Can Gentrification Be Just?

Gentrification by contemporary definition is “the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by the middle classes, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.” It is a new national norm. Over the past 50 years, American cities have declined as the suburbs blossomed. This pattern is quite different from most of the large cities of the world where wealth and power are concentrated at the center and poverty spreads outward toward the outlying and less developed outskirts. In developing nations, people migrate from the rural areas, settle in poorer edge cities (or sometimes shantytowns outside the city) and try to work their way toward the prosperous center. U.S cities, on the other hand, are like donuts with a hole in the middle and the dough around the outside. Our center cities are where our poverty is concentrated. But all this is changing. A massive demographic shift has begun, a great reversal as wealth returns to the inner core and poverty is pushed to the periphery. U.S. cities are beginning to conform to the pattern of most world cities, and in the process a Diaspora—an uprooting and scattering—of the poor has begun.

The Devastating Impact of Gentrification. And the Absolute Need
I have now seen first hand (yes, inadvertently participated in) the devastating impact that gentrification can have on the poor of an urban community. I have faced panicking families at my front door who had just been evicted from their homes, their meager belongings set out on the curb. I have helped them in their frantic search to find scarce affordable apartments and have collected donations to assist with rent and utility deposits.

But I have also seen what happens to the poor when the “gentry” do not return to the city. The effects of isolation are equally severe. A pathology creeps into a community when achieving neighbors depart—a disease born of isolation that depletes a work ethic, lowers aspirations and saps human initiative. I have seen courageous welfare mothers struggle in vain to save their children from the powerful undertow of the streets. I have witnessed the sinister forces of a drug culture as it ravages unchecked the lives of those who have few options for escape. Without the presence of strong, connected neighbor-leaders who have the best interests of the community at heart, a neglected neighborhood becomes a desperate dead-end place.

The romantic notion that the culture of a dependent, poverty community must somehow be protected from the imposition of outside values is as naive as it is destructive. Neighborhoods that have hemorrhaged for decades from the “up and out” migration of their best and brightest need far more than government grants, human services and urban ministries to restore their health. More than anything else, they need the return of the very kinds of home-owning, goal-driven, faith-motivated neighbors who once gave their community vitality. In a word, they need the gentry.

This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. The poor need the gentry in order to revive their deteriorated neighborhoods. But the gentry will inevitably displace the poor from these neighborhoods. The poor seem to get the short end of the stick either way.

Including the Poor in the Reclamation Process
But must gentrification always spell displacement for the poor? To some degree, yes. Yet displacement is not entirely bad. There are drug dealers and other rogues who need to be dislodged from a community if it is going to become a healthy place to raise children. Over-crowded tenements and flop houses should be thinned out or cleaned up and this inevitably means displacement of some of the vulnerable along with their predators. Bringing responsible property management back into a neglected community does spell disruption for those who have chosen or been forced by necessity to endure slumlord economics. But what may be disruptive for the moment can become a blessing for those who yearn for a better way of life if—and this is a big if—the poor are included in the reclamation process by the returning gentry.

Opal forced me to look squarely in the face of this big if. Housing had not been on my radar screen when I moved into the city. It was not part of my ministry game plan. But neither could I sit passively in a prayer circle asking God to help my sister Opal knowing my well-intentioned move was working to her detriment, knowing too that the same thing was about to happen over and over again to more of my church members and neighbors. And so I reordered my priorities. In addition to my church planting and mercy ministry strategy, I ventured into the arena of justice. I rallied suburban church partners to come to Opal’s aid, bought and restored her house and structured a loan that enabled her to become a homeowner. Then as my property value went up, so did hers. She became vested. Opal’s house became for me a modern day parable of “good news to the poor.” Many of those who volunteered their time and skills to transform her home were deeply moved as they cared for a widow in this personal and practical way. They asked if there were other Opal’s in our church. Indeed there were. The end result was the creation of a housing division within our ministry that has mobilized thousands of volunteers and enabled hundreds of Opals to become homeowners in our community.

Gentrification with justice—that’s what is needed to restore health to our urban neighborhoods. Needed are gentry with vision who have compassionate hearts as well as real estate acumen. We need gentry whose understanding of community includes the less-advantaged, who will use their competencies and connections to ensure their lower-income neighbors share a stake in their revitalizing neighborhood. The city needs land-owning residents who are also faith-motivated, who yield to the tenets of their faith in the inevitable tension between value of neighbor over value of property. That is why gentrification needs a theology to guide it.

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Bob is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through FCS Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community.