Gentrification: Some extol its virtues, some believe the benefits outweigh the negatives, some think the negatives outweigh the benefits, and some think it's purely sinister. Everybody seems to be talking about it, but not necessarily in the same room.
Three different luncheon programs were staged Monday in San Antonio to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the growing influx of people and new development in the city's fast-changing urban core. Three events on a single topic on a single day certainly reflect a much-needed focus on a critical issue, but the competing choices also represented a divide among the many constituencies affected for better or worse by the redevelopment of San Antonio's inner city and its historic neighborhoods.
"Today's program is the start of a long and important conversation," said Pat DiGiovanni, CEO and president of Centro San Antonio, which was first among the three entities to organize an event devoted to the subject of gentrification. Centro's event also was the largest, drawing hundreds to the Wyndham Riverwalk Hotel to hear Tulane University professor, geographer and author Richard Campanella speak about the "Category Five gentrification" of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read his article on the topic in New Geography.
At the same time, the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects was at Luby's downtown, hosting District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor for a discussion on the same subject. The two groups arguably would have benefitted from combining events, but were unable to agree on a single event or sequence of events.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center held what it called a public town hall meeting at the Central Library that was offered as a counterpoint to Centro's event and an opportunity for inner city residents who couldn't afford the price of the Centro luncheon to engage in the topic.
The respective audiences represent the two sides to the gentrification debate, although there is much nuance to be found between those who hold absolute views for and against gentrification. The Centro and AIA audiences consist largely of professionals devoted to transformation of the urban core. The Esperanza Center represents inner city residents whose neighborhoods and way of life are threatened by the movement of people into the urban core, and activists working to defend their interests.
Gentrification brings often moribund neighborhoods back to life and revives urban core districts with new jobs, social activity and new tax revenues. On the downside, the process can disrupt longtime residential populations, lead to reduced ethnic, racial, economic and age diversity, and, where housing is scarce, lead to rising rents, higher housing values and rising property tax bills. Gentrification almost always means higher-income individuals moving into lower-income neighborhoods. An income and education divide can create tensions, although just as many revitalized neighborhoods retain their ethnic, racial, income, and age diversity as new arrivals blend with longtime residents without undue friction. Everyone benefits from the investment. In the end, the presence or absence of empathetic civic leaders and sensitive public policies to guide the process and protect the interests of all parties can be the deciding factor in how gentrification is seen in a given city or neighborhood.
The Rivard Report signed up to cover the Centro event more than one month ago, and only learned of the two competing events Monday morning. We have open invitations to both the San Antonio AIA and the Esperanza Center to submit articles on topics of interest for publication here. We hope to hear from them about their luncheon programs on gentrification.
"Gentrification is a word that has prompted some heated debate, most recently during the rezoning of the Mission Trails mobile home park and in Beacon Hill," DiGiovanni told the Centro audience while introducing Campanella. "Gentrification can mean different things to different people ... It can be a term used to describe positive community development, including increased home values, new business and job opportunities, and safer streets and neighborhoods. But it can also be a term synonymous with displacement; current residents are forced to move because they can no longer afford to live in changing neighborhoods.
"Centro was created to be the keeper of the community’s vision for downtown 'the heart of the city and everyone’s neighborhood,'" DiGiovanni said. "So, we are sensitive to how downtown revitalization can have its unintended consequences. As we continue our efforts to recreate a thriving downtown with an infusion of new people who will now call downtown 'home' for the first time, we cannot ignore or forget those who have been calling downtown 'home' their entire lives."
Campanella spoke about New Orleans, specifically, and generally about gentrification and did not address developments in San Antonio in any detail. He described urban neighborhood transformation, typically seeded by arriving artists in search of affordable housing and studio space, along with musicians and hipsters. Their presence attracts young creative class types who in turn attract older, wealthier empty nesters. All of these groups are either creating "cool" or in pursuit of "cool," Campanella said, noting that by the time people recognize a place for its cool factor it's probably already starting to lose it.
"Gentrification has become one of my least favorite, and most important issues," Campenalla joked in a nod to how divided communities can be on the topic. The title of his presentation was "Gentrification: The Angriest Issue in Urban America." He defined gentrification as the "movement of a better educated, higher income population into spaces occupied by a lower income, less educated population."
Campanella traced the development of federal housing policies and laws starting in the 1930s that led to the first public housing projects for the poor, and government-guaranteed mortgages for middle class first time home buyers, and how abandonment by the middle class of the inner cities in much of the second half of the 20th century has been followed by a reversal of that trend as young professionals rediscover urban life and reject the attractions and values synonymous with suburban living. With most inner city neighborhoods dating to before World War II, a scarcity of housing often triggers the trends that have come to define the negative side of gentrification: rising housing prices, increased rents, higher property taxes, and population displacement.
Campanella talked about the "Seinfeld Effect" that leads many people today to want to abandon their vehicles and long commutes in favor of walkable communities where they can live near their jobs in an ambience of "urban authenticity." Traditional inner city problems, such as illegal drug use, he said, are now becoming suburban preoccupations.
He also described the "Venice Syndrome" that has beset its city, where tourists outnumber residents on any given day, and real estate prices in cities like London, New York and San Francisco often lead to wealthy absentee investors buying so many higher end residences that exclusive neighborhoods appear to be vacant of actual residents. While global investors have barely touched San Antonio, the city from the late 1960s through the beginning of this decade had more downtown visitors than residents. Developers still say downtown residential conversions are not happening because rents can't match the costs of acquiring land and buildings and making the necessary improvements. In other words, there is more money to be made from tourists and conventioneers than locals. That, it seems, is slowly changing now.
Campanella cited several tools available to cities and developers to mitigate the negative aspects of gentrification while pursuing its benefits. Those include community land trusts, cooperative agreements, and public policies or ordinances that "invest in the stayers." Such policies protect longtime residents from rising property taxes by grandfathering housing values at certain levels or deferring new taxes until they sell their properties and realize a gain. Taxing speculators to prevent "flipping" can reduce housing turnover, he said, along with adoption of inclusionary zoning and infill development of new housing on empty lots.
In the end, Campanella said, "empathy" may be the most powerful tool in managing gentrification: "When people truly understand what it is like to be on the other side of the conversation ... then the strident tone goes out of the conversation."
*Featured/top photo: Mission Trail Mobile Home Park at 1515 Mission Rd, a recently controversial development site. Photo by Robert Rivard.