More than 10 years ago Mindy Fullilove wrote, “Displacement is the problem the 21st Century must solve.” Across the country residents of low-wealth communities organize in gentrifying areas and in neighborhoods that others have written off. They stand in front of bulldozers, mount lawsuits, and organize tenants. National efforts by the Anti-Displacement Policy Network, the Right to the City Alliance, SPARCC, and Grounded Solutions Network connect local advocates, foundations, and policymakers to address displacement. Local governments in Austin, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Boston, and elsewhere are responding too, creating and implementing anti-displacement plans and programs.
This national movement has brought rent control back to the policy agenda in some places, has produced greater tenant protections and legal rights, and has exposed the financing practices of banks that contribute directly and predictably to displacement in others. Common to most efforts is the preservation of existing affordable housing and the development of new subsidized housing in order to give households a way to remain in their neighborhoods even as rents rise around them.
One important way to optimize this strategy is a community preference policy that allows residents priority access to subsidized housing built in their neighborhoods. Preference policies have been strongly advocated by residents as an effective way of allowing people to continue living in their neighborhoods. They have been adopted in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Austin, Texas, and are being considered in other places as well.
Regrettably, community preference policies have been challenged by those inside and outside of government who fail to see or value the anti-displacement benefits of the policy and instead criticize it for its alleged impacts on segregation and fair housing. These criticisms, which I list below, are mistaken for a number of reasons.
- Community preference policies violate fair housing. This criticism misses the fact that displacement itself is a fair housing issue. From the first studies done on it, displacement has been shown to have a disparate impact on people of color. Narrowing the concept of fair housing to the spatial arrangement of people across neighborhoods and reducing fair housing advocacy to the pursuit of integration is a disservice that obscures the many different ways in which housing problems like displacement are experienced across race.
- Community preference policies perpetuate segregation. It is not at all clear that this is the case. In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and areas gaining large numbers of more affluent white residents, community preference serves the purpose of minimizing displacement and achieving neighborhood mix simultaneously. But, more generally, where community preference has been alleged to maintain segregation, there is no convincing empirical evidence that this is the case.
- Community preference limits the movement of people of color to better neighborhoods. It is well to keep in mind that although some believe they know the optimum neighborhood living arrangements for lower-income people of color, there are households that simply do not wish to move to those neighborhoods. Similarly, some reformers and social scientists do not trust the stated preferences of lower-income people of color and interpret their housing choices as misguided conclusions drawn from constrained decision-making contexts. Such paternalism may come from a desire to help low-income families, but it is paternalism nonetheless. Honoring the expressed residential preferences of people should be the goal of affordable housing and fair housing activism.
- Support for community preference, no matter where it comes from, is an impermissible expression of racial politics, no more acceptable from people of color than it is from whites. This is a false equivalency. Support for community preference is broad within communities of color facing significant displacement pressures, and it should not be equated with the segregationist impulses of whites who have used such preference policies in the past to maintain the racial character of their communities. The desire to remain in one’s community, among residents of neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized and subjugated, as communities of color have been in the American context, is not an exercise in racial exclusion for the purpose of achieving or maintaining the ethnic/racial purity of a neighborhood. To interpret it as such is to fundamentally misinterpret the reality of lower-income communities of color as related to issues of urban development, and to ignore the history of serial relocation due to urban renewal, highway construction, public housing demolition, gentrification, predatory lending, and foreclosure that perpetually threaten people of color in American cities. Support for community preference in communities of color is at root a response to fear of forced displacement, not a prejudicial and racist attempt to exclude others. Rather than an attempt to hoard resources and deprive others of access to them, community protection in lower-income neighborhoods is a form of solidarity in the face of injustice. It is an attempt to hold on in neighborhoods that, in some cases, are receiving significant investment and improving conditions after years of neglect and decline. Moreover, the desire to remain in one’s community is not always a judgment about the racial makeup of the neighborhood. Households can and do wish to remain nearby to close friends and family, or to keep their children in the same schools, or to keep attending the same place of worship, or to remain close to a job, or any number of other reasons having nothing to do with the overall racial makeup of the neighborhood.
- Not all people wish to remain in their neighborhoods; they want to move out. Community preference policies are not based on the assumption that everyone wants to remain in their neighborhoods. Community preference policies do not force people to remain in their neighborhoods, but they allow it. Where such policies have been initiated, community preference applies only to newly developed subsidized housing and only to a portion of that housing, and is implemented side by side with other programs designed to help families who wish to move to other neighborhoods.
- The problems of displacement are not as severe or important as the problems stemming from segregation. The disruptions and negative impacts of displacement are very serious for low-income persons. Research shows that the loss of home can precipitate serious and significant problems for people and that the instability induced by displacement can have lasting effects; that it “undermines trust, increases anxiety, destabilizes relationships, and destroys social, emotional, and financial resources.” Once displaced, people suffer “a palpable sense of fear and anxiety that [they] would be dislodged a second or third time from their home.” The trauma of displacement can trigger strong emotional and psychological distress even among those with only marginal attachments to place, and has been linked to physical health problems, and has been shown even to precipitate suicide. The housing instability often induced by displacement damages employment and school performance and has been demonstrated to lead frequently to homelessness. Finally, displaced persons suffer the loss of social networks and support systems—reciprocal relationships constructed over time as trust and experiences are built with neighbors—that are strategies of survival for people of limited means.
Displacement is a public policy concern that requires a strong and multi-layered response. Community preference policies are an important and effective strategy for minimizing displacement and ensuring that long-term residents benefit from neighborhood improvements occurring around them.