Building Blocks,” Holger Zscheyge

July 31, 2019; Shelterforce

Can you preserve housing affordability and help communities stave off the pressures of gentrification? The answer, as NPQ has noted before, is yes, even in places where success may seem unlikely, like in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, but a coordinated approach is needed. Writing in Shelterforce, editor Miriam Axel-Lute, provides a very useful outline of what such an approach requires.

As Axel-Lute notes, although there are some cities where gentrification has been a dominant phenomenon—think, for example, of San Francisco, Seattle, New York or Washington, DC—in most cities, gentrification is less common. The reality is that many census tracts that were low-income decades ago have changed little. But, adds Axel-Lute, whether gentrification is likely or not, the “principles of equitable development are the same in either case. A stable, equitable, inclusive community is going to be both less available for rapid, disruptive gentrification and better prepared to mitigate it if it comes calling.”

Axel-Lute then goes on to outline some “backbone measures that will benefit a neighborhood whether it ever faces rapid appreciation and lots of in-movers.” Among these are the following:

  1. Take housing and other land out of the speculative market: Key measures in this area include community land trusts and limited-equity housing cooperatives. As Axel-Lute explains, in a hot market, the common ownership that these forms of housing provide protect low-income residents from displacement and may, Axel-Lute notes even “moderate the extent to which the market can explode“ in the first place. If gentrification does not occur, community stewardship of that land still promotes housing security and stability.
  2. Implement tenant protections: Just recently, New York state passed protective tenant legislation. In San José, California, community organizers just succeeded in getting just-cause eviction protections requiring that the landlord state a reason to evict tenants passed into the law. These laws at a minimum limit the use of tactics in which landlords literally seek to evict existing tenants and replace them with wealthier tenants as a means to push up real estate values.
  3. Support sustainable homeownership for current residents: Even if ownership is of the traditional “fee simple” variety, there are a number of mechanisms available to keep low- and moderate-income homeowners in their homes, such as making available funds, either grants or low-interest loans, for repairs and implement protections against equity-stripping subprime loans.

Additional strategies that Axel-Lute highlights are helping cultural organizations and small businesses own their buildings, investing in community projects (e.g., retail development, a community center for teens to play, improving bus routes), and lastly— and importantly—building community power through organizing to give residents the ability to control the local neighborhood agenda.

Axel-Lute also advises that community groups act proactively to stave off gentrification by tracking known risk factors and developing their own set of metrics that they follow. These can include, Alex-Lute notes, such measures as increases property values, rent rate increases, and increases in absentee ownership. Axel-Lute points to a community development corporation in Boston (Nuestra Communidad Development Corporation) that sponsored a study that includes nine benchmark measures.

Most importantly, Axel-Lute advises that communities don’t need a gentrification crystal ball to act. The measures that benefit low- and moderate-income neighborhoods often remain the same whether or not gentrification is coming. “Keep an eye on the data,” Axel-Lute recommends, “but focus on building equitable, healthy communities now.”—Steve Dubb