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PBS Premiere: June 17, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Beyond Gentrification: Roundtable of Experts

Brad Lander - The Fifth Avenue Committee

Harold Simon: Gentrification is a complex process requiring a variety of responses, both housing and economic. The Fifth Avenue Committee takes a comprehensive approach by working to create and preserve affordable units while at the same time helping people to afford (through subsidy or increased wages) the rising costs of housing. Tell us more about FAC's approach, how you came to it and the challenges to community groups in implementing this approach.

Brad Lander: When community residents came together 25 years ago to create FAC, they wanted to improve the neighborhood dramatically -- to renovate abandoned buildings, fix up blighted parks, and bring the 5th Avenue commercial strip back to life. But they also knew that balance and foresight were required. Our community is conveniently located near downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, and it is close to beautiful Prospect Park. Much of the housing stock -- though dilapidated at the time -- is attractive brownstone and row-house buildings. They knew that if they were successful and the neighborhood became more attractive and safer, housing prices would rise and people might be pushed out of the neighborhood. FAC's founders wanted to improve the neighborhood in a way that created opportunities for everyone, and that strengthened -- rather than threatened -- the community's economic and racial diversity.

So from the beginning, they established a balanced approach that has guided our work since that time:

Creating deeply affordable housing that the market will not provide: In the early years, when there was no development in or near our community, the organization developed moderate and middle income housing. But for the past 20 years, as for-profit developers have begun developing here, we have focused more strongly on very low, low, and moderate income housing. There are many people with low incomes, but essentially no one other than us is producing affordable housing in this community for them. Even when we develop mixed-use housing (as a way of filling financing gaps), we want a substantial majority of the units affordable to low income families. We also prefer to create housing that is cooperatively owned by the residents who live there, so they come to have a long-term stake in our community.

Tenant and community organizing to preserve what we have: Probably the most important piece of our response to gentrification is our community organizing. We have organized thousands of tenants, in hundreds of buildings, to preserve their rights to decent, affordable housing -- some years we are fighting abandonment, other years we are fighting displacement and massive rent increases. We work with other groups around the city to preserve New York's rent regulation laws. Those laws are the only thing that keep literally tens of thousands of low and moderate income tenants from being displaced. More recently, we have established a Displacement Free Zone, for tenants in buildings that are too small to be covered by rent regulations. Working together, local tenants, clergy, and homeowners organize to pressure landlords not to evict low income tenants for the purpose of doubling or tripling the rent, even if they are legally allowed to. We are also working on new tax and zoning policies that would provide better incentives for private owners to create and preserve affordable housing.

Helping people earn more: In order for low income community residents to take advantage of the economic development that our neighborhood and New York City have seen, they need better skills and real job opportunities. We offer sectorally-targeted job training and placement programs in commercial driving and network cable installation -- two well-paying sectors, with low barriers to entry, that can't be relocated overseas, to the suburbs, or elsewhere in the country. We have started a staffing company to help people get jobs, and we are now merging with an adult literacy education program to help people build their reading and writing skills.

Making a place for our neighborhood's most disenfranchised folks: Too many CDCs (community development corporations), in our opinion, come to advocate primarily for the middle income folks in their neighborhood. We also need to make sure that more vulnerable or disenfranchised people are included in community development. So, we have developed supportive housing for people with special needs and seniors. And two years ago, we launched a new program, "Developing Justice in South Brooklyn," to help individuals returning from prison to succeed in their re-entry. This approach not only helps these individuals -- it reduces crime, builds new leadership, and strengthens our community as a whole.

Simon: When the word "gentrification" is said in small and large communities around the country, it's not uncommon to have eyes roll and be told, "we should only be so lucky." Look around and you see abandoned and vacant buildings, population loss, joblessness, poor schools, unsafe streets and a host of other ills. How can communities, while doing the brutally difficult work of encouraging development, prepare themselves so that they won't be victims of their own success?

Lander: FAC began, like so many other community development groups, with a primary goal of improving a blighted neighborhood. When FAC was founded in 1978, there were 150 vacant buildings and 100 vacant lots within a mile of our office. We set out to rehabilitate buildings, to reclaim parks that had been occupied by drug dealers, and to clean up the commercial strip (which had over 50 percent vacancy in many stretches) and vacant lots that were strewn with garbage. So we deeply value the work that helps make neighborhoods safer, better places to live. The improvements won by community development groups in creating places where people are proud to live are remarkable, and we rightly celebrate them.

But we want something even more. We want the benefits of development to be shared more equally. We want people to become less poor. We are striving for something like "self-determination," the idea that people individually and collectively ought to be able to control the major factors in their lives. Our goal is not to make poverty more dignified, but to have people earning enough that they don't have to worry about finding housing and food from week to week.

And surely we are obligated to insure that rising rents -- created in part by our own development work -- don't push our neighbors out just as the neighborhood improves. The logic of the real estate market works against stable, mixed income communities. When one landlord is getting $1,200 a month, the landlord next door may well seek to evict the tenant who has been paying $600 for years. Is that the kind of development we want?

So, what can groups do who share these goals, who want to improve their community, but also care about equity, displacement, and self-determination:

Buy all the land you can early: This is a challenge, because it is tough for young groups, in distressed neighborhoods, to raise or borrow money to secure much property. But if you don't, and you proceed with a few projects while much nearby land remains vacant or abandoned, you will most likely increase the value of that property beyond your ability to purchase it. And then it will go exclusively for market uses, without community planning or benefit.

Insist that public and not-for-profit owned land is used for community purposes: Don't believe the mantra that only market-oriented development increases the value of a community. Affordable housing increases the value of a community. Parks increase the value of a community. New schools and day care centers increase the value of a community. Focus your resources on meeting needs that the market won't... because there are a lot of these needs, they are good for the community, and no one else will even try to meet them.

Negotiate "community benefits agreements" with developers: Where market-oriented development is taking place in your community, negotiate community benefits agreements with developers. Get written commitments in place as to who will get the jobs and benefits, what public amenities will be provided, etc. Often, we are timid in these negotiations out of fear that we'll drive away development. But private real estate developers are plenty sturdy, and they can stand some real bargaining and community benefit.

Work aggressively for public policies that promote "equitable development": In so many places around the country, local governments that are desperate for development focus on tax breaks and other giveaways to attract any kind of development. But there is now evidence showing that "equitable development" works, and community groups can work for many different policies that help to bring it about -- rent regulations, inclusionary zoning, community benefits agreements, using CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds for deeply affordable housing, sectorally-targeted job training. These policies are NOT anti-development -- instead, they help to bring about development whose benefits are shared across communities.

Simon: As you mention above, FAC looked ahead to when your efforts would be successful and began to "land bank" properties. Given the funding realities today, how can small organizations accomplish this? Are there any other strategies used to guide the market and not be priced out of the market when your efforts are successful?

Lander: The question points out one of the painful ironies in efforts to achieve equitable development, or fair growth. When a community is disinvested, there is often significant opportunity to purchase property at affordable prices, but it is difficult for a grassroots organization to obtain funding, since lenders are nervous about whether the property will retain its value. And there is opportunity for wider-scale planning that would include strong development controls and interventions to create balanced growth, but generally public officials at that stage want to do anything they can to spur development. So the opportunity is missed, and by the time community development groups can obtain financing or have the power to implement stronger zoning or land use policies, the market is too strong. Resolving this paradox means doing three things simultaneously: plan, build power and establish credibility.

Plan: As Mtamanika and Radhika point out, community planning must begin with, well, real community planning -- taking the time to involve community stakeholders in understanding their community and planning for its long-term future. One of the strengths of community development has been its "whatever works" approach to problem-solving. But we have now seen enough examples to know that long-range planning for fair growth must take place at an early stage. Know where all the vacant lots are, and what you want there instead. Plan concretely for different types of housing, schools, open space, quality jobs. And begin to understand what it would take -- in concrete terms -- to make this development happen. What would it take to develop these yourself, or to get a private sector developer to do it? What would government and philanthropy need to provide? Don't just draw maps with good-looking parks. Also run spreadsheets with real bottom lines.

Build power (i.e. organize!): At the same time that you are planning, you also have to be building power. So many community organizations make the mistake of believing that a good neighborhood plan will somehow, by itself, persuade for-profit developers to forget their own self-interest, or make public officials take notice -- but it almost never does. Private sector market actors do what is required of them... by zoning and regulation. And public sector development policy usually looks to private sector developers to tell them what to do. If you want to achieve equitable development, to share the benefits of growth -- in other words, to put strong interventions in place to direct profit and benefits toward social goals in a different way than the market otherwise would -- you'll need a strong, strategic organization with a real base. Don't just plan, organize.

Establish credibility: Even while planning and organizing, it is worth beginning to build a track record. Do a small development project on your own, or partner with a larger group (with a clear, detailed, written partnership agreement). Take on gradually larger projects, so when your organizing wins victories that enable you to put your plan into action, you can show lenders and investors that you have project experience. If you can do these things, the resources and tools are out there. Your local LISC or Enterprise office, or the community development officer at a local bank can help you figure out how to find resources for land acquisition. And the PolicyLink.org website provides the policy tools you'll need to shape development to meet your goals -- from inclusionary zoning to community benefits agreements to linkage fees. But resist the temptation to think that the tools themselves are sufficient. If you can create a plan, organize to build power, and establish credibility, you'll find the strategies that work in your community.

Simon: In addition to economic diversity, Brooklyn has significant racial and cultural diversity. FAC has had so much success, in part, because of its variety of partners and collaborators. Have you encountered any inter-group tensions and how have you dealt with them? What strategies can neighborhoods use to find common ground between various groups and build successful collaborations?

Lander: We work hard to balance our mission -- advancing social and economic justice in our community -- with creating a comfortable space where people from different race and class backgrounds can work together. On the one hand, we want people to build common ground. On the other hand, we believe that if low income and other disenfranchised people do not have a stronger voice in our neighborhood, we cannot achieve our goals.

Sometimes, of course, this provokes tension. When we have developed (or sought to develop) supportive housing for people with special needs, homeowners have sometimes fought against us. Our approach in these cases has been respectful community organizing. Rather than hide from the issue, we have knocked on every door on the affected blocks -- bringing with us people from buildings we have developed and those who would benefit from what we are proposing. We have held open neighborhood meetings, where competing interests could be discussed. But we have also, at times, been strong advocates for things that community residents involved with FAC believed were needed in our community (e.g. housing for homeless people, or people with mental illness, or people returning from prison), even when we might have lost a vote on the affected block. Still, we believe our honesty and our approach has preserved relationships for the future.

We also use creative approaches to build community across boundaries. The protests of our Displacement Free Zone almost always involve something fun -- one was a carnival, another a "fundraising dinner" on the landlord's lawn. Increasingly, we see art and culture as a way to build these bridges. This summer, we'll be working on a large community mural on the site of our new building, and exploring other cultural events and projects that build community.

Simon: Can you tell us a little more about how you go about organizing your community? How do you balance consensus versus confrontation and how you get the maximum buy-in, especially from diverse interests?

Lander: We believe in fairly "classic" community organizing to build power -- the model that has grown out of the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Saul Alinksy. For a good introduction, start with the Center for Community Change website (see related links). They define community organizing as the process of:

  • building power through involving a constituency in
    identifying problems they share and the solutions to those problems;
  • identifying the people and structures that can make those solutions possible;
  • enlisting those targets in the effort through negotiation and using confrontation and pressure when needed; and
  • building an institution that is democratically controlled by that constituency that can develop the capacity to take on further problems and that embodies the will and the power of that constituency.

We want to involve diverse constituencies in our community, across lines of race and class. And of course, we want ultimately to create consensus for action that creates a vibrant, diverse community, where ALL residents have genuine opportunities to achieve their goals. But this must not mean ignoring the issues of power and privilege, or refusing to look at the hard issues of race and class. Community organizing groups are sometimes tagged as being too confrontational -- and on occasion we have perhaps been guilty of moving too quickly to a demonstration or protest. But more often, in our opinion, there is instead pressure for "community consensus" that simply reinforces the status quo. Resisting the powerful, relentless, and subtle ways that the market reinforces income inequality -- that is, rewards those who already have resources and punishes those who don't -- requires strong and forthright action.

But this does not mean being negative, or bitter, or always reactive. Instead, we work hard to create a shared, positive, vibrant vision for our community -- for a community that is characterized by social and economic justice, and is a place that everyone would want to live. So our "Displacement Free Zone," while often resorting to demonstrations when landlords are evicting seniors, families, and children, starts from the premise that we can have a neighborhood rooted in our values -- that it can be a place which is diverse, which respects neighbors, and which doesn't endorse profiteering at the expense of the most vulnerable. We have found that this vision creates substantial consensus, perhaps best judged by the diversity and number of people willing to come out to a protest or demonstration when one of their neighbors is at risk.

Brad Lander has served for 10 years as the executive director of The Fifth Avenue Committee. He serves on the boards of the NYC Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development and Grassroots Leadership, and teaches city planning at the Pratt Institute.

Related Links:
»Visit The Fifth Avenue Committee at fifthave.org.

»Learn more about community organizing at communitychange.org.