Razing blighted properties should be a no-brainer, right? Sadly, developers and their civic allies have created an environment of fear such that poor urban communities are afraid that even the simplest improvements might be a pretext for gentrification. My neighborhood of Sandtown in Baltimore experienced this recently when the Governor of Maryland announced an initiative to raze vacants, some of which had been so structurally unsound they were literally falling over. Community activists are so used to being an afterthought that their first question was to ask whether this was “just another gentrification initiative.”
They have good reason to be afraid. Some places are using “artwashing” — the practice of drumming up the art scene in a neighborhood or building to drive out lower-income residents in preparation for higher-income tenants — to advance gentrification. Indeed, much of New Urbanism hinges on “reviving” blighted areas of a city with more upwardly mobile residents, with long-term residents simply not included at least and deliberately opposed at worst. A neighborhood not far from where I lived in Baltimore is facing many of these challenges, exposing the very real class conflicts at the heart of New Urbanism: Can urban revival and neighborhood development happen without displacing the poor?
It can. But only if the poor have ownership in the development happening in their neighborhoods.
Even the stoutest Jacobin would oppose government ownership and management of all resources, while only the most out-of-touch Tea Partier would deny that some form of a social safety net is critical to rectifying both the systemic injustices that linger in our political landscape as well as helping those whose fortunes are decimated by happenstance. However, neither extreme — and no major political party in America — is focused on an agenda to increase ownership and wealth-building among the poor. Paul Ryan’s plan to decrease regressive regulation on occupational licensing is perhaps the closest thing to a national agenda on this issue, and even it doesn’t commit to any specific rollbacks.
One of the principal complaints from conservatives regarding the welfare state has always been that giving something to people for free is disempowering and creates “welfare queens” who take advantage of resources without exercising responsibility. By contrast, liberal pundits have always felt that persistent poverty is due to the fact that simply not enough has been spent to really rectify the problem. The misallocation of resources is generally agreed on by both sides: More is spent locking up criminals than preventing crimes, and we pay emergency room doctors far more than we pay community health workers who might keep people out of the hospital. What both perspectives miss is the fact that when resources directed by the state provide services to the poor, that ultimately allows wealth to be built by the service providers– but not the poor themselves. In this sense, then, the true welfare queens are doctors, jailers, and landlords– all of whom benefit both from direct government payments and generous tax exemptions.
Furthermore, crimes against ownership and policies siphoning off what little wealth the poor can amass have been some of the most influential in perpetuating injustice. The destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and the practice of redlining are two important historical examples, while the recent financial crisis— built to a crescendo through predatory lending — represents a modern-day example of this principle. Meanwhile, payday loans and installment loans continue to drain millions of dollars that could otherwise be saved. It doesn’t help when the government bends over backwards to support gambling even though it’s a proven to be a disaster for the poor. Meanwhile, most grant programs are perceived as inaccessible to struggling communities.
Gentrification can work within these traditionally disempowering schemas, or it can work against them. Only slumlords, drug dealers, and payday lenders benefit explicitly from neighborhoods remaining chaotic and trapped in poverty — but the well-meaning middle class can easily be a part of harmful displacement as they try to protect their interests and beautify the neighborhood. As Gavin Mueller says, “The people who move to gentrifying areas tend to have liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan sympathies. But they are aligned materially with reactionary and oppressive city restructuring, pushing them into antagonism with established residents, who do nothing for property values.” Standing behind many of these efforts are the figurative — and sometimes literal — descendants of the redliners, who continue to profit whether they are collecting a Section 8-subsidized rent or selling decrepit buildings to “artwashers.”
This depressing class struggle is not necessarily the fate of all urban improvement. However, in order to overcome the natural inertia that rewards the privileged, a concerted effort is required between existing residents, newcomers, local politicians, and other stakeholders. Jonathan Bradford puts it this way: “Gentrification with justice seeks good for all without distinction of income. It is to say that the kitchen worker and the doctor both need sidewalks that aren’t cracked and broken. Both need high-quality schools to send their kids to. Both need to be able to put their kids out on the front sidewalk to play and not be worried about prostitutes or drug dealers. […] I am crazy enough to believe that the person who scrubs pots and pans in the kitchen in the basement of St. Mary’s Hospital can successfully live on the same block that the Director of Anesthesiology does.”
Bradford’s interview concludes by asking about the church as an “anchor in our civic lives,” a concept that is far more familiar to poor urban neighborhoods than it is to the gentrifying class. Because churches have long been one of the strongest institutions with social and political power in urban neighborhoods, they can be valuable partners in development as well as a source of neighborhood solidarity and a locus of resistance to change that disadvantages long-term residents. In most cases, interacting with churches will be necessary to bring the traditional neighborhood power structures in communication with new sources of power from outside.
From a policy standpoint, the most crucial element of gentrification without displacement revolves around securing the basic rights of renters to allow these residents to live in clean, safe housing for as long as their lease is in force. Zoning is another inescapable element; neighborhood commercial zoning can give power to communities while establishing baseline conditions to help prevent a proliferation of business that would extract resources from the community while not giving back (such as liquor stores.) Promoting the creation of community land trusts, urban farms, and other forms of democratized ownership are also important ways to develop wisely and inclusively.
In between the policymakers and the current residents are new owners and renters, who are often at the front lines of any change in the community. The most important thing that they can do is cede ground to existing community leaders working for the good of the neighborhood and build relationships that allow both groups to share power. The lack of meaningful, reciprocal relationships across racial and class lines not only perpetuates harmful inequality in America, it also makes the harms of inequality more potent.
Without long-term relationships with a variety of community members, it’s easy for the most ostentatious figure to anoint themselves “the voice of the community” whenever a crisis arises and ignorant politicians and philanthropists decide to start handing out grants. The most faithful community leaders may not always be the savviest with communicating outside of their neighborhood (or simply overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities). This creates opportunities for outsiders to help represent the concerns of the community— or, even better, use their power to amplify the voices of people who might otherwise get passed over.
Beyond these personal connections, though, there must be a concerted effort to create or support institutions that drive investment into the hands of neighborhood stakeholders, some of whom may even have had opportunities to flee to a better locale but have chosen to stay for the sake of their neighbors. The work of nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the CASH Campaign is also invaluable in giving people greater ownership.
Lastly, though, and most importantly, it falls to the communities undergoing gentrification to organize and advocate for their own interests as they take ownership. Newcomers and outsiders can facilitate this by taking opportunities to give long-term residents a seat at the table when making decisions and by investing their own time in leadership development, but the community itself must spend their money, time and energy in ways that promote meaningful change. The role of citizens who vote for politicians that do not represent their interests and perpetuate structural injustice through sheer negligence also cannot be understated. Nonetheless, within almost any community there are people who work tirelessly for the good of their neighbors, and it is the responsibility of gentrifiers to find these advocates and partner with them.
Churches are often the best place to find these advocates, especially within urban American communities, where a great many African-American residents already hold to a sincere Christian faith, and some of the most vigorous urban institutions are churches. The work of John Perkins, a Mississippi minister nearly beaten to death by police officers, has been foundational both in my neighborhood and across the country. Dr. Perkins implores people that share his faith to “relocate” to impoverished communities, not to displace, and not to position themselves as saviors, but to immerse themselves as friends and neighbors in their community.
In Sandtown, this began in 1986 when a quadriplegic named Allan Tibbels moved into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic with his wife and two young daughters, after he was convicted of the need to be physically present with the people he served through reading Dr. Perkins. There, he and his friend Mark Gornik planted a church in cooperation with their neighbors and worked together to start a Habitat chapter, a charter school, and several other community development ventures. People from outside the community have continued to move in and work together with those who remain in the neighborhood or return to it. The relationships formed through the church — especially with people who had already been working in the community for decades and simply needed more partners to serve more people — have been and continue to be instrumental in the work of fighting poverty in the neighborhood and ensuring that those who come in to help are accountable to those who are on the receiving end of charity.
As Wayne Gordon, who has worked in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, says in A Heart For The Community, “It is imperative not to see gentrification as the enemy but to embrace it.” Ownership — both the literal acquisition of land and wealth as well as the metaphorical granting of power to those at risk of being displaced— is an essential element of just gentrification. Anyone who wants to benefit from living in a changing neighborhood must work to respect the authority, build the capacity, and conserve the role of the people who have already advocated for those neighborhoods.