A Latinx woman wearing a yellow shirt and sitting on a brick ledge. She is looking into the camera with a serious expression.
Image Credit: Abe Camacho on unsplash.com

This article introduces a new NPQ series, Owning the Economy: Stories from Latinx Communities. Coproduced with the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, a national network of Latinx community development groups, this series highlights community preservation, land ownership, and business development efforts in Latinx and immigrant communities across the United States.

Economic development in the United States often follows a pattern, one in which low-income and BIPOC residents and business owners create vibrant, thriving neighborhoods—only to be pushed out when big public and private dollars arrive.

All too often, development seems to be designed solely for a new crop of incoming residents. Meanwhile, the longtime residents who were the “early investors” are cut out. These forces, often abetted by public transit investment or publicly subsidized construction projects, disrupt neighborhood stability and have a name. That name is gentrification.

Economic justice can be achieved when existing residents and business owners are in the driver’s seat and co-developers of their communities.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, gentrification is “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” The dictionary definition, however, tells only half the story.

Housing is “improved,” but it is made unaffordable for low-income residents, often people of color. New businesses are attracted; community-based businesses close or move elsewhere. And, as the dictionary definition does concede, wealthy people move in; people with fewer resources, often BIPOC, must pay higher rents, which many cannot afford, and move out. When people are forced to leave, these neighborhoods often lose their cultural vibrancy and sense of community that made them appealing to new residents in the first place.

Economic justice can be achieved when existing residents and business owners are in the driver’s seat and co-developers of their communities. The stories in this series—authored by members of communities and organizations across the country—ranging from rural Oregon to Long Beach (near Los Angeles) to Miami to San Francisco to New York City to my hometown of Washington, DC—offer windows into how Latinx[1] immigrants are organizing to truly make our community economies our own.

Displacement in Immigrant Neighborhoods: A Double Blow

When local businesses are displaced in immigrant communities, that community’s social fabric and cultural identity are fractured

The displacement that is part and parcel of the gentrification process negatively affects anyone who is displaced. But for an immigrant who has already felt compelled by political or economic forces to leave their home country and rebuild their life in the United States, the displacement that gentrification brings can be doubly devastating. People who have upended roots before are forced to move again.

Here it is important to consider that immigrant commercial corridors do far more than provide goods and services. Latinx and other immigrant community commercial corridors allow residents to access foods and products native to their country of origin and, therefore, help preserve their cultural identity. They also often serve as hubs for exchanging critical information—whether it be about neighborhood schools, information on how to vote, details around local legislation, or information about cultural gatherings. When local businesses are displaced in immigrant communities, that community’s social fabric and cultural identity are fractured. 

Stopping Displacement

One key step in slowing or stopping displacement is identifying in advance where it is likely to occur. If you can spot the pattern, you can organize to challenge displacement before it happens. My employer, the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders or NALCAB, has developed a neighborhood trend analytical framework comprising five key indicators, increases in which usually point to impending gentrification. These are home values, rent prices, median household income, percentage of residents who are college educated, and percentage of residents who are White.

If housing prices and rents are rising and neighborhood demographics are changing, what can community-based organizations, residents, and business owners do? In working with our network of over 200 members, we have identified a set of interventions that can be effective.

Community Education

Community-based organizations can activate communities by educating them about impending changes that stand to destabilize their neighborhoods. Tenants, residents, and business owners can form councils and advocate on their behalf with key information from CBOs about their rights and what is at stake in their community. 

CBOs can also be crucial in facilitating advocacy for residents and businesses in their communities. This can be done through education around the civic engagement process (for example, information on how to write and deliver testimony) and informing community members about upcoming legislative decisions that could directly impact them so they can act to influence policymakers. Neighborhood groups can advocate for essential safeguards such as the right to counsel, an important protection for tenants facing eviction, or community benefits agreements to ensure affordable rents. In addition, community associations can position themselves to be at the table and participate in the design of economic development in their neighborhoods to serve their needs, rather than solely serving projected new residents. 

Community land ownership is one of the most vital tools for avoiding the displacement of long-term residents and businesses.

CBOs can also serve as an important liaison between the community and local or state governments—creating a feedback loop whereby information is shared with the community, and the community’s response is shared back with legislators and other officials. This advocacy role of CBOs is critical, as CBO leadership and staff are uniquely positioned to have a deep understanding of the community’s position and relationships, as well as an understanding of the process to engage local lawmakers. 

Tools to Preserve Latinx and Immigrant Communities 

So, now you have organized, and you’re at the table. What do you do next? Here are a few tools that we have found to be impactful: 

  • Community land ownership: Community land ownership is one of the most vital tools for avoiding the displacement of long-term residents and businesses. Established community members can achieve this through home, commercial, and property purchases.

While CBOs can influence individual home and commercial real estate purchases over time, the aggregation of community lands that can be purchased and administered by CBOs is particularly impactful because it can shield residents from harmful market trends. Tools like community land trusts ensure that longstanding residents and businesses have the security and power to protect themselves during periods of rapid neighborhood change. The ownership of real estate assets is the clearest path to permanency for those who established neighborhoods over time and are at risk of displacement when gentrification occurs. The land ownership tool also provides security around long-term housing and commercial space affordability for residents and business owners in the years to come.

  • Small business technical assistance and lending: All small businesses received a likely unwanted lesson in “pivoting” their business models during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, CBOs are actively engaged in this exact type of support to small businesses located on corridors facing large-scale economic development and construction projects. 

CBOs can play an important role in supporting small businesses by assessing their strengths and weaknesses. The intensified competition that results from large-scale development can expose hidden weaknesses in community-based small businesses that may have persisted over time but were not exposed before they had to compete head-to-head against these larger businesses. 

Once weaknesses are identified, CBOs can provide deep technical assistance, coupled with financing, if the business needs it. For example, a business may find that a point-of-sale system is required to better track its sales and inventory, and a loan could offset the cost of the system. Businesses are then bolstered and better positioned to be beneficiaries rather than victims of economic development. 

Two key goals of these interventions are to: 1) support business sustainability such that the business can take advantage of new customers and, in turn, increase their own revenue and profit margins; and 2) preserve the business asset for their owners, employees, and customers. These are income- and job-preservation outcomes that should not be overlooked.

Such a community strategy also supports residents that own or work in businesses to increase their incomes to meet the rising cost of living in a gentrifying community. And it preserves social and cultural connections—a critical contribution that longstanding businesses provide for their community. 

  • Advocacy and organizing: None of this would be possible without advocacy—an essential avenue to build public awareness and marshal government support. This involves research, civic engagement, and national partnerships to raise the profiles of crucial economic development and housing issues in our communities and provide resources and technical assistance to our members. In doing this work, advocates can connect with policymakers on issues like community land trusts or small business lending and program funding to ensure there is equality of opportunity both at the community level and beyond.

Organizing is also a critical tool in uniting a community and preventing displacement. Working with tenants in subsidized housing to form tenant rights groups and supporting neighborhoods with strategies for preserving affordable housing stock and responsible development are key roles that nonprofits can play in helping to create a more level playing field when it comes to healthy and equitable housing conditions for underserved communities. 

First in a Series

This is the first in a series of articles. While each community has unique challenges, a common thread runs through each story. Whether the story is from the Dominican Allapattah neighborhood in Miami or multiethnic neighborhoods in California, Oregon, and Washington, DC, in each case, one finds community residents and businesses partnering with each other and community-based nonprofits to organize for their interests. 

Through organizing, advocacy, and technical innovations these community groups are standing their ground and avoiding displacement. In so doing, they are not only helping to preserve and expand networks of community businesses and institutions, but also the social fabric and cultural identity of their neighborhoods. For communities in fact are not just physical places: they are held together through networks of relationships and broader webs of social connection. In this series, the authors offer windows into a few of these—and help us see why so many choose to call these communities home—and fight mightily for their preservation. 

[1] NALCAB recognizes that NPQ prefers the use of the word “Latinx.” For purposes outside this article, NALCAB uses the terms “Latino” and “Latinos”’ to identify all individuals of Latin American descent.