Gentrification is Going National. Here are 7 Ways to Stop It.
With billions of federal dollars flowing, the real estate industry is engaging in a full court press to secure these funds & use them to commit land grabs in low-income communities of color
Dr. G.S. Potter | Senior Editor
For a few generations, housing battles have been largely fought at the local level. Cities, zip codes, communities, blocks and buildings have all been sites of hard-fought battles against displacement and for housing security. All that is about to change. These battles will still be felt most deeply at the local levels, but gentrification is about to go national.
With federal funding coming in for development from the “Bipartisan” Infrastructure Act ($1 trillion), the Inflation Reduction Act ($740 billion), and the FY2023 Omnibus Act ($1.7 trillion), the real estate industry is engaging in a full court press to secure these funds, use them to commit landgrabs in low-income communities of color, and flip these neighborhoods for wealthier and whiter inhabitants at a scale not seen in recent history.
Worse: They will tell you that these efforts will promote “equity.”
As part of their campaign to take over communities of color, real estate interests have launched campaigns claiming that allowing low income BIPOC communities to protect themselves from gentrification and, ultimately, displacement is actually a form of “segregation.” Yes, they did. And that the solution to segregation is something called inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning is sold as an effort to ensure that low-income communities of color have access to housing in more affluent communities. In reality, though, developers and politicians use inclusionary zoning policies to remove people of color form their low-income communities and replace them with wealthier, whiter residents.
The solution to exclusionary zoning policies isn’t to destroy communities of color and un-house low-income residents. Gentrification isn’t the answer to segregation. People fighting for inclusionary zoning laws aren’t engaging in efforts to solve the housing crisis. They are deploying a bait and switch strategy.
This strategy is also being applied to development efforts.
Just as urbanists argue that destroying Black communities is the remedy for segregation, they also attempt to gaslight communities in to thinking that more developments will bring down the cost of rent. Further, they’ll say, cities should give the money they allocated to address the housing crisis to developers instead … so they can build more market rate housing and “that should take care of everything.”
A Gentrification Strategy Dressed as a Solution
Unfortunately, housing doesn’t trickle down. If housing isn’t specifically allocated for no-income and low-income residents, it will go to people from higher incomes. And because of racist landlords and their bigoted screening processes, they will also favor whiter people.
It’s a pretty basic gentrification strategy …
First: Remove zoning policies that protect low-income communities of color from being redeveloped for wealthier, whiter people.
Second: give developers money to construct buildings for those wealthier whiter people.
Lastly: As early in the process as possible, begin removing people of color. Replace them with white people.
As basic as this process is, it has been very effective.
Localities haven’t been able to articulate and replicate legislative packages that effectively counter gentrification at the city and state levels, let alone nationwide. There have been wins, but they have not been scaled. Community leaders working at the city and state levels need to unify and share best practices to organize communities and pass protective policies. Here’s a handful of policies they could start mobilizing to pass immediately. Pay attention …
1. Development Moratoriums in Low- Income BIPOC communities
New market rate developments affect high income white communities differently than low-income BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities. These developments might bring rents and property values down marginally in whiter and wealthier communities, but they can drive up rents and cause displacement in low-income BIPOC communities that already can’t afford that price of living.
Real estate interests using calls for zoning deregulation and inclusionary zoning policies often claim that new developments will allow low-income residents of color to move into wealthy white neighborhoods to create mixed income utopias. In reality, these zoning reforms will allow real estate interests to push low-income people of color out of their homes and communities in a bid to replace them with higher earning, higher paying and mostly white residents.
Development moratoriums can and should be passed in every neighborhood that is vulnerable to gentrification in order to preemptively prevent gentrification driving developments. Developers would still be welcome to build low-income housing in wealthy white neighborhoods that aren’t at risk for gentrification, but they couldn’t build market rate housing in BIPOC communities that would be priced out of it.
Here are examples in Atlanta and Chicago.
2. Rent Control and Tax Freezes
One of the ways that development drives displacement in low-income communities of color is by driving up rental prices and local property taxes. This forces renters to leave and homeowners to sell. Cities and states can prevent displacement by mandating rent control measures citywide and capping or freezing tax increases in low-income communities of color.
The best way to combat real estate interests working to price-gouge BIPOC residents out of their own homes is through the passage of widespread rent control. Rent control measures can cap the amount a landlord is able to charge for a unit as well as how much the rent can be increased when a tenant vacates.
Early rent control efforts have often stopped short of providing city-wide relief for tenants. Some efforts applied controls only to certain areas while others were applied to the age of the building. These policies allowed the real estate industry to evade these controls and drive-up rents in uncontrolled locations. By applying city wide rent caps and controls, and even statewide rent caps and controls, developers and landlords alike would be forced to produce and provide housing at rates that more closely align with local incomes and that don’t leave tenants vulnerable to unsustainable rent increases.
For low-income BIPOC homeowners, racist tax assessments during periods of gentrification can instantly double and triple the amount of taxes homeowners have to pay for their properties. Corporate speculators then apply aggressive pressure in efforts to take over these properties. Unable to pay for the cost of living and pressured to leave their communities, homeowners are often left with no choice but to sell. Freezing taxes for low income homeowners or providing automatic forgiveness will ensure that people aren’t forced out of their homes because developers want to target their communities.
Here are examples from the National Multifamily Housing Council: Rent Control Laws By State and the Senior Citizen Real Estate Tax Freeze
3. Legally Define Affordable Housing as Housing for People in the 0-50% “AMI” Range
One of the most popular bait and switch tactics deployed by the real estate industry and their urbanist foot soldiers is to redefine the term “affordable housing.” Housing advocates and activists have called for housing that is affordable at all income levels, especially for folks in the lower income brackets. Real estate interests have co-opted this demand by redefining affordable housing to mean market rate and just below market rate housing. This allows them to rhetorically and deceptively counter activists by claiming that they are building affordable housing when they aren’t. It also helps them secure city funding that is designated for actual affordable housing projects.
In short, it allows developers to take money from poor folks and their advocates and use it to create housing for wealthier folks that are already comfortably housed. In the end, it’s designed to bring in profits for developers and landlords.
In order to stop this, cities, states and the federal government need to formally define affordable housing as housing specifically designated for people living in the 0-50 percent of AMI or “Area Median Income” range. Developers will still be able to build market rate housing, and they can still be contractually obligated to provide housing for people in lower income brackets - but they will not be able to take money from city and state housing affordability coffers to build housing that is unaffordable. Politicians will also be forced to address the needs of the lowest income renters in their efforts to provide affordable housing. However, they won’t be able to hide behind market rate and mixed-use developments.
Some examples of this approach include the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of affordable housing and the Philadelphia Department of Housing and Urban Development program income guidelines
4. Tenant-Centered Leases
Displacement is a function of rising housing costs and a lack of tenant rights. Landlord centered leases allow landlords to raise rents and remove tenants at the ends of their lease for no reason whatsoever except whim and opportunity. They also give landlords a lot of room to evict tenants and force them out through other lease violations like refused maintenance.
Tenants need leases that allow them to stay in their units until they decide to leave - not leases that leave them un-housed if it is profitable or preferable for their landlord. Cities and states have the authority to pass policies mandating automatic lease renewals and tenant-centric rental agreements. They also have the ability to ensure these leases are weighted in favor of tenants when disputes and violations occur.
Tenants should not have to fear that they will lose their housing every time their lease comes up or whenever they make requests for repairs. Landlords should not be able to un-house people for reasons that personally benefit them. In addition to controlling rents so that the cost of living doesn’t displace residents, tenant-centered lease policies need to be put in place to ensure landlords can’t find other ways of removing tenants.
Some examples are found (Mutual auto-renewal, not mandated. Mandated is preferred) in Washington and California.
5. Aggressive Licensing and Maintenance Oversight
Landlords are being allowed to violate their leases as well as local and state law while tenants are expected to compensate them for it. Whether tenants pay for the maintenance themselves or they have to pay for the consequences of dilapidation indirectly through things like energy bills, tenants across the board have been left to pay for issues that landlords are supposed to take care of. Many cities have policies that penalize landlords for violations. These policies can even include hefty daily fines. These penalties, though, are too infrequently enforced. Cities and states need to fully fund aggressive efforts to bring landlords in full compliance with laws. They should also pass maintenance and upkeep laws with strict penalties where they don’t exist.
Cities and states should also consider mandating third party maintenance services. Tenants should not have to go through landlords that may either be unresponsive or penalize them in other ways when they request basic maintenance and upkeep. They should also not have to subject themselves to potentially dangerous fixes that aren’t up to code. Mandating third party entities to carry out maintenance responsibilities limits the stress tenants have to face as well as the revenge landlords can exact. Mandated third party maintenance services can also ensure that landlords are upholding their leases and not placing the burden on tenants.
Some examples include Philadelphia and Frederick.
6. Vacancy Control
Despite the claims that we need to build more housing to solve the housing crisis, there are far more housing units than there are households in the United States. These homes are just not accessible or affordable to the people that need them.
Large scale corporate landlords are buying up large swaths of property, holding units open, and creating feigned scarcity in efforts to drive up prices. Millions of units are also being purchased to use as AirBnB’s, making them inaccessible to renters. In order to ensure that people aren’t homeless on the streets while housing units sit empty, we need to heavily tax and penalize vacant units.
Examples include Oakland and San Francisco.
7. Last Ditch Policies: Fund Relocation
Finally, we can’t afford to let people fall through the cracks. The ultimate goal must keeping people in the houses that they are in. But we have to form contingency plans in case we cannot achieve that goal. In the event that displacement cannot be prevented, policies should be passed to ensure that the cost of displacement is absorbed by developers and landlords, and that tenants are left in an economically better situation than what they were previously in.
One way to do this is to mandate that the displacing entity pays for the deposit, first to last month’s rent in the initial year, as well as the cost of moving and cleaning out the unit. Tenants should also be able to recover a percentage of the profit if their units and building are sold. Government agencies could also step in and provide relocation assistance, especially for those that face discrimination because of housing vouchers and racism.
Examples include Seattle and New Jersey.
Protect More …
These seven action items are by no means an exhaustive list of protections that can be implemented to protect low-income communities of color from gentrification. There are measures we can take to prevent low-income BIPOC communities from being completely decimated by developers as the gentrification wars go national. There are well funded, politically powerful, strategically nefarious real estate interests that will be aggressively attempting to remove low-income people of color from their homes, take the floors from under their feet, and turn their neighborhoods over to white people. We need to mobilize collectively and immediately to pass policies to protect these low-income communities of color and the people and families that live in them.