Don’t Block Gentrification, Manage It

Supporters and opponents of gentrification seem to agree on one thing: It can’t be stopped. I’d argue that the more important question is whether the process can be managed — its benefits maximized and its costs mitigated. With enough will and engagement at the community level, as well as strong direction and coordination from local governments, I think it can.

The first thing to note is that gentrification — defined as the process of a low-income community becoming a high-income one — isn’t nearly as widespread and threatening as many seem to believe. A report by the Economic Innovation Group released last fall ranked U.S. zip codes as prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at-risk or distressed. Between 2000 and 2018, “prosperous” and “comfortable” communities gained in population, becoming even more prosperous and comfortable, while their overall number remained roughly the same. Meanwhile, the cohort of mid-tier, at-risk and distressed communities grew, even as those neighborhoods shed population and declined in prosperity.

In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. They meet only rarely, in neighborhoods adjacent to superheated urban housing markets. That’s where the debate over gentrification rages most fiercely.

For newcomers in these areas to obtain affordable housing without depriving established residents of community stability and amenities, the two groups must engage each other directly and robustly. To do so, they need a process through which to allay fears and forge strong partnerships. Gentrification should be a chance to expand opportunity, not diminish it.

There’s evidence that such a process can work. The Chicago office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a national nonprofit community development financial institution founded in 1979, worked with several Chicago neighborhoods to create the New Communities Program between 2003 and 2013. The goal initially was to identify nonprofit investment opportunities and build neighborhood capacity. By default, the program became a means of managing gentrification, giving several Chicago neighborhoods the tools they needed to court revitalization on their own terms. I was privileged to work in some of those neighborhoods.

To build on this experience, local communities around the country should pursue a six-step process that is led by residents themselves, with assistance from local government, institutions, businesses and nonprofits.

First, neighborhoods have to open a dialogue between “long-timers” and “newcomers” — the split that lies at the heart of nearly every gentrification controversy. A dedicated Community Task Force can identify community strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then develop a consensus between the two groups on which should be priorities. The task force can also establish relationship-building programs and activities, while tracking the interactions between residents and representatives of key institutions such as the police, schools, churches, parks and so on.

Second, communities should look to strengthen existing sociocultural institutions and create new ones. All neighborhoods boast landmark institutions, whether a majestic cathedral, a local school or a revered barber shop. Sometimes the debate about gentrification is really a debate about whose institutions will survive. The task force can identify and ring-fence those that must be preserved.

Third, communities need to build pride in a clear, achievable and shared vision. This requires improving the skills of long-timers as well as increasing the awareness of newcomers, and resolving any differences in perception between them. Communities should focus on asset-building initiatives that benefit all residents. Opportunities should be prioritized strategically. All this should be codified in a neighborhood vision or key projects map, which can be either a written document or graphic illustration.

Then, communities must address head-on the two issues at the heart of nearly all gentrification battles: economic inequality and affordable housing. To combat the first, they need to be deliberate about providing economic opportunity through workforce development programs, apprenticeships and entrepreneurship training.

To confront the second, local governments need to persuade developers to build housing in areas beyond traditional hotspots, while reassuring longtime residents that the investment will benefit them as well. The demand for affordable housing needs to be quantified, then communities should implement inclusionary zoning policies and housing set-asides in order to increase the number of such units.

Once all the above is done, the new community expectations and direction can be codified in a community charter. A neighborhood-based nonprofit, already existing or newly created, can take on the task of evaluating the success of the new charter and amending it as needed.

Such strategies shouldn’t be confined to rapidly gentrifying areas. Plenty of cities have been starved for decades of revitalizing investment; they would benefit just as much from a concerted effort to increase opportunity and affordable housing, while preserving key institutions. One thing is certain: If we transition away from the back-to-the-city movement of the last 30 years without making more of our cities better, we’ll be worse for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America's Rust Belt cities.

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