The Equity Factor

Why Cities Must Keep Tapping Into the Wealth-Building Capacity of Communities

Next City fellow Alexis Stephens on what she’s learned in a year covering equitable economic development.

(AP Photos)

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Last August, when I began covering equitable economic development issues as a Next City fellow, I wrote about my fear that the term “equity” was being used as a smokescreen — that many government officials and other civic leaders had been paying lip service to trends in urban inequality without sufficiently tackling the root causes of widening wealth gaps.

Over the course of the year, my perspective has softened as I’ve spoken to hundreds of brilliant and determined individuals working to better the livelihoods of people who have just happened to be born in a low-income bracket, or as immigrants, women, black or Latino. Small business programs like FoodLab Detroit and Women Entrepreneurs NYC prove that economic status is not intransigent, especially when local resources are leveraged correctly and the wealth-building capacity of communities are tapped into, not suppressed.

From grassroots organizers to economic development directors to mayors, I have had conversations with people who are using significantly divergent strategies to combat inequity. Milwaukee’s Jennifer Epps-Addison told me about how black women are on the front lines of the Fight for $15 minimum wage movement. Seattle’s Pierce Murphy spoke to me about the momentous year in law enforcement accountability. Chicago’s Brian Bannon gave me details about a library program teaching youth about STEM fields by tapping into their passions for gaming, design and music.

My skepticism about hollow promises has not completely disappeared. I still believe, particularly when it comes to housing, that there are blind spots where governments and real estate developers are making access for minority- and low-income communities difficult. Gentrification is a symptom of rapid and large-scale displacement of low-income people from city neighborhoods. In May, I wrote about how we need to be more specific about the processes (and any racist or classist motivations behind them) that contribute to affordability crises in cities.

In Los Angeles, one organization has been creating cultural-specific performance art to draw attention to the gente-fication that has impacted the neighborhood of Highland Park. Oakland’s Causa Justa has proposed a tenant protection ordinance and an anti-flipper tax to fight real estate speculation and institutional investment practices in the Bay Area. In Philadelphia, the Healthy Rowhouse Project is proposing ways to empower homeowners to get necessary house renovations and repairs, which can help stabilize and improve neighborhoods.

I am concerned about how across the country, those in charge of public housing — once considered a critical safety net in cities — are bending toward privatization, and how the potential for unequal surveillance and the use of data can have a disparate impact on low-income communities.

Even so, there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful about the future. And I’m extremely thankful to Next City staff, the Surdna Foundation (which sponsors the fellowship), and all of the academics, organizers, city representatives, and everyday citizens who have encouraged me to dig deeper into these stories.

It’s been a powerful and humbling experience to be able to report on initiatives like these: a Brooklyn-based restorative justice-centered public art project, a Baltimore deconstruction project that memorializes a street even as it tears it down, and a powerful youth leadership fellowship program in Ferguson, Missouri.

I look forward to reading articles from the next cohort of equitable cities fellows. There’s so much more work to be done with regard to highlighting the people creating on-the-ground change and amplifying their best practices.

If you have read my articles throughout my year with Next City, thank you. If you haven’t yet, be sure to bookmark and continue checking back in on the Equity Factor.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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