Revitalization Without Gentrification: Is It Possible?

By:  Monet Valdez

San Diego’s urban landscape has seen dramatic changes in the last decade. North Park, in particular, once hosted starving artists and low-income families. Its streets more closely resembled a scene from Max Brooks’ World War Z with its “drug houses, high crime, bars on windows, [and] empty store fronts.” Today, North Park is recognizable as one of America’s most vibrant, hip, and expensive neighborhoods.

Gentrification is responsible for North Park’s appealing makeover. According to the Urban Displacement Project, gentrification is a process of neighborhood change in a historically disinvested neighborhood that includes real estate investment and an influx of new higher-income residents. Echo Park, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Oakland are just a few examples of California cities that were confronted with gentrification and are now unaffordable for many existing residents. Gentrification has become synonymous with pushing long-time residents out to make room for higher-income residents. This has left many existing tenants skeptical of any development and equating it to their eradication. 

The burden of displacement people feel in the wake of gentrification has left people wondering if it is possible to revitalize a community without gentrification.

Derek Avery and his company, COIR Holdings, have an entire mantra dedicated to revitalization without gentrification. Their mission is “to deliver net-zero energy residential and commercial products to aid in community and economic development by providing sustainable housing at a value while training and employing a local work force to build [their] product[s] in communities [they] serve.” On May 31, 2019 Avery sat down for an interview with Charles “Chuck” Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, another organization dedicated to making communities resilient and maintaining affordability for its residents.

Immediately, Marohn asked Avery how “revitalization without gentrification” is not just a slogan for the young developer. Avery explained revitalization is what everyone wants. People want investment and to be included, but they do not want to be displaced. COIR Holdings tries to give people what they want by ingraining themselves into the community. They hire a local work force, preserve the history from the architecture and the art in the neighborhood, and build relationships with locals by asking them directly what their needs are.

Barry Farm is a community in Southeast Washington, D.C. that has been slated for a $550 million redevelopment plan for over a decade. Developers promise to keep public housing affordable while introducing mixed-income housing and retail spaces to Barry Farm. The development plan has been slow-going because residents are skeptical of gentrification and continue to challenge zoning orders. Barry Farm’s population is predominately African-American and “93 percent single mothers; some 86 percent are unemployed.” In April of 2018, the D.C. appeals court sent Barry Farm developers back to the Zoning Commission for review. Barry Farm residents celebrated their small victory, but they are an exception and not the norm.

According to Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, gentrification does not always mean displacement. The difficulty lies in figuring out how to achieve wealth-building for longtime residents who could benefit from their property value increasing while avoiding involuntary displacement. Van Tol discusses how displacement is avoidable:

“[W]ays to help people stay rooted in their communities: provide renters with the opportunity and financing to purchase their units; preserve and expand public housing; protect elderly and long-term residents from property tax increases; enforce building codes and offer easy options for renters to report bad landlords; negotiate payment plans with homeowners who have fallen behind on their property taxes; establish community benefits agreements with investors in large projects to ensure that local residents benefit from the investment; offer developers higher levels of density in return for funding more affordable housing units in their projects; establish a loan fund to help small business owners buy their buildings.”

Van Tol specifically praises Washington’s policy model called “inclusionary zoning” which requires that up to 10 percent of residential housing maintain its affordability.

Models like Washington, though great in theory, highlight other issues. When new, wealthy residents enter a community, the median-income increases. If affordability is gauged by the median-income, then longtime residents with lower incomes are driven out.

Revitalization without gentrification may be possible. As Van Tol put it, it will only be achieved when policymakers, community leaders, lenders, and investors understand the difference between displacement and investment, and that they are two distinct phenomena. Until then gentrification will continue to devastate families and communities.

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