Change is inevitable. If you happen to live in a city like Brooklyn, so is gentrification.
Today 55 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. According to the United Nations, 68 percent of us will live in urban areas by 2055. With 82 percent of its population living in cities, North America is already one of the most urbanized regions on the planet. The New York Times reports that, “New York City’s population reached a record high last year of over 8.6 million and has climbed 5.5 percent since 2010.”
If you live here in Brooklyn, you don’t need a UN report or NY Times article to tell you this. All you have to do is go somewhere and try to park. More and more people are choosing to move here, including artists and hipsters, the middle class and the very wealthy.
For generations, the outer boroughs of New York City have been the places that communities of color, working-class whites and newly-arrived immigrants from all backgrounds have called home. While this is still true for the most part, it is also true that people with money and influence are arriving at a breathtaking pace, dramatically reshaping the fabric of these communities.
Gentrification is defined as “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”
More than anyone else, communities of color and Black people specifically, have been on the losing end of the displacement caused by gentrification.
Black folks in America have a long and painful history in relation to property ownership in this country.
From being owned as actual property for over 200 years during slavery, to having land that were lawfully purchased stolen, to being terrorized and brutally murdered for even attempting to exercise the property ownership rights enjoyed by all white men, to being excluded from prime neighborhoods because of redlining practices by banks and insurance companies, to being charged outrageous interest rates by predatory lenders and contract sale schemes, Black people know about displacement and loss in relation to property ownership better than any other group of people in the country. All of this was done with the full support of local, state and federal governments.
This history has been brilliantly and perfectly captured by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his groundbreaking piece The Case for Reparations. (This is an absolute must read!)
Given this history, it is no wonder that Black people who despite these historic obstacles have been able to carve out communities are wary of people who appear poised to dislodge us from the scraps of space that we have earned through generations of blood and sacrifice. But being wary isn’t enough. If you live in a place like Brooklyn, Gentrification is as certain as the rising of the sun. The question is are we prepared to be on the winning side of this certainty?
Here are three things that I think we can do to win.
Vote — In Every Election
Yeah I know, this sounds kind of basic and obvious, but it is the most powerful and immediate way to control the destiny of our communities. Gentrification is not a result of magic dust sprinkled by the gentrification fairy, in other words, it doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. It is a result of specific zoning, policy and planning decisions made by locally elected politicians and also sometimes influenced by federal initiatives (see empowerment zones) created by people we elect to represent us in the national government.
By being fully engaged and present in the local, state and national political process and developing a specific well-articulated agenda that everyone in the community is aware of is the most powerful first step. This engagement must be accompanied by holding those elected representatives accountable for those agenda items. What does this look like in practice? Voting in EVERY election, not just presidential elections, which happen every four years. This includes primaries, special elections that happen outside of regular election days, etc.
If housing is one of the agenda items, then we are looking for candidates who have articulated an inclusive policy to develop and maintain affordable housing. We are looking for candidates who have provided incentives for community residents to explore homeownership and support programs for those struggling to maintain their homes.
We must also participate in the upcoming census. Most people of color don’t want the government “all up in our business”, but an accurate count of who lives in our communities and what our actual, not perceived needs are, is vital to maintaining control of the community.
Identify and Act on Real Estate Investment Opportunities in our Communities
20 years ago My sister an I bought a three-family, four-story story house on Gates Avenue in Bed-Stuy for about $235,000. The house required some significant work, and maintenance issues were a constant challenge. After about four years, we were exhausted with trying to repair this property and gave up. We sold it for about $350,000. Today that house is worth about $1.7 million dollars.
We did not look at our purchase as an investment opportunity in our community. We looked at it as a place to stay and keep our stuff. We did not look at our neighborhood through the lens of opportunity. We saw drug dealers, prostitutes, dilapidated houses and headache. We just wanted to get out.
The white couple that purchased our home saw an investment opportunity. Same house, different perspective. They now have an asset worth almost 2 million dollars and I have some memories of what the neighborhood was like “back in the day”.
Although most working folks are now priced out of Brooklyn, there are many investment opportunities for Black folks in other cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Charlotte. We should not confine ourselves to the U.S. Cities like Johannesburg and Durban in South Africa also present prime investment opportunities. I am currently working on a series that will explore the opportunities in these cities.
Practice Cooperative Economics
Gentrification is an economic phenomenon. To successfully withstand the displacement that these economic forces can bring to bear against communities of color, we will need to develop and support economic institutions owned by people committed to seeing our communities grow and thrive, who are dedicated to providing us access to the capital we need to purchase and properly maintain property.
In other words, we need to practice the Kwanzaa principle “Ujamaa” on a daily basis. The Swahili word Ujamaa means “To build our own businesses, control the economics of our own community and share in all its work and wealth.”
This can take many forms. It can be as simple as intentionally patronizing local businesses, particularly those that are owned by people who also live in the community. It could be putting together a neighborhood fund that makes low-interest loans to families for small repairs on their homes before they become expensive, large-scale nightmares.
Or it could be strategic, like identifying Black-owned banks, credit unions or mortgage brokers who have a history of providing access to loan products that do not have usury interest rates and fees, and then sharing that information. Avoiding predatory lenders, who have historically taken advantage of Black and Hispanic communities, is a critical part of allowing us to keep our homes and help us avoid being forced to sell them to avoid foreclosure.
Individually, we may not have the political or economic might to swim against the tide of gentrification. But if we move together, with clarity of purpose, we can be prepared to win and ride on top of that inevitable wave.
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