Addressing Fears of Displacement in the Rust Belt | Guest Blog by David Riley

Each week on Tuesday and Thursday through October 20th 540Blog will feature guest blog’s from city residents themed around gentrification. Today’s blog comes courtesy of David Riley. Check out David’s blog below and be sure to register to attend 540WMain’s

‘Fall 2018 Gentrification Conference // Who Are the Gentrified?

Saturday October 20th // 10am-4pm

Thomas P. Ryan Community Center

Addressing Fears of Displacement in the Rust Belt | Guest Blog by David Riley

In graduate school, I worked on a transformation plan for a neighborhood organization on Buffalo’s east side. The project revolved around a central conflict. Our client asked us to develop strategies to help neighborhood residents restore and replant vacant lots, improve conditions of existing homes, and create new housing options for existing renters and homeowners. We also were asked to find ways to minimize the potential that our plan – if successful in spurring new investments and improving services to the community – could end up displacing the very residents who worked long and hard to strengthen their neighborhood. 

Here in Rochester, there is growing concern and advocacy around this same tension, which lies at the heart of many debates about development. The central worry is that new development or improvements in physical conditions will result in higher property values. This can be a good thing for some homeowners. But for people just managing to make rent or mortgage payments, this may render their homes unaffordable. Along with this kind of literal displacement can come cultural and political changes as existing residents leave a neighborhood and newcomers move in. Even well-intended, much-needed investments in neighborhoods that have experienced longtime neglect and disinvestment can carry the risk of this result.

To develop a meaningful response to these concerns, we need to understand how they play out at the local level. The kind of displacement that happens in larger cities, which dominate many discussions about gentrification, differs significantly from places like Rochester and Buffalo. Cities like San Francisco and New York City have tremendous demand for housing, significant development, soaring real estate prices, and displacement taking place at a measurable scale.

Many Rochester neighborhoods have the opposite problem: decades of disinvestment, resulting in deteriorating housing and abandonment. Portions of the city are indeed experiencing new development, but overall, city home prices are fairly anemic, at least in comparison to larger urban markets. Problems with housing affordability are driven in large part by concentrated and racialized poverty, not a booming real estate sector. In other words, the concern in Rochester is less runaway housing prices than the fact that one in three Rochester residents lives below the poverty line, including a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic residents.

There’s little evidence of widespread displacement here, but that doesn’t mean that concerns are unfounded. We have many neighborhoods that desperately need investment, but it takes only slight increases in property values and rents to price out people living on very little. Recent housing advocacy has focused in part on pockets of the city that have indeed seen increased development and more home purchases by professionals and students. If these incremental changes build into broader interest in living and investing in the city – a larger urban resurgence that I think many of us might like to see, at least in the big picture – we need to be thoughtful about how to make that recovery beneficial to as many people as possible. If planners, policymakers and urbanists are serious about working to make Rochester a growing, more vibrant and more equitable city, we ought to take fears of displacement seriously, too.

How might we pursue community development that brings about these kinds of improvements, while also mitigating the risk of displacement?

In these conversations – at least many that I have – we often focus on the roles that individuals play in gentrification. It’s important to put a human face on the issue, and there’s certainly value in potential gentrifiers like me – a professional white man – examining the privilege and power that our social class brings to a neighborhood, whether we wield it intentionally or not. Reflecting on these subjects at a personal level also can be a helpful starting point for thinking about larger, systemic problems. But we’d be mistaken to think that individual choices can prevent displacement, which in many ways is a default result of a “successful” real estate cycle. We need public policies and initiatives that can help to intervene in this cycle while still encouraging development that contributes to our city.

So with a focus on what we can control and accomplish locally, I hope we’ll seriously explore ideas like community land trusts (CLTs), a mechanism for preserving affordable housing and providing some community control over neighborhood change. We already have a relatively new CLT, the Beechwood-based City Roots Community Land Trust. But there’s also potential benefit in multiple CLTs working across several neighborhoods, or alternately, for a CLT to take on more of a citywide role. We also can explore affordability goals and incentives tailored to the needs of Rochester’s renters, many of whose incomes are too low even for many apartments developed as affordable housing. (Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult to finance this type of development without more resources from the state or federal level.) 

Zoning changes could require a percentage of affordable units in newly built multi-family housing, and / or allow denser multi-family construction in areas now restricted to single-family homes. These steps might at least provide more affordable housing options to city residents. PUSH Buffalo, an organization working for economic and environmental justice, offers a potential model for community-driven plans designed to develop and preserve affordable housing, while also building green infrastructure and providing training in green jobs. Broader efforts to improve life for those in poverty – whether through better public transportation, a truly region-wide effort to improve public education, actively encouraging employers to locate and hire within the city – might begin to address some of the reasons so many of our neighbors fear displacement in the first place.

David Riley is a planner, researcher and former journalist. He worked in community journalism for a decade before earning a master’s degree in urban planning at the University at Buffalo. He has worked as an independent consultant on planning and data analysis projects, and completed a graduate internship with the Community Design Center Rochester. He now works as a research associate at CGR (Center for Governmental Research) and lives in the City of Rochester with his wife and daughter. He is particularly interested in how public policy can improve life in cities. 

Photo credit (cover): Jake Sell Hicks 
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