Is Gentrification Inevitable?

New Orleans    Being on the wrong side of the tracks as I tried to beat the train to get to my office in time for a live radio show, I ended up driving from street to street to beat the traffic lined up to enter a road that traversed the tracks.  Weaving in and out of the blocks through this area I know well as a lower income, working neighborhood of the city, I was surprised, as my chance to finally enter the stream of cars came up, to find myself sitting in front of two brand new houses being constructed as in-fill in vacant lots in this area.

It was like seeing a giant flashing set of neon signs on a billboard shouting GENTRIFICATION ALERT!  Is it already too late?  Is there no way to stop it?  Could this neighborhood still be “saved,” so that families would not be displaced as pressure increased?  Talking to neighborhood organizers, they were skeptical.  I was disheartened, but I understood.  New Orleans has not only been losing the fight to gentrification since Katrina but abetting it.

Talking to city staffers recently in Cincinnati, one looked me flat in the eyes, and asked what ACORN would recommend to stop gentrification there.  I nodded, said, “Sure,” and the conversation went onto other topics, but I found myself subsequently reading a number of papers by Professor Tom Slater, a globally recognized expert and critic of gentrification based in Edinburgh, and someone ACORN chapters have found supportive in our fight for “living rent” in Scotland.  His argument in a nutshell is that there is nothing natural or organic about gentrification.  Instead it is all about rent-gaps and capitalistic investment and manipulative development programs that make neighborhoods and their residents simply collateral damage and outside of their concern.

The Wall Street Journal in a recent piece tried to make the case that some cities, and they mentioned New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Portland among others, are making efforts to help low-income residents remain in their neighborhoods.  They cited programs that included “down-payment assistance on homes to people with historic ties to neighborhoods, passing ordinances aimed at restricting gentrification and assisting nonprofits that are buying buildings where tenants are at risk of eviction.”  Interesting, but other than taking a look more closely at these ordinances, having nonprofits buy buildings is great but there’s no way it is scalable and helping people buy doesn’t protect families from rising property taxes, insurance and other costs that force them to sell as prices soar around them.  These programs are worth a look but seem more about insuring some minimal community diversity than genuinely stopping displacement and providing some permanent protection for the community’s character and its families.

A local developer was interviewed recently and of course he made the case that gentrification was natural and good and then interestingly said something along the lines that he hoped he was right, but history would determine that in the future.  Sadly, history may not be the best judge because it will not be written by the displaced but by the gentrification advocates in all likelihood.  And, like many of these last-ditch programs, it will be written too late and after the fact, when desperate action is what is needed now to help people stay in their homes and weather the storm that is building all around them.

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Rent Control Fights Popping Up All Over California for Affordable Housing

Activists disappointed after an Assembly committee blocked a bill to
lift statewide restrictions on types rent control demonstrate in
California’s Capitol on Thursday. (Katy Murphy – Bay Area News Group)

Detroit  I may be meeting with organizers in Detroit about how to convert abandoned houses into affordable housing and land contracts into mortgages, but it was heartening to read on the plane about the activity in a number of communities, including the capital city of Sacramento, to bring some order to rental pricing in the form of rent controls.  Reading the piece in The New York Times seemed like old home week as well.  There was Davin Cardenas in Santa Rosa ready to go back to the well and turn an earlier narrow defeat into a hopeful victory this time around.  There were pictures of organizers pushing an initiative campaign in Sacramento from ACCE, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the former California ACORN, who were the field troops in the campaign there.  In fact, there was the Los Angeles AIDS Healthcare Coalition where I had interviewed an organizer with their innovative persuasion canvassing operation, Lab, on Wade’s World for KABF a couple of years ago.  There’s hope for tenants on the West Coast!

Not that it’s easy.

Santa Rosa had won rent protection and rate security from the city council there but faced an onslaught led by the real estate interests who put them through a ballot proposition and an expensive campaign which they narrowly lost in recent years, but that was before horrific fires in the area have brought the issue back to the forefront as rents have soared with families desperate for housing during the rebuilding.  Cardenas reports that people are knocking down the community organization’s doors imploring them to try again and bring it the ballot themselves.  The fight is never over until it’s won!

In Sacramento, organizers are clearly worried about making the 50,000 number for the signature goal to get the rent issue on the ballot there.  That’s not a good sign, though they are clearly in it to win it as well.  Too often a difficult signature campaign leaves too much energy and resources on the streets and not enough gas in the tank to wage a winning campaign.  Win or lose, the organization will build power in Sacramento in the process which would put tenants in a much stronger position for the future there.

This is a national crisis, not a California one, and in too many areas states have tried to preemptively take away the prospects for rent control so that real estate lobbyists can stack the deck in the state legislature to prevent organizations and our allies to outflank them at the city level where the rents are soaring and gentrification is out of this world.  Just as we have seen in the efforts to raise minimum wages in cities, apartment owners’ associations have also followed the ALEC, National Restaurant Association, and small business groups in blocking city home rule capacity in the area of rents in more than half of the states.

That’s not an excuse of course.  There are other policy avenues:  impact areas like in Scotland, more aggressive zoning, community benefit requirements, and tax incentives for capping costs on developments among other options.

This fight is expanding. You can even see evidence in the language.  In Scotland it’s an ACORN affiliated campaign called Living Rent which speaks to the issue of rent that has to be affordable – like wages have to be sufficient – for living.  Even the headline in the Times spoke of “affordable living,” rather than affordable housing.

People are catching up with this crisis, and that’s a good sign for all of us engaged in these campaigns.

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