The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: The Gentrification Management Program (And More)

A view of Lake Street in Oak Park, IL.  Source: city-data.com
(Note: This post, originally published on January 29, 2015, outlines how a neighborhood-based program to manage the negative impacts of gentrification — namely, displacement and lack of affordability — could be developed.  I looked for precedents in recent history to develop the program, and found how the suburban Chicago community of Oak Park, IL confronted segregation by putting in place a rigorous integration program.  However, some thoughtful dissents noted some differences between Oak Park then and the cities of today, and implied that such a program couldn’t work.  

I’m bringing this back because, after a year of further investigation, I found no apparent feasible alternatives.  Consider this repost as the kickoff of future posts in the upcoming weeks to detail the program and how it could be implemented.  In addition, some new thoughts addressing the dissents are included at the end.  As always, reader feedback is not only encouraged, but welcomed. -Pete)

I’ve come to the belief that gentrification can be managed.  Its benefits can be harnessed; its costs can be mitigated.  It requires will and engagement at the community level, as well as strong direction and coordination from local government.  But I believe it can be done.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in recent years, as the debate about gentrification has grown and sides have formed, it’s that many people talk about the inexorable force that is gentrification and its inevitability.  Gentrification detractors speak of its inevitability even as they try to halt its spread; gentrification proponents cite its inevitability as a means of dissuading the detractors.  In either case, gentrification then devolves into a series of discussions around displacement, affordable housing, cultural control, community authenticity – and indeed, the process of gentrification continues moving forward.
It’s important to remember that American cities have been at similar points before, even if we don’t look at it in the same way.  For generations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, successive waves of immigrants came to our shores and settled into American cities.  When that happened, the newest group usually upset whatever equilibrium had been established in a community, and a new equilibrium had to be forged.  Sometimes that happened through violent means (think “Gangs of New York”), but it more often happened through much subtler and cooperative ways.  In a physical space sense, one immigrant group was ready to aspire to the next level of the American Dream while another was willing to begin its quest within the immigrant hub, and in the interim period a balance was usually struck.
That process generally eroded with the acceleration of the suburban development pattern after World War II.  For the first time, outward movement within a metro area was outpacing inward settlement, creating a vacuum within cities.  This was often complicated by the Great Migration in many Northern cities, the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North to escape virulent Jim Crow practices and seek better economic opportunities and social conditions.  Sadly, the immigration conveyor belt that renewed urban neighborhoods with each passing generation ground to a halt when blacks moved in, depriving them of the infusion necessary to maintain the dynamism that makes cities unique.  Cities lost much of their vitality as the churn, or flow of people, that made them strong began to evaporate.
What our metro areas gained through suburban expansion was lots more land to craft communities in a new image.  What was lost during those years after World War II were the tools of neighborhood negotiation.  Our nation’s metro areas entered a half-century period of creating new suburban communities from scratch and, whether by neglect or design, allowed city neighborhoods to slowly wither away.
Source: oprfhistory.org
Not all places chose to accept the inevitability of their decline, and it’s here that we can find the seeds of a gentrification management strategy.  Some six months ago I detailed the efforts of Oak Park, IL, an inner ring suburb adjacent to Chicago’s West Side, as it was faced with racial transition and resegregation during the 1950s and ‘60s.  Unlike the vast majority of communities that warily accepted its fate in the face of changing conditions, Oak Park sought to directly confront the issue: 

Rather than fall prey to the destabilizing pattern that was devastating communities to the east, Oak Park elected to devise a program to manage transition, instead of letting it overwhelm them.  Via the Encyclopedia of Chicago (an excellent resource on Chicago history, I might add), here’s what Oak Park did:

“The village board created a Community Relations Commission charged with preventing discrimination, forestalling violent neighborhood defense mechanisms, and setting a high standard of behavior as the community prepared for imminent racial change. Village officials, often joined by clergymen, visited blocks to which families of color might move and carefully sought to control the fears and rumors generally associated with neighborhood succession. They identified white families who would welcome the newcomers. They encouraged African American families to disperse throughout the village to counter concerns of clustering and ghetto formation. In 1968, after lengthy and angry debate, and the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the village board passed an open-housing ordinance allowing officials to control many aspects of racial integration that otherwise were likely to lead to resegregation. Real-estate agents were banned from panic-peddling, blockbusting, and the use of “for sale” signs. A community relations department would address rumors, monitor the quality of services and amenities throughout the village, and establish block clubs to promote resident cohesion and local problem-solving. The police force expanded by one-third, with a residency requirement whose impact was magnified because police generally lived in areas most likely to be threatened by resegregation. An equity assurance program for homeowners would reassure residents that they were financially protected against a downward spiral of property values. Leaders acted on a vision of Oak Park as a community strong enough to achieve integration, and able to challenge the Chicago pattern of block-by-block resegregation with a policy of managed integration through dispersal.”

Let’s reiterate here.  Oak Park:

  • Set up a Community Relations Commission to forestall violent residential protests.
  • Engaged in a rumor control campaign.
  • Identified white families that would welcome newcomers.
  • Encouraged African American dispersion in the community to counter clustering.
  • Passed its own open housing ordinance to prevent panic-peddling and blockbusting.
  • Established a Community Relations Department.
  • Expanded its police force.
  • Developed an equity assurance program that reassured residents against declining property values.
  • Established an aggressive marketing campaign that let people know that Oak Park was a model of integration.
 Oak Park did all this when the perception was that the community was facing the loss of wealth and property value.  However, what if the same process was established to address inverted priorities?  What if communities undertook similar strategies when faced with the loss of affordable housing, the potential displacement of low-income residents and the influx of wealthier residents and new community amenities?
Perhaps Oak Park’s experience can be a template for a gentrification management program.
Let’s further break down the Oak Park experience to understand how it worked.  As I see it, there were four principle phases that the Village of Oak Park adopted to address its impending transition.  You can see how I organize them in the table below:
  
Relationship Building
Visioning
Addressing Inequality
Implementation
Clearly, Oak Park’s establishment of a Community Relations Commission and Department and engaging in a rumor control campaign fall into the Relationship Building category.  Passing an Open Housing ordinance and developing an equity assurance program were visionary actions.  The Village addressed inequality issues as it looked for white residents who would welcome newcomers and discouraged the clustering of African Americans in certain parts of the community, and the Open Housing ordinance and Community Relations Department demonstrated that the Village was willing to make a long-term commitment to balanced and equitable transition within its boundaries.
So let me propose a gentrification management program loosely based on an inversion of the Oak Park experience.  Instead of defending a community against rapid loss of property values, this program would defend against the loss of low and moderate income housing units and displacement.  The essential ingredient, however, is engagement.  Residents in potentially gentrifying communities can no longer afford to simply pass each other by.  If newcomers seek to retain the authentic character of the community that attracted them, and longtime residents are to obtain the amenities they desire to become a complete community once again, dialogue is a necessity.
Source: hillsandheights.org
I’d recommend the following points:
Establish open dialogue between “longtimers” and “newcomers”.
·         Create a Community Task Force.
·         Develop relationship-building programs and activities.
·         Consider – and report on – the interactions between residents and representatives of key institutions (police, schools, churches, parks, etc.)
·         Identify community strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; develop a consensus.
Strengthen existing social/cultural institutions, and create new ones.
·         Identify critical community institutions.
·         Identify needed community institutions.
·         Begin search for non-traditional sources of institutional support.
Build cohesiveness and neighborhood pride in a shared community vision.
·         Resolve differences in perception.
·         Craft an achievable vision.
·         Build the skill set of longtimers; build the awareness of newcomers.
·         Focus on asset building initiatives for all residents.
·         Specifically identify the tasks to complete and the actors necessary for implementation.
·         Prioritize your opportunities strategically.
Address economic inequality concerns and needs.
·         Institute workforce development programs.
·         Establish neighborhood apprenticeship programs.
·         Develop entrepreneurship training programs.
Address affordable housing concerns and needs.
·         Quantify number of affordable housing units, households in need.
·         Consider inclusionary zoning/housing set-aside policies in the community.
Codify new community expectations and direction in a “community charter”.
Convene a regular gathering (annual, biannual) of community residents to evaluate progress toward community vision and recommend “course corrections”.
And if you’re interested in how those points relate to the proposed program phases, see the table below:

Relationship Building
Establish open dialogue between “longtimers” and “newcomers”.
·         Create a Community Task Force.
·         Develop relationship-building programs and activities.
·         Consider – and report on – the interactions between residents and representatives of key institutions (police, schools, churches, parks, etc.)
·         Identify community strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; develop a consensus.
Strengthen existing social/cultural institutions, and create new ones.
·         Identify critical community institutions.
·         Identify needed community institutions.
·         Begin search for non-traditional sources of institutional support.
Visioning
Build cohesiveness and neighborhood pride in a shared community vision.
·         Resolve differences in perception.
·         Craft an achievable vision.
·         Build the skill set of longtimers; build the awareness of newcomers.
·         Focus on asset building initiatives for all residents.
·         Specifically identify the tasks to complete and the actors necessary for implementation.
·         Prioritize your opportunities strategically.
Addressing Inequality
Address economic inequality concerns and needs.
·         Institute workforce development programs.
·         Establish neighborhood apprenticeship programs.
·         Develop entrepreneurship training programs.
Address affordable housing concerns and needs.
·         Quantify number of affordable housing units, households in need.
·         Consider inclusionary zoning/housing set-aside policies in the community.
Implementation
Codify new community expectations and direction in a “community charter”.
Convene a regular gathering (annual, biannual) of community residents to evaluate progress toward community vision and recommend “course corrections”.
This is not an all-inclusive program.  There are clearly some issues that are community-specific that would have to be addressed as a community initiates the process.  And there might also be issues raised here that some communities may choose to defer.  But that’s the point; people get a chance to negotiate the new terms for a new community, in a way that current practices and policies don’t allow.
In addition, it’s also true that the proposed program raises new questions as it attempts to answer others.  For example, resources for such an effort, and who would lead it, are uncertain (although local government and philanthropic organizations seem an obvious start).  Other questions might revolve around the duration of the proposed process, whether or not this might stall development, or whether or not there are actual incentives for newcomers and longtimers to participate.  And there are still others who may view the entire process as quixotic and entirely unachievable given its lofty goals.  Valid questions indeed.

Now I’d like to pose the question to readers: do you think management of gentrification activity is feasible, or even possible?  If so, does this outline of a program seem like a workable endeavor?  Your feedback is important.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Postscript

After I posted the above piece a little more than a year ago, there were many comments and thoughts forwarded to me from a variety of interested parties.  If I could summarize, most reasoned that gentrification management 1) interrupted normal and rational market forces; 2) lacked a constituency that could effectively support such a program; and 3) lacked local government will to implement it.  Daniel Kay Hertz, who’s gone on to write for City Observatory, penned a thoughtful dissent a few days after my piece, and I responded with a “you know, maybe he’s right” piece shortly thereafter.  There were four points Hertz made that rattled me:

“The white middle-class and affluent residents of Oak Park had much more power over their situation than the lower- and working-class, generally non-white residents of gentrifying neighborhoods do today. More to the point, Oak Parkers had more power than the people who wanted to move into Oak Park, which is the opposite of the dynamic in gentrifying areas. To start with the obvious, Oak Parkers had more money, which is useful if you’re going to launch a campaign that will require many, many person-hours of work. The fact that Oak Parkers had money also meant they weren’t in danger of being priced out of their neighborhood; the challenge, rather, was to keep their neighborhoods the kind of places they would choose to live, so as to avoid voluntary mass exodus.

Second, Oak Parkers had the kind of social capital that allowed them to do things like set up equity insurance programs to protect homeowners from potentially falling real estate prices during integration. The social power that came with their racial background also allowed them to get away with “encouraging African American dispersion” throughout Oak Park to avoid ghettoization. Imagine the response of middle-class whites being told by some Pilsen neighborhood council that they would be instructed as to which apartments they were allowed to rent so as to avoid too much white clustering: it would not be pretty…

Third, Oak Parkers had the advantage of their own government. Unlike, say, Logan Square, which is governed by a city whose constituents include both longtime Logan Square residents and many of the wealthier potential gentrifiers, Oak Park’s municipal government was responsive only to the interests of a small, relatively homogenous group of educated, liberal whites with, apparently, broad agreement about what the future of their suburb should look like.

Finally, Oak Parkers had the benefit of policy levers that could accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. Without downplaying the real risks they took, and the real novelty of a white neighborhood successfully implementing planned integration in the mid 20th century, by that time American cities had been managing the residential movement of black people, and lower-income people, for many generations. If part of Oak Park’s goal involved making sure the inflow of black families wasn’t too fast, and that it didn’t create new segregated clusters, they had reason to believe that was, if not exactly a slam dunk, definitely achievable. On the flip side, there are no policy levers I’m aware of that can keep relatively wealthier people out of a low-priced neighborhood that don’t also have serious negative consequences for the existing residents of that neighborhood.”

In retrospect I should have countered immediately instead of accepting these points.  I, too, fell victim to the groupthink of the inevitability of gentrification, and the financial and political power of young and affluent new city residents.

I tend to believe in a pretty radical concept — “all communities for all people.”  That is, city neighborhoods and suburban municipalities should not simply appeal to certain economic and social niches, but to a broad range across the economic and social spectrum.  In fact, I find that the healthiest neighborhoods and communities are those that have a diverse mix of incomes, household types, age ranges, commercial and recreational amenities: they are full communities in the truest sense.

Today’s urbanists intuitively understand that the 20th century suburb was built on the premise of exclusivity, and they rail against it.  They advocate for — and celebrate — the growing diversity of suburbia, and even view it as a triumph of their enlightened beliefs and efforts.

But just as the suburb was premised on exclusivity, the inner city neighborhood — the ghetto — was premised on isolation.  Prices were propped up in the suburbs to benefit suburban buyers; prices were suppressed in ghettos for the very same reason.  

For those who believe in the rent-gap theory of gentrification, or that investment occurs when the difference between current rent and achievable rent is greatest, I prefer to flip the thinking.  Potential new residents focus on the value of moving into a new neighborhood.  Longtime residents of that neighborhood, particularly homeowners, might look at new residents as the means to bring the actual value back to their properties.  

If pursuing diversity is good for suburbs, maintaining it must be good for cities.

Regarding the responsiveness and flexibility of local government in a suburban municipality like Oak Park, I agree that it would be difficult to expect entire large cities to be as nimble.  That’s why I see this as a grass-roots effort that flows upward — from local institutions, businesses, neighborhood associations and community development corporations — and ultimately influences elected officials.  This would most certainly happen in the communities receiving the greatest pressure for gentrification: those adjacent to gentrified or gentrifying communities.  If such communities establish their policy position in the right way, they may find allies in the adjacent gentrified neighborhood.

Lastly, I’d note that there are many studies that cite that suburban expansion happened because it was able to move forward without inclusion of the full costs of development — transportation costs and infrastructure costs perhaps being chief among them.  Those true costs are now coming to bear and are increasingly becoming a burden that could imperil suburban communities.  I believe that there are costs associated with gentrification as well.  The costs tend to be more social in nature, but if we don’t recognize the costs — and pay appropriately — we could be hurting our cities.

Look for more on this soon.

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