Gentrification doesn't have to force minority residents out of their homes. Activists say there are 3 ways to protect communities.

Gentrification doesn't have to force minority residents out of their homes. Activists say there are 3 ways to protect communities.

September 15, 2020
  • When a neighborhood gentrifies, new homes rise, new businesses move in, and property values go up. But longtime, low-income minority residents are also often priced out.
  • Activists say that changing single-family zoning laws and taxing owners of vacant properties can help to create more affordable, accessible housing.
  • Empowering residents to "buy back the block" and resist developers is another way to protect existing communities.
  • Click here to sign up for Business Insider's "Closing the racial wealth gap" panel on September 25 »

When a low-income neighborhood has been gentrified, it generally means that old buildings have been torn down, new residences have been built, big-name businesses have moved in — and the demographics of the area have changed.

While gentrification may increase property values, it also raises rents and property taxes, pricing longtime residents out of their own neighborhoods, often leading to more white and fewer Black residents. That means less wealth in the hands of Black Americans, who already own just 10% of the wealth of white Americans on average.

The gentrification process may feel inevitable, but it doesn't have to. According to community leaders and housing activists, there are ways to mitigate the harmful effects of gentrification and fight to keep longtime minority residents from being displaced, including passing new residential zoning laws, taxing vacant properties, and organizing residents to pool their capital to buy property. 

Preventing gentrification through zoning and other housing regulations

King Williams has seen the consequences of gentrification in urban Atlanta firsthand. He's the director of the documentary "The Atlanta Way," which chronicles the razing of public housing in Atlanta from 2008 to 2010. 

Williams told Business Insider that public housing in his city was destroyed at the behest of Atlanta Housing, the local housing authority, which was "trying to remove concentrated poverty in the city."

He said, "This effort really just opened up the most viable areas of the city for development, and pushed poor people to the periphery or relocating in other poor pockets of the city. Most of the people who were able to get a Section 8 voucher moved to other, lower-economic pockets of the city, and the majority of people did not get these vouchers and no data has emerged as to where they went." 

To keep residents in their neighborhoods and prevent gentrification, Williams said that cities need to foster economic growth and opportunities in low-income communities, and tear up existing zoning laws. "It would take some serious changing of local zoning ordinances and existing housing laws, building more immediately affordable housing units, breaking up the love affair of single-family homes, and going in on mixed-use, mixed-income properties," he said. 

How zoning can lead to high housing prices

Here's an example of a zoning law that preserves the low-density character of suburbs and blocks the development of affordable housing: Single-family zoning (often called R1) prevents the building of any kind of housing except detached, single-family homes. This keeps population density low in these areas by regulating how many people can live in a certain square footage. 

In cities with more land set aside for single-family homes, R1 zoning creates a shortage of affordable housing, since multi-family dwellings — such as apartment buildings — can't be built. In Los Angeles, 70% of residential land is zoned as R1, and in Seattle, it's 80%, which advocates say sets the stage for a competitive and exclusionary housing market. Many families displaced from multi-family dwellings in urban areas cannot afford to move to single-family communities, so by breaking up these zoning laws, it creates opportunities to build more affordable housing. 

Some cities are already starting to alter their residential zoning laws. Bend, Oregon made news last year when Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed a law requiring Oregon cities with more than 1,000 residents to allow duplexes in areas that were previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes. The same law requires that cities with more than 25,000 residents must allow townhomes, triplexes, and fourplexes. 

Other cities, like Minneapolis, have followed suit. The Minneapolis law allows duplexes and triplexes to be built anywhere in the city. Previously, nearly three-quarters of the city was zoned for single-family housing. 

Taxing vacant properties to free up housing stock

Housing advocates say that without government action, low-income residents across the country face displacement because of rapidly changing neighborhoods. Shirah Dedman's 2018 documentary "You a Nomad'' analyzes the gentrification of Oakland, California, where over a period of 10 years, Oakland lost 25% of its Black population. Dedman said that the loss was fueled in part by "generations of economic apartheid," a term used to describe a system designed to keep Black people from equal access to things like housing and jobs. 

Because of Oakland's proximity to San Francisco, it became home to growing tech companies looking for tax breaks, and tech employees looking for a cheaper place to live. From 2011 to 2016, the median home price in Oakland increased 178%. The demand for property in Oakland drove up home values, but it also drove out many Black residents. 

Dedman said the way to protect residents from gentrification is to first decrease the number of properties that sit empty. According to the Census Bureau, there are thousands of empty homes in the Bay Area — and nearly 6,000 vacant homes in Oakland alone.

"I think one of the most promising strategies for protecting long-standing residents from gentrification is Oakland's vacancy property tax," said Dedman. 

The vacancy tax was approved by a ballot measure in November 2018 and went into effect the following year, establishing an annual tax on vacant properties of $3,000 to $6,000. So far, it's too soon to tell whether the tax has provided more affordable housing. 

Dedman hopes the tax will eventually increase the number of homes and rentals in the market, and hopefully drive down housing prices. "In general, curbing Oakland's highly speculative housing market and increasing the number of living-wage jobs is what's needed for long-term housing sustainability," said Dedman.

Empowering residents to resist gentrification

In Atlanta, Kamau Franklin is fighting gentrification by working to organize and educate residents. He's the director of Community Movement Builders, and their mission is to create sustainable, self-determining communities through cooperative economics and community organizing. 

For Franklin, the answers to gentrification lie in education and organization. Franklin told Business Insider that the only real way to achieve success is to organize people so they can collectively respond to real estate developers, finance capital, and elect officials who are more interested in keeping working-class people in their homes than in building new real estate.

"Several organizations we work with, including the national organization Right to the City, use organizing renters and/or working-class homeowners to challenge the power of these organized groups, who admittedly have the advantage because of their wealth," said Franklin. "So, the model is organizing renters' associations, neighborhood associates, and activist groups. That includes political education to confront the ideology that homes are just a commodity to be bought and sold without any thinking about what happens to the social fabric of a neighborhood."

Franklin's Community Movement Builders organization has been able to purchase two properties in the historically Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and they are currently raising money to buy more properties through a "buy back the block" campaign to protect the community from developers. 

Long term, though, Franklin sees the need for a complete paradigm shift in the way we approach housing. "In order to fight gentrification, there has to be a change in how we think about housing," he said. "As opposed to the 'market' being the arbiter of who deserves to have shelter or not, we should move to a human-rights-centered approach that says everyone deserves homes and that government policy should reflect this."

This story is part of Business Insider's "Inside the racial wealth gap" series.

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