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Beyond Gentrification: Roundtable of Experts

Radhika K. Fox - PolicyLink

Harold Simon: PolicyLink is dedicated to developing local and national policies and programs designed to foster equitable development. To facilitate this, PolicyLink has identified and gathered successful programs and polices along with a range of organizing and political strategies into a toolkit. Can you describe the toolkit for us?

Radhika Fox: The "Equitable Development Toolkit: Beyond Gentrification" is a Web-based resource highlighting federal, state, and local policies and strategies that community leaders can pursue to direct new investments to the benefit of current residents. The toolkit addresses four key aspects of equitable development: affordable housing, finance, controlling development, and income and asset creation.

The goal of the toolkit is to offer local communities a menu of policy options they can pursue to promote equitable development, build the necessary skills to analyze the economic, racial, and ethnic equity impacts of past investments, analyze proposals and data for prospective investments, forge strategic alliances to win their policy goals, and communicate their successes and challenges.

Simon: Moving beyond the toolkit itself, the PolicyLink Equitable Development Team is now working with groups in Portland, the Bay Area, Atlanta, D.C., Boston, and other communities. These places have varying demographics, politics and community assets (financial, social, and human capital). Given this range and variety, have common threads emerged and what pieces of the toolkit do you find most frequently used?

Fox: Focus on Fair Share Housing. In nearly every community that PolicyLink works with, the issue of decent, safe, and affordable housing that is spread across the region is a key issue. All of our regional partners currently spend much of their policy resources on campaigns for new affordable housing resources, preservation of existing affordable housing with the goal of stability for long-time residents, and on the intersection of transportation investments and housing affordability. The affordable housing section of the toolkit is the most frequently utilized by community groups.

Confront Race Dynamics. Race plays a significant role in the process of community revitalization, but it is experienced as a complex interplay of race, class and culture. Ultimately, communities with economic and social forces working against their well-being are most susceptible to displacement. Neighborhoods where people of color are living in concentrated poverty, have few job opportunities, and where there are few professionals and business leaders are the most vulnerable to displacement. In the communities that we work with, local leaders are articulating the connection between race and regional development. Confronting race dynamics and developing productive solutions to the many factors associated with racial and economic segregation in urban core communities and inner-ring suburbs is critical to building equitable neighborhoods and regions.

Increase Community Capacity. While regional coalitions or networks are eager to work on equitable development policy campaigns, few organizations have the capacity to take on significant policy work on top of the services they normally deliver. It takes reallocation of existing resources and the raising of new resources to create the capacity needed to build winning campaigns. We must have sustained investment from the public sector and foundations to build local capacity to achieve equitable development. Some of the ways that we support local communities in advancing equitable development campaigns include: crafting campaign strategy, engaging in locally relevant research; using data and information to support policy change and inform campaigns; crafting compelling messages that make the case for equitable development; and engaging diverse stakeholders.

Simon: How can community groups anticipate neighborhood change and plan appropriate responses?

Fox: First, Assess. A strategic assessment of a community's situation is a crucial first step. This is needed in order to understand the development dynamics underway and to provide a baseline of information that communities can compare to their desired state of community. For communities working to combat displacement, the most crucial time to start is at the beginning of revitalization efforts. An assessment will usually involve community mapping that identifies renter-to-homeownership rates, vacancy and abandonment rates, affordability indexes (rent or mortgage as percentage of household income), and spatial analyses of race and poverty. They should be tailored to the specific situation.

Action on Four Fronts. After an assessment, communities will have a better sense of their priorities and be ready to take action. There are four major categories of action that promote equitable development, whether that entails stabilizing a gentrifying neighborhood or trying to revitalize a disinvested community.

  • Preserving and Expanding the Supply of Affordable Housing: Whether communities are working to rehab and fill vacant buildings in depopulated urban cores or to improve community infrastructure in fully populated low income neighborhoods, an explicit housing affordability plan should always be in place first.
  • Controlling Land for Community Development: Land use, tax and zoning policies all shape equitable development; a housing affordability plan can't succeed without taking them into account. Communities need to evaluate zoning and public land giveaways and steer them in the direction of their aspirations.
  • Income and Asset Creation: Income and asset creation are critical for
    ensuring resident well-being as the neighborhood economy improves.
  • Financing Strategies: Proactive financing strategies can provide neighborhood-specific ways to fund the other three categories of action. Options for funding are numerous, and can be directed at nonprofits, private developers, or even landlords.

Simon: Let's talk more about finding creative financing strategies. We've seen that the groups that Brad Lander and Mtamanika Youngblood work with began to "land bank" properties early. 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 when your efforts are successful?

Fox: Given that we are in an economic downturn, it is theoretically the best time to "land bank" properties since land values have decreased. However, it is extremely challenging to find new resources in this diminished funding climate. One opportunity for community organizations to explore is partnering with local government to get access to vacant, under-utilized or abandoned buildings. There are examples of city agencies turning these properties over to nonprofit organizations who then bring these buildings into productive reuse. In a variation on this idea, the city of Portland turns over portions of its land holdings to the community land trust.

However, the efforts of community organizations to advance equitable development and prevent displacement are only one piece of the puzzle. Locales must implement strategies that require the private market to contribute to the affordable housing stock in a community. For example, inclusionary zoning policies tie market-rate residential development to housing affordability, while commercial linkage programs tie commercial development to housing affordability.

Radhika Fox staffs PolicyLink initiatives focused on equitable development and regional equity. Prior to joining PolicyLink, she was a HUD Community Development Fellow. She holds a B.A. from Columbia University and a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley.

Related Links:
»Learn more about PolicyLink and the Equitable Development Toolkit at policylink.org.