarios, and then a set of specific messages that might be useful to apply. (This is my list, not endorsed by the panelists, though I drew on their wisdom and experiences.)

  1. Make sure your market analysis is up-to-date, and share your reasons. Keep in mind that many parts of the country are changing rapidly, including some unexpected places. Don’t miss signs that change is imminent. Be able to explain what’s different, as well as the national context around how most neighborhoods are actually continuing to get poorer.
  2. Don’t be dismissive of people’s concerns. Sometimes people need to vent, and fears about neighborhood change are not unreasonable. Never say something like “that’ll never happen here” or “we could use some gentrification.” Those are neither true nor respectful. Remember, as Shea pointed out in the session, that we now have a generation whose primary experience of urban neighborhoods is of them “coming back,” without having witnessed either the emptying out or the long hard work it took to reestablish many of those neighborhoods before the market took over.
  3. Remember that many kinds of fears get lumped under the term “gentrification.” While usually we take it to mean a sharply appreciating market accompanied by demographic turnover and cost-based displacement, that’s not the only thing people fear. Development can be, and often has been, done in places that are not appreciating at all in a way that still either physically displaces people (think urban renewal, or some HOPE VI projects) or makes them feel left out, disconnected, disempowered, or culturally dislocated. Listen for what people’s actual fears are and take seriously whether they apply and what can be done about them.
  4. Acknowledge that community development hasn’t always gotten anti-displacement protections right in the past. Many well-intentioned community development groups in past decades were not prepared for success or neighborhood change, and missed opportunities to mitigate or protect their neighborhood as the problems it faced shifted from revitalization to affordability. Even if displacement or gentrification is not an impending problem, you can commit as an organization to actively watching for indicators that your strategies need to shift, and implementing strategies that will support revitalization and provide a layer of protection in case of future neighborhood change.
  5. Involve residents in planning. Resident participation is by no means specific to this kind of work or market, but the fundamental principle of people being more in support of something they had a hand in crafting still applies, and came up over and over from the audience in our session.

Specific messaging that might help, when applicable, to support revitalization work:

  • “Disinvestment displaces people too.” This is a powerful and important message. Though the mechanisms are different, people who are living in homes that slumlords let become uninhabitable or who are pushed out by failing services or who want to stay in their neighborhood once they are ready to buy a home but can’t find any to buy are also involuntarily displaced. Those displacements are also worth fighting.
  • “We’re serving people with neighborhood connections.” For a neighborhood like Frog Hollow in Hartford or Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, affordable homeownership is often literally cheaper than renting for many people, and the people taking advantage of those programs are not affluent outsiders. They are generally working-class people with some connection to the neighborhood—former residents who were displaced or moved reluctantly away, people who grew up there, or people with family, work, or congregation connections to the area.
  • “More LIHTC won’t necessarily help our renters.” While income-restricted rental may sound like a good way to reach those in most need, in a place like Hartford, LIHTC units are both extremely common already, renting for about the same as surrounding market rentals, and serving a very narrow income band.
  • “We have space.” In a neighborhood that has been disinvested from, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence of someone new moving in to someone else moving out. As long as projects are planned carefully, they should accommodate increased population rather than churn.
  • Stable neighborhoods are more protected against gentrification.” Areas with a mix of land that’s not in the speculative market, non-luxury ownership housing with supported homeowners, affordable rental, and amenities that serve current residents are not as susceptible to large-scale speculative predatory investments.

Have you successfully navigated these waters? Tell us about how you did it.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Very good summary. Many of us are working in markets — like Memphis — where the least of our worries is too much investment. Those of us working in low cost minority neighborhoods should be pushing home ownership so that when values finally go up, those home owners will be the ones who benefit.

  2. Hit the nail squarely on the head. Unfortunately, convincing “experts” living in overheated markets that their situation isn’t the norm is like using a hammer to hit one’s own head.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.