Adding Justice to Gentrification

by FCS on

by Jim Wehner

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Gentrification. It is such a loaded term. I was having lunch with a local pastor, and he was discussing with me the dangers of gentrification. His church is located in the center of a very transient area of Atlanta. The neighborhood is in need of support and redevelopment, and he wants his church to be involved with that process in a healthy way.  

The problem for him is that at the very mention of the term gentrification is the assumption that new development means relocation of the poor out of the neighborhood. It is the black eye of gentrification, and Christians from every denomination are trying to figure out how to engage this dilemma in a meaningful and dignifying way.

People are often surprised when I say that the market forces that cause gentrification are also vital to strengthening and rebuilding these long deteriorated communities. However, this potential for positive outcomes does not mean we sit back and let market forces run the show. Instead, it’s important to be very strategic in our role within that market! At FCS, we use the phrase gentrification with justice.  

When we partner with a neighborhood, our goal is to quietly work behind the scenes to acquire vacant land and properties that are dilapidated or abandoned. Then, we begin to rehabilitate homes or construct new residences in order to transition renters to homeowners. These neighbors - by completing a rigorous 12-24 month affordable housing program - have the opportunity to receive a 20 year, 0% interest loan from FCS. I often tell interested neighbors that if they want to become homeowners, we will afford them the opportunity, but it is not an easy road. They will have to want it and work for it!  

Once families transition from renters to homeowners, the neighborhood is now ready for the redevelopment of market rate properties. As that growth happens, our low-income neighbors receive the same benefit from property values increasing that every other homeowner can enjoy.

Homeownership is a vital piece of reweaving the fabric of a community. Owning a home helps to stabilize parents in the workforce and children in schools. Building a sustainable home that is energy efficient can reduce monthly costs to families and enable them to make wise choices with their extra resources.

I walked into the office of our Director of Housing Cynthia Fuller McNeal a couple of weeks ago to get some keys to one of our properties. I accidentally interrupted a conversation between Cynthia and one of our homeowners. I was apologizing and excusing myself, when Cynthia said, “Jim, Miss Thompson is here to pay off her mortgage!”

What a great moment! I sat down and had the opportunity to catch up with her for a few minutes. We talked about her son who is now grown and has a family of his own. We reminisced about her initial purchase of the house and what it meant to her to own the home outright without any debt. And now that she will be mortgage free, we walked her through the ongoing process of taxes and insurance.

Celebrations like this are life-changing, not only for the homeowner, but for our staff as well. A healthy neighborhood plan that includes affordable homeownership before market forces take over can transform the lives of individuals and entire communities.

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