3 Ways Communities Can Take Control of Gentrification

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Is gentrification bad for low-income minority communities?

The answer may depend on how you define “gentrification.” The panelists who participated in a discussion on “Gentrification, Integration and Equity,” hosted by Next City on Dec. 3rd, had definitions that varied widely, and not all of them agreed that it was a bane. But the issue of better-off residents moving into low-income neighborhoods, no matter how one defines or slices it, does call for cities and communities to come up with ways to counter the ill effects and develop alternative, inclusive visions for redevelopment.

What is gentrification?
The panel’s scholar, New York University professor Ingrid Gould Ellen, said she didn’t even like using the term, because “all of us have something very different about it in our heads.” Activist Eric Grimes, co-founder of AAKT (Action, Advocacy, Knowledge and Training) Concepts for Social Justice and Community Development, had the most expansive and provocative definition, linking the term to the 18th- and 19th-century landed gentry who owned his ancestors, and tied the term to the systematic stripping of assets and exclusion from the power structure that blacks in America have experienced through history.

Ellen gave the narrower, more common definition: the increase in rents and house values triggered by an influx of more affluent residents into a low-income neighborhood. While she noted that at the nationwide level, low-income minority neighborhoods are no more likely to gentrify than non-minority ones — “in fact, low-income black ones are less likely to gentrify because whites are still afraid to move into them” — Grimes did point out (and Ellen agreed) that blacks make up a larger share of the population in the nation’s 25 largest cities, and in those cities, especially New York, the process disproportionately affected black neighborhoods.

Whether or not gentrification is taking place in minority neighborhoods, and whether or not the gentrifiers are of a different race or ethnicity from the current residents, the effect is the same: Lower-income homeowners and renters find it increasingly difficult to remain in their neighborhoods. How to enable them to do so was the main challenge the panelists tackled, and they had several recommendations, including:

Ensure every stakeholder in the community has a place at the table before the process advances too far.
This means bringing community members into the planning process from the start and making sure developers respect community goals and priorities. Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs in Philadelphia, noted that this will require understanding how information travels through communities and how people within them voice their concerns. When she was involved in planning in eastern North Philadelphia with Asociación de Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM), Rodriguez said, the group varied its outreach efforts depending on the community: “If a community was savvy about the Internet, that was how you communicated, but where I was working, it was all relationship-based, so you needed to knock on doors.”

“Not everyone participates in the same way, either,” she continued. “Just having a community meeting by itself will not get that broad swath of the community.”

Learn how the planning and development process works.
In Philadelphia, the main way for communities to shape their development is via the Registered Community Organization (RCO), a legally recognized group that has review power over developments that require zoning variances. But not all RCOs reach out to or represent the entire community, said Grimes, and when that’s the case, it may be necessary to “bogart the conversation.”

Where they do reach out, RCOs can play a vital role in ensuring inclusive redevelopment, said Kira Strong, vice president of community and economic development at the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia, who noted that by working together, RCOs in several northern West Philadelphia neighborhoods got Drexel University and a realty trust company to slow down their rush to redevelop a 14-acre parcel of land they had acquired from the School District of Philadelphia and take into account community concerns and priorities. Programs like the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s Citizens Planning Institute, Strong noted, also give community residents knowledge they can use to shape development and influence policymakers.

Use the policy tools available to protect residents and preserve housing diversity.
Maintaining a supply of affordable housing is a key to ensuring that neighborhoods experiencing gentrification remain diverse. “The housing should be placed in asset-rich communities,” noted Strong. “It shouldn’t be out of the way.”

A community that creates its own plan, Rodriguez said, can bring that plan to the table when large-scale redevelopment is proposed and use it as a tool to get developers to negotiate. Ellen added that public housing could and should still play a role in preserving affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods, and that other federal policies, such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, can also be used to preserve housing diversity. But some of the most important federal policies that needed to be addressed, she said, dealt with income inequality: “This also needs to tie to labor policy, specifically a higher minimum wage, a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit and a more progressive income tax,” she said.

“Gentrification, Integration and Equity” was the last event in Next City’s City Sessions in Philadelphia, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and presented in partnership with 900AM-WURD and AL DÍA News and PhillyCAM.

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is an associate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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