New Orleans Josh Ishimatsu wrote an interesting piece for theRooflines blog managed by Shelterforce magazine that asks troubling questions about whether rapid development in the form of gentrification has outstripped community development efforts. He might have even gone farther and asked whether community development corporations have too often been the nonprofit stalking horses for the gentrifiers?
He makes the case based on the superheated rents being charged in San Francisco’s Chinatown where rents of over $1000 per unit are being paid young people for SRO, single room occupancy, spaces of 100 square feet, allowing landlords to make huge profits, evict lower income tenants, and take advantage of the city’s desperate affordable housing crisis. He could have made a similar case in any number of “executive” cities and neighborhoods in the throes of gentrification. For example, community development corporations (CDCs) have long been headliners in Brooklyn in one neighborhood after another, many of which are now demographically unrecognizable compared to the same communities thirty or forty years ago. The amount of federal, philanthropic, and city money poured into upgrading such communities now seems like little more than site-preparation expenditures for the current crew of developers.
David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has made these points exhaustively in comprehensive studies of the work of CDCs that he originally prepared, ironically, on the foundations’ dime as an evaluator. He famously found that looking at a range of housing and economic indicators in scores of communities targeted by CDCs the only measurable progress in his study was in one community in Cincinnati. Sadly, that neighborhood rang the bells because it was in the process of being gentrified, so that was less than good news.
Ishimatsu makes the point that mixed-income neighborhoods show economic mobility for lower income families, but concedes that the “return to the cities” is obliterating mixed income communities. The mobility for low income families is largely now the fact that so many are being pushed out to somewhere else and these neighborhoods are becoming single income areas based on affordability. Ishimatsu wonders if there are more programs and initiatives that can wedge affordable housing bunkers into these areas, but I wonder if these scare resources need to desert those fields and move to improve the quality of housing and development in lower income areas instead.
Why leverage more public and philanthropic funds with private dollars as low income site clearance when the private dollars will come anyway, sooner or later? It might be better to finally create decent, affordable and livable neighborhoods for lower income families and improve living conditions and quality of life now, rather than mixing and matching. He’s right that existing strategies are inadequate, but we need to rethink the places where we make our stand, not just the tools of the trade.