Can a Nonprofit Preserve the Best of a Gentrified Neighborhood?

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May 3, 2016; Washington Post

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) hopes to prevent gentrification of the African American community east of the Anacostia River in D.C. when the new 11th Street Bridge Park connects the area to Capitol Hill. LISC seems to be placing a bet that the gentrification that’s expected to follow the new bridge doesn’t have to mean displacement of low-income households.

And there’s some academic support for that position. Richard Florida, writing in CityLab, cites Lance Freeman in arguing that, against expectations, gentrification reduces low-income displacement: “While some residents were displaced from 1970-2000, gentrifying neighborhoods were generally more diverse when it came to income, race, and education as opposed to non-gentrifying neighborhoods.” In a similar vein, Dr. Florida argues that public spending can shape the impacts of gentrification.

HUD wrestled with some of these issues in an April symposium that focused, in part, on the distinction between gentrification leading to increased diversity and gentrification leading to increased seclusion and “micro-level segregation.” Alas, the inclusion ideas in the article were pretty lame. Some more concrete suggestions were offered in a NextCity article, “3 Things Cities and HUD Can Do to Stop Gentrification That Segregates.” Hopefully, LISC is thinking about building “bridging organizations” as a part of their strategy for Across the Anacostia.

While there’s plenty of planning about macro solutions to what is, after all, a macro economic issue, there’s been a proliferation of articles by “newcomers” questioning whether they are guilty of displacement. Daniel Hertz, also writing in CityLab, has an interesting take on being a gentrifier. He argues that above-income households are just as culpable of supporting a segregated system if they move to an already segregated neighborhood as when they move to a gentrifying neighborhood. “Moving to a higher-income neighborhood—one where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income—means you’re helping to sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area segregated.” After dismissing behaviors that might make him a better neighbor, Mr. Hertz argues that the gentrifiers penance should be to espouse a social justice agenda:

Being considerate to your neighbors might make you a good person, but I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of these underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them. The exact solutions can be debated, but I would start by lobbying your local government for housing subsidies for the low-income, protections against eviction due to rising rents, and an end to exclusionary caps on housing construction that keep prices artificially high.

Certainly the opponents of economic displacement have not been shy about shaming gentrifiers. So, if neighborhood succession is a macro phenomenon, why fight at the micro level?

Here’s one way personal responsibility can make a difference is in shaping whether neighborhood change leads to “enclave diversity” or promotes social inclusion. Being self-aware is a good starting place, but building and supporting common spaces, protecting and patronizing local businesses, and creating job opportunities for traditional residents should be an avocation for newcomers and traditional residents. Reviving the human relations models developed in the late 1960s to foster integration of inner ring suburbs could provide clues to today’s urban pioneers. Back when African Americans were moving into inner-ring suburbs, some “community relations” organizations were created to welcome newcomers and integrate them into local planning and decision-making. Organizations like the Heights Community Congress in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, gave leadership to “integration” beyond just demographic change.

One barrier to urban community building is that it is not an overnight initiative. It’s a decades-long process. As others have pointed out, leases are for a year, but resentments can last forever. Where’s the cost-benefit incentive for newcomers to invest in neighborhood human relations work if they’re going to move again in a year or two? Where’s the incentive for residents who believe displacement is inevitable? Here’s where the “moral” argument has some weight. For a gentrifier or a traditional resident to invest in a neighborhood where she or he could be a short-termer doesn’t make sense unless, like Daniel Hertz suggests, there is a moral commitment to social justice.—Spencer Wells