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Combating Gentrification Through Equitable Development

The Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) has worked for fifteen years to revitalize the lower Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, building affordable housing, rehabbing dilapidated buildings and training residents to own cooperative businesses in the neighborhood. The success of these efforts has forced them into unanticipated arenas, including a Displacement Free Zone campaign—their fierce effort to defend tenants within the 36-block neighborhood from evictions; and a local and state policy campaign with other New York City organizations to give landlords incentives to keep their tenants in place and to require developers to include affordable housing in market-rate developments.

"Our work has made the neighborhood nicer, which was the point," reflects FAC's director of organizing Benjamin Dulchin, "but it's meant that evictions are on the rise."

Even though the expanding economy of the last decade accelerated the pace of displacement in revitalizing communities, the current recession has not reversed that trend. Thus, low-income and people of color communities such as lower Park Slope, working hard for equitable development, remain vulnerable to the larger trends and economic realities that come with revitalization. What are these trends, and how can communities respond to make the improvements benefit existing residents?

Development trend #1: Regional development patterns play a significant role in gentrification and displacement in particular neighborhoods.

As regions grow and sprawl into a network of economically interdependent jurisdictions, the abandoned or disinvested communities become attractive to both residents and developers. Workers who tire of commuting long distances and want to be closer to effective mass transit systems look to move back towards the core. In an effort to shore up hemorrhaging municipal budgets, public officials promote regional developments that will draw people back to the core for shopping or entertainment. Because the initial abandonment and disinvestment was spurred by segregationist practices such as "white-flight," mortgage preferences and redlining by banks and insurance companies, the new influx of people and capital has a distinct racial impact when displacement begins to occur.

Gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District displaced residents and businesses from the Latino cultural nexus of the Bay Area; the expansions of Los Angeles' Staples Center entertainment complex and the University of Southern California threaten both a historic African American community and a newer Latino community as land values escalate; Chinatowns of New York, Oakland and Portland have felt the loss when seniors and low-income members of historic Asian communities can no longer afford the rents or taxes on their housing.

Development trend #2: Housing affordability problems in the United States have become more pervasive.

A shrinking investment in affordable housing by the federal government limits the affordable supply and concentrates low-income housing in disinvested communities. The federal investment in HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and low-income housing programs has declined as much as 60% over the last quarter century. These cutbacks have placed upward pressure on the affordability of existing private units. In 1999, over 14 million owner and renter households spent more than half their incomes on housing. Contributing to these pressures is the ongoing loss of affordable rentals. More than 300,000 units affordable to households with low incomes were lost and not replaced between 1997 and 1999 alone.

Development trend #3: Not all jurisdictions are committed to producing affordable housing and enforcement mechanisms are the exception rather than the rule.

When jurisdictions undergoing growth do not tie development to affordability commitments, they are increasing pressures on existing affordable units in more affordable neighborhoods. Restrictions on land development and exclusionary zoning practices make it difficult for the market to produce housing that low-income people can afford. As household growth adds to demand, the mismatch between the supply of low-cost rentals and the number of households who need them will likely grow.

Development trend #4: Jurisdictions chase sales tax and property tax to increase local revenues

Jurisdictions make development decisions based on revenue instead of community need. Urban core jurisdictions increasingly opt for large scale developments like big box retail stores, hotels, and stadiums that draw visitors from across the region. These developments often directly displace community-serving and culturally-oriented businesses, opening wounds for communities that were negatively impacted by earlier urban renewal. The urban renewal programs of the '60s and '70s (aka urban removal) caused widespread condemnation of African American commercial districts. To residents of New York's Harlem, Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine, and Portland's Interstate neighborhood, revitalization efforts all portend the loss of community serving enterprises. With this tangible history, however, the biggest champions for community continuity—the residents—are mobilizing to direct positive neighborhood and regional change to ensure that their visions of equitable development, rather than gentrification and displacement come to life.

Indicators of Gentrification

Specific community attributes that create the greatest vulnerabilities to displacement include:

  • a high proportion of renters
  • ease of access to jobs centers (freeways, public transit, reverse commutes, new subway stations or ferry routes)
  • location in a region with increasing levels of metropolitan congestion and
  • comparatively low housing values, particularly for housing stock with architectural merit.

While the story of gentrification within each community is unique, the process tends to unfold in a series of recognizable stages. The first stage involves some significant public or nonprofit redevelopment investment and/or private newcomers buying and rehabbing vacant units.

In the next stage, the neighborhood's low housing costs and other amenities become known and housing costs rise. Displacement begins as landlords take advantage of rising market values and evict long-time residents in order to rent or sell to the more affluent. Increasingly, newcomers are more likely to be homeowners, and the rising property values cause down payment requirements to increase. With new residents come commercial amenities that serve higher income levels.

As rehabilitation becomes more apparent, prices escalate and displacement occurs in force. New residents have lower tolerance for existing social service facilities that serve homeless populations or other low-income needs; as well as industrial and other uses they view as undesirable. Original residents are displaced along with their industries, commercial enterprises, faith institutions and cultural traditions. In San Francisco's Mission District, rents escalated so rapidly in the past few years that nonprofit health clinics, Latino cultural arts organizations and the ubiquitous auto repair shops have been forced to close. In their place, dot.coms and other office uses neither serve nor employ the historic residents of the community.

Strategies to Respond to Gentrification

Gentrification/displacement is felt most severely in historic communities of color. While community advocates have worked tirelessly to attract new investment to their capital-starved communities, they concede that only recently have they begun to wield the tools or power to substantively intervene and redirect development projects that may bring harm to the community.

The Fifth Avenue Committee's Displacement Free Zone, although effective as a community education and mobilization strategy, is enormously time consuming and localized in impact. But organizers from San Francisco's Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition; from Los Angeles' Figueroa Corridor Coalition for

Economic Justice; from Portland's Interstate Alliance to End Displacement; and from Washington DC's Colombia Heights and Shaw neighborhoods are adopting similar campaigns to heighten community awareness of the problem. They are also mobilizing tremendous policy gains that include new Housing

Trust Funds, Inclusionary Housing or Zoning campaigns, Real Estate Transfer Taxes that dedicate sources of new affordable housing revenue, and campaigns for historic tax credits, all of which provide for the revitalization of commercial districts with the explicit charge of meeting current residents' needs for jobs, services, contracts, etc.

PolicyLink has been working with many coalitions across the country to draw new capital resources to these communities while allowing enough community control of development to enable current residents and appropriate commercial, industrial and community service amenities to remain. PolicyLink’s web-based Equitable Development Toolkit: Beyond Gentrification provides a roadmap to the most effective policies and practices that are emerging from innovative campaigns across the country.

First, Assess

A strategic assessment of the situation is a crucial first step, because it not only helps a community figure out what is taking place, but will provide a baseline of information that communities can then compare to their community goals.

The very best time to start dealing with displacement is at the beginning of community revitalization efforts. Most communities, however, begin to focus on displacement when the elders, the disabled and those with the most limited incomes start facing eviction or when the indigenous businesses and service organizations can no longer afford rent in the neighborhood. An assessment will usually involve community mapping efforts that identify renter-to-homeowner rates, vacancy and abandonment rates, affordability indexes (rent or mortgage as percentage of household income) and spatial analyses of race and poverty. The assessment should, of course, be tailored to the specific situation.

Action on Four Fronts to Preserve and Expand the Supply of Affordable Housing. After an assessment, communities will have a better sense of their priorities and be ready to take action.

There are four major categories of action that can help to stabilize a gentrifying neighborhood. Together, they form the basis for an anti-displacement strategy. Whether communities are working to rehab and fill vacant buildings in depopulated urban cores or to improve community infrastructure in fully populated low-income neighborhoods, an explicit housing affordability plan should always be in place first. There are many parts to a comprehensive housing affordability plan.

Stabilize existing renters. This can include assessing displacement rates, creating emergency funds for rental assistance, removing discriminatory barriers that renters face or creating rent stabilization policies such as eviction controls and rent increase schedules.

On the proactive side, developing limited-equity housing cooperatives and other forms of resident-controlled housing allows a neighborhood to stabilize by turning some of the high proportion of  renters into homeowners. The democratic organization of co-ops also creates a structure that enables co-op members to play significant roles in neighborhood development. Harlem has the largest proportion of cooperative housing of any community of color in the U.S. With over 300 buildings under cooperative ownership in Harlem, residents can both stay in their community as land values rise, and use their savings on housing to accrue other assets. The Harlem Community Congregations, Inc. is working to acquire vacant land held by the City and develop the equivalent of Real Estate Investment Trusts with residents of the neighborhood as shareholders.

Along with resident-controlled housing, building and preserving affordable housing can involve all three sectors: nonprofit-owned, public sector developed, and private housing with long-term affordability restrictions. In particular, legal mechanisms to ensure long-term affordability can preserve public investment in housing and take properties off the commercial market for a while. San Francisco has one of the highest rates of nonprofit owned housing in the country. In the Tenderloin neighborhood, over a dozen nonprofit organizations focus on specific racial minority communities or special-needs populations and keep culturally-relevant, service-appropriate housing available for the long-term.

Control Land for Community Development. Land use, tax and zoning policies all shape equitable developments; a housing affordability plan can't succeed without taking them into account. Communities need to evaluate zoning and public land giveaways and steer them in the direction of their aspirations. This will include promoting inclusionary zoning ordinances, mixed-use and transit-oriented development and density provisions, all of which can encourage affordability and mixed-income areas. One of the Fifth Avenue Committee's policy campaigns is for a New York city-wide Inclusionary Zoning policy that would require developers to include the low-income housing within the market-rate development, rather than simply contributing to a fund dedicated to affordable housing. The latter can have the effect of concentrating low-income housing rather than spreading it across jurisdictions wherever development is occurring. The Balanced Development Coalition in Chicago, which has a similar goal, is negotiating with developers building by building until they have the power and public will to win through legislation.

When communities take the initiative to map out the commercial, industrial, service and arts amenities they want to hold onto and negotiate with public and private actors, they find creative ways to do this. "We approached them [Staples Center developers and City officials] with neighborhood residents and a large coalition of community organizations, churches, and unions." recounted Jafari Eayne, organizer for the Figueroa Corridor Coalition, "It took a two- to three-year campaign, but after a lot of media pressure, a lot of organizing, and a lot of good coalition work, we managed to get a community benefits package that includes things like local hiring, affordable housing, money for parks, and the first ever low-income parking district."

ACORN California and PolicyLink are working to advance a regional tax-sharing campaign in the Sacramento region that pools future tax increments and redistributes them by a formula of population and incentives for affordable housing and open space.

Build Income and Assets Creation. While stabilizing housing affordability and ensuring appropriate amenities are crucial components of neighborhood planning, income and asset creation are critical to ensuring resident well-being as the neighborhood economy improves. Providing needed resident services—childcare, transportation, a basic retail sector and access to health care—is a precondition for success. Tying public investment to local-hire and living-wage provisions or otherwise connecting land use decisions to local asset creation can significantly mitigate negative displacement pressures by bringing some of the benefits of the new investment to existing residents.

The Interstate Alliance to End Displacement in Portland has a three-pronged policy campaign in progress to advance their equitable development aspirations. A short-term and local campaign is focused on the City budget to win rental assistance to residents facing rent escalations as high as 200%. A statewide campaign for real estate transfer taxes is underway to provide revenue for affordable housing production on a scale commensurate with demand for the entire Portland Metro region. The asset-building campaign may prove the most innovative in its delivery of direct community benefits. Led by coalition member Hacienda CDC, it proposes a mixed- use development at one of the new light rail transit stations in the city's redevelopment plan. This prospective development would provide ownership opportunities for the current residents of Interstate; a credit union for the burgeoning Latino community; homeownership opportunities in 20 percent of the 107 affordable housing units; a worker-owned cooperative for parking for the transit stop; and resident ownership of other commercial and cultural center aspects of the plan. The plan brings together innovative policy, community organizing and physical development to realize the fullest benefits of equitable development.

Develop Financing Strategies. Proactive financing strategies can provide neighborhood-specific ways to fund the other three categories of action. They are generally most effective in communities that anticipate gentrification pressures prior to redevelopment, since communities already suffering displacement face escalated real estate prices and available capital will not go as far. Options for funding are numerous, and can be directed at nonprofits, private developers, or even landlords. They include investments from labor union pension funds and regional business associations, exactions and fees on commercial developments, tax increment financing and eminent domain, bank investments under the Community Reinvestment Act, Community Credit Unions and tax abatements, credits and deferments. In Washington DC activists just succeeded in capitalizing a new Housing Trust Fund with $15 million annually from a Real Estate Transfer Tax that is indexed for speculation.

Core Tools in Action

Within each of these four categories just described, there are dozens of tools. Here is a list of some of the most important tools, and ideas about how they can connect to each other and to other strategies in order to redirect the development trends that bring out gentrification and displacement and undermine equitable development goals:

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) take real estate off the speculative market and ensure long-term affordability for renters, low-income homeowners, community arts and nonprofit institutions and community-centered businesses. The Sawmill community of Albuquerque, for example, is building its vision of mixed income, Latino-rooted, mixed-use development on a brownfield-turned-CLT. Oakland, California community based organizations are crafting a citywide trust with neighborhood equity and representation. They have won a commitment from the City of $5 million to initially capitalize the Trust.

Limited-Equity Housing Cooperatives are another affordability mechanism; providing a method for renters to acquire their buildings and share in permanently affordable and democratically-controlled home ownership opportunities. A group of renters in a class action lawsuit over the uninhabitable conditions of their Colombia Heights apartments in Washington, DC reached a settlement to acquire ownership of their building for one dollar. With a limited-equity cooperative they will formalize resident ownership and make long-needed improvements to the building. If Columbia Heights can achieve the scale of co-operatives found in Harlem (which has more than 300), and combine that with rent stabilization and zoning protections, the neighborhood will have strong anti-displacement protection.

Housing Trust Funds, created by legislation that dedicates ongoing revenue streams to affordable housing, are one of the most promising financing strategies for combating gentrification, particularly if they are used to provide housing that includes long-term affordability restrictions. San Francisco, for example, channels fees from commercial development into a housing trust fund, along with federal HOME and Community Development Block Grant money and state and city revenues allocated to housing. These funds target households that earn 30 to 50 percent of the area median income.

Inclusionary zoning and Below Market Rate (BMR) Ordinances provide an ongoing framework for ensuring mixed-income communities. East Palo Alto, a historically African-American and growing Latino community on the edge of Silicon Valley, recently enacted a BMR ordinance which requires one of every four units to be made available to people making no more than 30 percent of area median income. With significant new development underway, this provision will provide homeownership opportunities for many residents who would otherwise be forced to leave their community. These ordinances combine particularly well with the three core tools listed above.


Achieving any of these things takes political will, however, and that means organizing. Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue Committee called together 200 actors in community development, neighborhood associations and urban planning to develop a proposal for a broad policy response to displacement in their community. The FAC has garnered leadership commitments to propose joint action on inclusionary zoning, tax abatements for rental support and mortgage conditions that hold new owners of apartment buildings accountable under agreements that prohibit eviction for specified periods.

There is no reason why people who have worked so hard to build lives and improve their neighborhoods should not be able to stay there. The types of dynamic policy responses to the forces of investment and development described in the Beyond Gentrification Toolkit bode well for holding communities together, especially as they revitalize and thrive.


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