Development, Housing Affordability, and Gentrification: Knowing Your City (Part 2 of 3)

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This is the second in a three–part series that explores gentrification as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the (re)development of a place, and identifies innovative tools and strategies that cities are using to address the overlapping issues of mobility and affordability.

In the first blog post of this series, I outlined my concern with the effects of place-based economic development on long-time residents in a neighborhood. With a growing interest in creating transit-oriented developments, vibrant corridors, and walkable communities- generally environmentally and economically intelligent choices for cities- it is increasingly critical that we understand the implications of such efforts for all members of a community.  In this post I explore strategies used by cities to ensure that all residents, newcomers and long-timers alike, benefit from these developments, while the final post will describe specific tools available to cities to preserve an affordable housing stock.

I assert that the first and most critical step to avoiding displacement is a re-examination of the intention behind planning for such developments. While the resulting increase in the tax base that comes from a ‘successful’ redevelopment effort is often necessary for cities to remain economically competitive, a broader set of factors including social, cultural, demographic, and economic diversity is equally necessary to create healthy and sustainable cities. In her presentation at NLC’s 2011 Congress of Cities,’ Emily Talen, a professor at Arizona State University, similarly illustrates the importance of various types of diversity to create vibrant, resilient cities.

Given that gentrification is often regarded as an ‘unintended’ consequence, or an unfortunate after-effect of an otherwise successful redevelopment effort, perhaps the most effective intervention is one of intentionality during the earliest stages of the process. Rather than waiting to see how redevelopment efforts may or may not result in the gentrification of a neighborhood, I suggest embedding inclusive planning practices from the start to actively integrate and understand the needs and visions of current and future residents of the community.

I outline here three basic principles that, albeit straightforward, radically alter the ways in which we understand, prioritize, and plan redevelopment efforts. While these principles represent only the first steps in moving towards the creation of economically diverse, ‘sustainable’ neighborhoods, they are important to set us on a path of altering where and how redevelopment occurs:

Know What Matters.  The vision shapes the product.  Gentrification ends up being an ‘unintended consequence’ of development primarily because nothing in the vision of a development project states otherwise.  It’s simple—a vision for a project that explicitly prioritizes the preservation of affordable housing (as an example), in addition to economic vitality, is the first step towards ensuring that affordable housing becomes a reality.  Purposefully crafting a vision statement, for a neighborhood or corridor redevelopment, establishes which priorities will guide the project.

For their long-term strategic plan, the City of Portland explicitly stated that “advancing equity” was the foundation of the plan.  Read what that means to them, and how they engaged the community to advance their equity goals.

Know All Sides. A story changes depends on who tells it. It’s a simple concept, but one that has great implications for the planning of neighborhoods. It is often challenging or time-consuming to make sure that all critical stakeholders in a community—local businesses, residents, and potential developers—are at the table.  However, these small businesses and residents who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time have unique local knowledge that would help to inform future development. Additionally, if it is a priority to retain current residents and businesses, then future development has to respond to their needs and visions for the community as well. A heavy outreach effort including the use of social media as well as community meetings that foster inclusiveness and embrace diverse opinions and stories, are critical to gain community support and ensure that plans incorporate their valuable local knowledge.

Check out this case study of a redevelopment process in the City of Albuquerque as an example of how to effectively build community consensus around a project.  Additionally, this report highlights twenty innovative city programs aimed specifically at integrating immigrant communities.

Know What You’re Working With.  Many cities have mastered the art of economic analyses and economic projections (NLC, in partnership with Northeastern University, offers assistance on this front). However, we still have a ways to go with using equity measures to understand the current conditions of our neighborhoods and the implications of future development.For example, if a priority goal is to maintain housing affordability, then we need to better situate ‘affordability’ based on specific neighborhood conditions.  Luckily, emerging technologies —including an array of mapping tools —have made it much easier to get a sense of current conditions and understand some of the ‘equity effects’ of our development decisions.

In a webinar hosted by NLC last month, Stefanie Shull of the Center for Neighborhood Technology presented on their Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, a comprehensive way to measure true housing affordability by incorporating transportation costs and neighborhood characteristics.  Check out their interactive map here. 

The next and final blog post for this series will focus on specific tools – such as community benefits agreements, inclusionary zoning, and design strategies – that communities have successfully used to ensure housing affordability in the midst of redevelopment efforts. Stay tuned and email if you have a great example!

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