by Bob Lupton “When young professionals move into an urban neighborhood and displace lower income residents, do you consider that ‘moving the poverty needle’?”
It is a fair question. This is known as gentrification. And in recent years it has become a national norm in our cities. Long-neglected in-town neighborhoods have become attractive once again. Proximity to revitalized downtown urban centers and the affordability of real estate prices make them appealing to an educated, upwardly mobile younger generation. Gentrification certainly does increase the income level of an urban neighborhood. And in that sense the poverty needle of the area does shift in an upward direction. But at the expense, not the benefit, of the poor who are displaced in the process.
So, no, I do not view the gentrification of a community as a legitimate means to move the poverty needle. Unless, unless gentrification is an intentionally planned strategy of mixed income redevelopment that protects the interests of the poor. Then gentrification can have a direct and positive impact on poverty. When low-income residents are included in the planning, implementation and on-going life of their reviving neighborhood, they become the beneficiaries rather than the victims of gentrification. The inflow of new, resourced neighbors attracts new businesses (restaurants, banks, grocery stores). That means new job opportunities, improved services, and competitive prices that benefit all residents, especially those with limited incomes. Connected neighbors have access to political leaders who control government purse strings. The results can be significant – improved police protection, stepped up code enforcement, paved potholes, repaired sidewalks. Educated neighbors insist on quality schools, and if the public system can’t deliver, they will create alternatives that can. The net effect of shared community benefits – better employment, better food prices, better housing, better education – actually does move the poverty needle in a positive direction. This is gentrification with justice.
Gentrification is essentially an economic phenomenon. It is not a sinister plot against the poor or minorities. It is merely a function of the market. As such, it has no conscience. When allowed to run its course unbridled, it becomes opportunistic and will exploit every financial opening with little regard for principle or social consequences. That is where people of principle, of conscience, of compassion enter the picture – an appearance that is not always welcome. The initial knee-jerk community reaction is often obstructionistic. Well-intentioned activists may resort to organized protests to block development. And sometimes this is necessary. But it requires minimal imagination to rail against real estate developers and denounce their deals as heartless money making schemes. Criticizing is easy and organizing protests may even be energizing. But an adversarial role seldom produces productive partnerships. Collaboration, when possible, is much more likely to yield positive outcomes. Healthy alliances between developers and communities, however, require a lot more work. Inserting a constructive voice into the development process to accomplish healthy economic balance, using one’s influence to gain government support for a project well-conceived, investing time and effort to engage productive community dialogue – these are much more complex involvements. Yet it is this kind of leadership that is required if gentrification is to become a blessing to an entire community rather than a curse upon the poor.
So what about the displacement issue? There certainly have been unfortunate instances when entire low-income communities have been bull-dozed and their residents indiscriminately scattered. Hopefully those days of “urban removal” are forever past. Mixed income development currently has broad acceptance in the real estate development industry as well as in city urban planning departments. One-for-one replacement housing is required by many local governments (and certainly by HUD) when affordable units are torn down. But the reality is that any development is disruptive. Necessary, no doubt, but disruptive. The concentration of poverty is unhealthy for everyone. (Case in point are public housing projects.) However, when residents have choices, when they are invited to the planning table, when their needs are taken into consideration, the process of change is less painful. In fact, done well, it can actually be exciting.
So can gentrification move the poverty needle? Absolutely. But only when it is wed to justice. When intelligent minds join with sensitive hearts to assemble economically viable community development strategies, foundations for Shalom are being laid. And when new, energetic neighbors join in community life with those who have endured long years of hardship, opportunity for the “beloved community” is within reach.