Preserving Neighborhoods: The Human Element

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Dignowity Meats staff watches the sunset during the Pints & Politics mayoral forum at the Alamo Beer brewery. Photo by Scott Ball.

Dignowity Meats staff watches the sunset during the Rivard Report's Pints & Politics mayoral forum at the Alamo Beer brewery on March 11, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Several members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods came to the Ella Austin Community Center on the Eastside last Thursday night. This was the second public meeting of the task force charged with developing policy goals to mitigate the human costs of revitalization of our neighborhoods.

It was appropriate that this meeting happened in my neighborhood, Dignowity Hill. This historic District has become a node of revitalization or, dare I say, gentrification. The public meeting quickly turned into a lively, sometimes raucous, one-sided discourse of opinions and commentary. It was one-sided because none of the Task Force members present answered the questions presented to them. As it turned out, this meeting was intended to be an informational and input-only session.

This created an odd dissonance as seemly legitimate concerns raised by speakers were left unanswered, at least for the time being. Anger and frustration was on display as some of the speakers railed about the poor communication from the city about the Task Force’s work. Others took the opportunity to get the audience stirred up with speeches about the loss of cultural identity, the lack of affordable housing, and displacement of residents due to the effects of gentrification.

Due perhaps to the multi-layered complexity that surrounds this issue, I left the meeting without any clear sense of how the recommendations proposed by the Task Force would actually impact or mitigate the effects of gentrification/revitalization/progress.

Revitalization is Good, Right?

I find myself in a unique position as a community leader and advocate for revitalization/economic progress as well as being a resident of Dignowity Hill for the past seven years. This neighborhood has undergone tremendous change since 2007 when we moved into the neighborhood. It has surfaced as a sort of testing ground of urban renaissance.

Many homes on Dignowity Hill, though right next to each other, seem to be from different worlds – one of many complex signals of gentrification. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Many homes on Dignowity Hill, have been renovated and sit next often empty historic homes – one of many complex signals of gentrification. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Depending on whom you talk to, the Dignowity Hill revitalization/gentrification train is either coming around the bend or has left the station a long time ago. Questions with no clear answers are being asked. Will this revitalization displace any of our lower income neighbors? Will new development projects change the character of the neighborhood? Will the historic nature of the neighborhood be affected?

For the most part, long time residents in Dignowity are accepting of the changes they see as the neighborhood continues to improve, but there is one element of this ongoing change that is crystallizing: the rise in property prices. There lies the rub. 

In 2006 the Urban Institute published a report titled: “In the Face of Gentrification, Local Strategies to Mitigate Displacement.” The report focused on six American cities in different stages of gentrification that employed differing strategies to address housing and displacement issues. The report acknowledges that data to support displacement is difficult to find, however, what can be measured are the changes in the housing market and how those changes can affect households that may lead to displacement. 

The report points out that while different strategies such as vacant property development, affordable housing production, inclusionary zoning, and forming housing trusts can mitigate some of the effects of gentrification. Despite these well thought out approaches, there are still implementation challenges to overcome. Some of those challenges are related to overall market conditions, resistance from neighborhood groups to build affordable housing units, the lack of political will or support from city governments, and the speculative nature of the real estate market. 

The report also pointed out that the presence of active neighborhood groups or associations is key for the strategy implantation process. Engaging a community early on in the discussion tends to make strategy implementation go much smoother. You can download the full report here.

As we move forward, the change/gentrification/revitalization issues that are affecting urban core neighborhoods should be discussed and dissected at all levels. One challenge as many have discovered, including the Gentrification Task Force, is that it’s difficult to define gentrification in general as it applies to a particular context. There is enough evidence that revitalization is a good thing for neglected neighborhoods, but we need a balanced conversation on how to mitigate the adverse affects associated with revitalization. 

Displacement is Inherently Bad

It seems to me that the gentrification conversation tends to get emotional and rendered inert at times around the topics of displacement, the concern with rising property values and subsequently, rising property taxes; yet we all want to see forward movement. Assertions are made that displacement is occurring in changing neighborhoods, but no quantifiable evidence can be produced that proves this is truly the case. 

Houses like these in Dignowity Hill will ultimately be renovated. Photo by Page Graham.

Houses like these in Dignowity Hill will ultimately be renovated. Photo by Page Graham.

As studies have shown, displacement can be an issue if it’s managed incorrectly without regard to the consequences. On the other hand, there is validity that housing prices and taxes bump up as revitalization ramps up. Those are natural outcomes of market driven change. Is it possible to completely offset the effects of revitalization efforts? 

The trends we’re now seeing in Dignowity and other neighborhoods such Beacon Hill, Tobin Hill, and Government Hill, were set in motion through a combination of city government policies/incentives, public investment, and private dollars flowing into the neighborhoods. One critical element is that residents of neighborhoods where revitalization is occurring are generally open to the notion that revitalization is a good thing. The trends that we’re seeing in these neighborhoods have gathered traction and will most likely continue into the next few years. 

Those of us that either live or have moved into these older neighborhoods want to see things improved and want to see change. The flip side of change is loss, and as humans, we don’t always deal well with loss. There are always casualties with change, but there are also casualties if change doesn’t occur. Stagnation is never a good thing.

There are lessons to be learned from the current revitalization experience as it has unfolded in Dignowity and other neighborhoods. Change is needed and should be welcomed in neighborhoods that have long been neglected. At the same time, those of us leading the change need to be mindful of the consequences that change brings. Community building has a place in changing neighborhoods. Neighborhood associations in changing areas should be active advocates for improving and sustaining the fabric and quality of life of all their residents, not just serve as a monthly gathering to air out gripes. Transformational leadership is needed, not divisive discourse.  

Task Force Bond Recommendation

The Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods is recommending some interesting approaches to mitigate the effects and costs of revitalization, but those recommendations feel a little awkward because they attempt to offset one of the hallmarks of dynamic neighborhoods: change. Funding these recommendations will also need to be addressed.

The Task Force is recommending a bond for 2017 to leverage the goals set out in the draft report. A lot can happen in those two years.

One of the speakers at the Ella Austin meeting probably expressed best what most of us are feeling about this whole gentrification conversation. She lives on the near Eastside close to the Alamodome in a neighborhood that is beginning to see private investment come in. She told the Task Force that she was tired of being studied. She wants action and she wants the empty lots in her neighborhood filled with houses. She doesn’t want to wait for the city to implement the recommendations outlined by the Task Force. 

So there again is the rub. Those of us that are living in neighborhoods that have a history of underinvestment, or are experiencing positive change, want our neighborhoods to move forward as quickly as possible. There is a building sense of urgency. We want our neighborhoods to be vibrant, safe, dynamic, and diverse places, but mitigating the costs of renewal has its own price. 

*Featured/top image: File photo Dignowity Meats staff watches the sunset during the Pints & Politics mayoral forum at the Alamo Beer brewery in the Eastside. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Citizens Demand Bilingual Meetings on Gentrification

Gentrification Task Force Schedules Three Public Input Meetings

Task Force May Recommend Affordable Housing Bond

2014: The Year of Gentrification Debate

Save Miguel’s Home: The Human Face of Gentrification

One thought on “Preserving Neighborhoods: The Human Element

  1. An excellent post that points out the need for data rather than purely anecdotal or pictorial evidence in this conversation. Before policy or funding is created to “solve” this, we should have accurate data to measure it’s need and impact. This should include a review of demographic shifts, a study of property values and rent/own over time, a survey of resident satisfaction with the neighborhoods’ progress, educational attainment of local schools, and crime statistics. You can’t fix what you don’t truly understand and we should let neither the loudest nor the wealthiest voices rule the day.

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