If you have ever heard about “neighborhood revitalization,” you probably imagine residential renovation projects and new and attractive store fronts. Every community wants to be economically strong, and these images certainly convey that idea. But gentrification is the other side of revitalization that is often overlooked. It helps to ask questions like, “Who is behind this neighborhood development, and why?” and “Who is affected by it?”
Gentrification is “the buying and renovating of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses” (dictionary.com). When developers build new homes and commercial real estate, the cost of living naturally goes up for the people who have been long-time, often low-income, residents. Most people in gentrifying neighborhoods cannot afford the rising costs of rent, and find themselves forced out of their own neighborhood against their will. For this reason, gentrification is often considered a social justice issue of class and race. The development companies are often not interested in the wellbeing of the community if turning a blind eye means turning a profit. The local governments may not always be relied upon to manage gentrification through legislation because economic growth benefits them as well.
So, how can we improve underserved neighborhoods and help a community thrive without gentrifying it and displacing its residents? Many cities have built affordable or mixed income housing into the development projects. One option is the community land trust model, which helps low-income residents obtain quality affordable housing. For example, Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement is partnered with the Uniondale Community Land Trust, a local nonprofit whose mission is to renovate foreclosed homes and retain ownership of the land so that low-income families who move into the homes only have to take a mortgage out on the price of the house itself. This allows them to afford to live there more easily and build equity.
It is always important to have the voice of the community at the table when any decisions are made that will affect it. Sometimes, sustainable solutions must come from awareness and action at the ground level up.