Is There a Difference Between Gentrification and Revitalization?

This blog originally appeared at StableCommunities.org.

Today I read a very good article at salon.com by Will Doig, titled “Can Gentrification Work For Everyone?”  By good, I mean balanced  - Doig acknowledges the myriad of positions taken by different people, even residents of the same neighborhood, about this complex, nuanced topic.

 

Doig uses Washington, DC’s Ward 8 as his sample geography.   Ward 8 is historically African-American and still almost entirely African-American today.  The area has also had a reputation for decline, crime, and concentrated poverty for decades. One of Doig’s key questions is whether young professional African-Americans moving into Ward 8 counts as gentrification.  He reports that some residents fear it does, while others see it as a sign of rejuvenation and are proud that these people, who could choose to live elsewhere, are choosing to live in Ward 8.

 

In decades of talking with residents of neighborhoods around the nation about their hopes for revitalization, I nearly always see a split screen of hope and fear. They want so badly for their neighborhoods to become places of choice again, but they are so fearful that revitalization may be a Pandora’s Box that once opened, will release all the evils of gentrification, displacing their neighbors and maybe even themselves.

 

And they are not wrong to worry.  As far as I know there really is no way to make a place more desirable without increasing demand for it – and unless you control every piece of real estate, increased demand translates to increased price.  It could be a modest increase in price (especially in this post-foreclosure world), but eventually, a neighborhood trending up in its quality of life and desirability is going to be a place that is less affordable than it once was.

 

And to complicate matters, neighbors have many definitions of gentrification, all of which are to them disturbing prospects:

 

  • Wealthy people moving into a poor neighborhood, changing the price of the place
  • One race moving into a neighborhood predominantly of another race – especially white people of any income moving into a black neighborhood of any income - thus changing the culture of the place
  • Any people moving in that cause “social gentrification”, wherein neighborhood behaviors that were once perfectly acceptable (drinking liquor on a park bench, playing loud music outdoors on car-washing day, barbequing under the windows of the building next door, etc.) start bringing complaints
  • New attention to a neighborhood in which poor building conditions are cited for code violations when they used to be overlooked, requiring owners to make repairs they cannot afford or lose a family property

 

In fact, I often hear neighbors describe any change in the racial or economic mix of the neighborhood as “displacement”, even when it’s voluntary, as in the case of long-time residents who can finally sell their home for a profit and move closer to family, or move into a nice retirement home.  Change is scary, especially when you are not in control of it.

 

But a lot of the change that precipitates the increase in housing prices in a neighborhood is exactly what neighbors most want: better quality and better maintained homes; more restaurants, drug stores, grocery stores and other businesses; more jobs with nearby employers; safer streets; better schools; good transit.  Indeed, many, many neighborhood residents of the past were “displaced” by the declining conditions of the neighborhoods they lived in.  As Doig puts it, “Rather than being seen as an injustice, can gentrification correct an injustice by returning prosperity to a long-neglected neighborhood?”

 

And how does prosperity get re-created?  How do neighborhoods get re-vitalized? Almost never is it done entirely with resources that are not subject to a profit motive.  Although our troubled neighborhoods may deserve more public funding in order to improve, but still control the price of more of their property, realistically, they are not going to get more in the foreseeable future. Government and charitable investments have to leverage private sector investment to have any real, visible, sustainable improvement.

 

So, those of us in the revitalization business are still left in the same place of trying to substantially improve the quality of life in a place while protecting the ability of the current neighbors to stay and enjoy the improvements, and even to pass that stability on to subsequent generations.

 

For myself, I’ve seen too many governments and nonprofits claim to revitalize neighborhoods when all they did was add more affordable housing supply to a place that is desperate for demand. I grew up and have mostly worked in rust belt cities like Detroit, where the supply of affordable housing far outweighed the demand.  Now that just about everywhere has that kind of (homeownership) market, I am staying busy helping affordable housing developers try to sell the properties they assumed people would be lining up for – but aren’t.

 

At the same time, I know there are a few markets like the Bay area, where housing prices are astronomical with no commensurate increase in quality. I’ve seen the illegal garage conversions in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, the tiny condo conversions in DC’s Trinidad, and the modest homes in northern New Jersey with monthly tax payments that outweigh principal, interest and insurance.

 

The best piece I’ve ever seen on managing these two market extremes is Alan Mallach’s “Managing Neighborhood Change”.  I’ve been re-reading it lately, and am struck once again by the sympathy and precision with which he lays out an approach for building neighborhood markets equitably. 

 

I find it useful to create a forum(s) in which neighbors can talk through what they fear as well as what they hope for, and to really be heard and have the opportunity to examine and weigh the consequences of various strategies for improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods. 

 

The market devastation we are in has made many more people understand what it means to live in places like Detroit or Cleveland or Syracuse, where you can’t sell your house because of the vacant one next door, and you can’t improve it because it isn’t worth enough.  In that situation, we need demand, not supply.  And that may mean community developers becoming experts in creating new amenities, managing quality scattered-site rental property, fighting crime and other quality-of-life issues.

 

We as community development professionals owe the communities we work in more than our good intentions.  It is our responsibility to understand the markets we are working in, to understand the hopes and fears of neighbors and to craft strategies that navigate both instead of only reproducing the program we are most comfortable with.

 

That is my New Year’s wish, that we all listen to more neighbors, analyze more markets, and think a little longer before we act.

 

Marcia Nedland is the Principal of Fall Creek Consultants, a national firm providing neighborhood planning and marketing services.  www.fallcreekconsultants.com

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Tags: NSP, affordable, gentrification, housing, neighborhood, revitalization, stabilization

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Comment by Juli Ford Alhadeff on January 11, 2012 at 11:56am

Thanks for sharing this, Marcia.  It is really thought-provoking!

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