Gentrification with Justice

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The new millennium has dawned bright over our land. In those first uncertain hours of the 21st century, the ominous clouds of an impending Y2K calamity disappeared like a vapor and with them the fear of economic chaos. Equally relieving was the news that our international trading partners had survived the entry virtually unscathed and the global economy remained reasonably robust. Our biggest news by far this first year has been the carnival-like frenzy of electing a new president - distressing to some, amusing to others, a media bonanza, but having little effect on holiday spending. Employment is full and the land abounds with optimism. Of particular interest to one who has invested his life in the city is a discernable breeze of change beginning to whisper through our urban centers. Flight from the city has finally ceased. This year, the first time in nearly 30 years, there is an up-tick in Atlanta's population. It is the same in most other U.S. cities as well. Young professionals, full of adventure and ambition, and quite unwilling to spend hours in maddening daily commutes, are returning to the city. Abandoned warehouses are being transformed into loft apartments, avant-garde studios and gourmet eateries. Long neglected in-town neighborhoods are being rediscovered and their charm is being restored. Developers, small and large, are recognizing the opportunity. Development inside the beltway has become more than merely interesting; in many spots it is hot.

Business, too, is returning. Publix is building a new grocery store in the once infamous, now rebounding East Lake - the first substantial business investment in the community in forty years. And this is not an isolated example. Banks are now willing - even eager - to lend money in once red-lined areas. The corporate world, always sensitive to the winds of change, is venturing back into the city.

There are signs of institutional change, as well. The once immovable HUD bureaucracy that blighted our urban neighborhoods with its pathological poverty compounds is now at the forefront of attractive mixed-income housing development that actually helps re-ignite market forces. The welfare system is returning to its original mission of offering a hand to those needing temporary assistance to get on their feet. Even the intractable public education system is showing signs of change. Vouchers, home schooling, charter schools and other reform initiatives are chipping away at its foundations, forcing open a system long closed to innovation. And who would believe it? Crime is on the decline. Despite the amount of time still devoted to it on the evening news, crime is on a substantial and sustained decline in every major city in the country, including Atlanta. A recent LA Times article documented a five-year decline of 13% in the national crime rate, while during the same period network news coverage of crime increased 336%. Though it may not seem like it, violent crime is at its lowest level since 1973, according to Department of Justice figures.

These are encouraging signs for the city. For the first time in decades, the coming Atlanta mayoral race will concern itself with managing growth - a welcome change from years of fretting over an eroding tax base and crumbling infrastructure. A spirit just short of euphoria is building. Fiery debates among neighborhood groups, developers and city planners over limiting vs. increasing density are the necessary and welcome pains of rebirth.

Less noticeable and to date un-researched is another change that is gaining momentum in the city. The poor, whose meager earnings have historically provided them habitation in deteriorating rental property, now discover themselves in the path of gentrification. Rental prices soar as apartments are renovated and a resurgence of home ownership displaces renters. Densely populated housing projects are being replaced by mixed-income apartment communities and with each conversion the majority of affordable units disappear. And where are the poor going? Well, that is not yet documented. Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies who is just beginning to study this question says that, though it is too early to call it a trend, the migration patterns of the poor seem to be toward the less affluent towns at the edges of cities. This is certainly true in Atlanta. Poverty is suburbanizing!

American cities are different from most of the cities of the world. Most large cities in other countries have their wealth concentrated at the center and poverty spreads outward toward the outlying and less developed periphery. In developing nations, people migrate from the rural areas, settle in poorer edge cities (or sometimes shantytowns outside the city) and try to work their way toward the prosperous center. U.S cities, on the other hand, are like donuts with a hole in the middle and the dough around the outside. Our center cities are where our poverty is concentrated. But all this is about to change! A massive demographic shift has begun. The new millennium signals a great reversal for U.S. cities as wealth returns to the inner core and poverty is pushed to the periphery. U.S. cities will begin to follow the pattern of most other cities in the world. In Atlanta, the early signs are obvious. To date there is no public discourse - scarcely even an awareness - of the implications and management of what will certainly be a diaspora of the poor.

The people of faith have a unique mandate to care for the needs of the vulnerable and the voiceless. It has been from antiquity both our birthright and our responsibility. We cannot rightly take joy in the rebirth of the city if no provision is being made to include the poor as co-participants. It will not be enough to offer food baskets at Christmas to migrating masses of needy people who are being driven by market forces away from the vital services of the city. Nor will our well-intentioned programs and ministries suffice for those being scattered to unwelcoming edge cities. We must be more intelligent than this. More strategic.

We can create innovative housing policies that will induce developers to include lower-income residents in their plans. We can pass ordinances that that will give tax relief to seniors on fixed incomes so they can remain in their homes. We can establish loan funds to give down payment assistance to lower-income home buyers. If we are both caring and thinking people, we can use our influence and resources to develop the means by which our waiters, janitors, bus drivers and mechanics can share in the benefits of a reviving city - and foster growth at the same time.

The new millennium has indeed dawned bright over our land. My prayer, my commitment, is that winds of change which stir afresh in our city will bring with them a goodly measure of justice as well as prosperity.

Bob Lupton

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