I've served in a variety of local government offices, both elected and appointed, so I'm well acquainted with the full range of urban issues. But when the subject of gentrification comes up, I don't have to look farther than my own family and our own neighborhood.
My daughter graduated from high school in Atlanta and eventually became a schoolteacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she experienced gentrification up close: Brownstones in need of gutting were selling for over $1 million. She ended up renting a small apartment for nearly $2,000 a month. After her fifth year on the job, she'd had enough of the stress, discipline problems and heartache associated with inner-city teaching and cramped living, and she decided to return to Atlanta with the hope of buying a home in our beloved Washington Park.
But the mixed-income community where my daughter was raised had metamorphosed into a trendy neighborhood. Mostly young white couples were moving in from the suburbs, fleeing congestion and gridlock in search of close-in neighborhoods conveniently located near transit and other amenities. It took my daughter over a year to find a house she could afford. After having a dozen contracts rejected, she finally got an offer accepted for $14,000 over the listing price.
Thirty years ago, builders in Atlanta concentrated their development activity on the city's plush north side. The south- and west-side neighborhoods suffered from neglect and abandonment. Today the price points of the two areas are converging, resulting in high rents, lack of affordability, a rise in homelessness and the re-segregation of neighborhoods.
Over the years we remained on the west side, through thick and thin. We stayed when the city and the housing authority closed public housing about a mile away and our neighborhood experienced constant turnover from renters with Section 8 vouchers. We stayed when the transit authority tore up a historical park, the only one open to African Americans until the late 1950s. Transit contractors bulldozed many trees and demolished the swimming pool where so many black residents had learned to swim. We stayed when gunshots rang out through the night.
We sometimes felt that the city had abandoned us, left us all alone to fend for ourselves. Then came gentrification and the new kinds of problems it brings.
Local governments place too much emphasis on attracting big businesses and siting large public works projects like athletic facilities in gentrified areas. They do not focus enough on supporting longtime residents attempting to hold on to their homes, preserving neighborhood history and legacy, and assisting children desiring to return home.
The city of Atlanta, for example, invested millions of taxpayer dollars and abated taxes to build a new professional football stadium a mile and half west of our family home. The new stadium created considerable controversy because the state had recently made major renovations to the older stadium erected in 1992, a block north of the new one. And there were serious concerns over a related community benefits package controlled by nonresidents unaffected by the facility.
And then there's the BeltLine, a network of walking and biking trails that encircles the city. The BeltLine was supposed to spur affordable housing. Instead, homes on the west side have appreciated dramatically: Those that sold for under $100,000 three years ago now sell for over $300,000.
Gentrification is neither good nor bad, but we must manage it better. Clearly we want to encourage residents to live wherever they please. Mixed-income and multiracial neighborhoods are good for our cities. The question is what needs to be done to make them inclusive — racially and economically — and balanced with legacy and new residents.
Here are some proposals for programs and policies local governments could implement for neighborhoods undergoing gentrification:
- Freeze property taxes (until property is sold) for senior citizens and residents on low and fixed incomes.
- Donate vacant property to land bank authorities for future development of affordable housing.
- Work with nonprofits to support intensive educational programs to teach residents how to hold on to their homes and properties and not be swindled by unscrupulous investors and speculators.
- Promote inclusionary zoning that requires developers seeking tax breaks to set aside affordable homes for those whose incomes fall at a set percentage below area medians.
The free market allows for speculators to buy and flip homes and sell to whomever they choose, but public policymakers are sworn to uphold the public good. It is in the public interest to develop common-sense policies that balance the need to protect legacy residents while ensuring that neighborhoods remain open and welcoming.