the intentionality of gentrification (+ an interview with Leroy Barber)

A few years ago, on the block behind us, a low-level developer purchased a quaint two-story yellow wooden house with a perfect-for-Miami-nights screened in front porch. She promptly removed the doors and welcomed the elements and critters of South Florida, creating an intentionally uninhabitable environment. Eventually the city condemned the once perfectly livable home, and approved a permit for demolition. I stood in front of the house last month, weeping as it was knocked to the ground.

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I’ve written previously about the mass evictions that took place last summer (and continue) on the main strip in our neighborhood. Over 200 units owned by a slumlord who intentionally let his buildings fall into disrepair once again prompted the city to deem them uninhabitable – “forcing” him to evict everyone living there. Each of those individuals now bear the unnecessary burden of an eviction on their record, and future landlords care little if it was their fault or (clearly) not.

Overwhelmingly, most landlords simply have a policy not to rent to folks who have been evicted. Application denied.

The same slumlord boarded a few of those buildings while people were still living in them. The tenants previously refused to leave because of the injustice of the situation – they were still paying rent after all – and because frankly they had no where else to go.

Another slumlord in our neighborhood has been raising the rent of his African-American tenants every one to three months for years. He refuses to let them sign leases, then charges an extra $100 a month for not having a lease. He only accepts cash as a from of payment and does not give tenants receipts for the rent paid. The Latino/a tenants are not subject to this same treatment.

It’s important to note, my neighborhood is quite small, encompassing only a 10×10 square block area.

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Two years ago, I was shocked by the intentionality with which my neighbors were being displaced. I have come to learn gentrification is always intentional.

I realize some of you may not be familiar with the term, and unfortunately even the definition offered by Wikipedia falls woefully short, but for the purposes here, I am defining gentrification as the intentional displacement of low-income residents due to government entities and developers catering to and prioritizing housing for and the quality of life of more affluent residents.

In his book How to Kill a City, Peter Moskowitz states, “In every gentrifying city – that is, in every city where there is a combination of new coffee shops and condos, hipsters, and families struggling to hang on – you can usually trace the start of that change not to a few pioneering citysteaders but to a combination of federal, local, and state policies that favor the creation of wealth over the creation of community. Usually the policies come in the form of deregulation and privatization of urban services: transportation, education, and especially housing. By the time the hipsters arrive, the political and economic forces that paved the way for them have been at work for years.”

In my recent Upside Down Podcast interview with Leroy Barber, he says developers receive their green light to begin investing in an under-resourced community from the government itself. Moskowitz obviously agrees. Both men have visited numerous US cities to uncover the causes of gentrification and to hear directly from people who have been displaced by those causes.

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The community services building in our neighborhood is owned by Miami-Dade County. Out of the large, open space built in the late 1970’s, services such as food stamps, energy assistance, and emergency food are offered from makeshift cubicles. On most evenings, it houses meetings where seventh and eighth generation Afro-Bahamians gather in dingy orange chairs around folding tables to discuss the future of their beloved community.

In 2015, the County put out a Request for Proposals “from experienced developers for a mixed-use development.”  This was the signal – one of many – from the government to developers and investors: Drop your dollars here. We are making a way for you.

The fundamental component only discussed behind closed doors and in hushed phone calls is what will become of the people currently inhabiting and utilizing those spaces? As one county employee here said, there is no plan for those people.

In a city where two-thirds of our low-income residents do not have adequate housing, our government has no plan for them. In making a way for developers, whoever is in the way will be displaced. This is not happenstance. It is personal. 

With local government and wealthy developers acting as accomplices, it is incredibly difficult to get in front of gentrification. Often, as Leroy explained, by the time sidewalks are installed and landscaping is “beautified,” ten-year plans are already in place to completely flip the neighborhood.

In other words, by the time the doors come off, it’s usually too late.

As a person of faith, I am compelled to ask where is the Church in all of this; the answers are uncomfortable. The Church has far too often been on the offending end of displacement. While I am ill-equipped to speak deeply on the subject, we only have to do a broad overview of the history of Christianity in our country (Although a much deeper look is necessary and the responsibility of any Christian.) to be reminded it was in the name of God that Native Americans were slaughtered and African-Americans enslaved. We, specifically white Christians, have a dark and deep history of being the oppressor and it continues today.

Many would argue the intention of white Christians is not to oppress our brothers and sisters of color, however, intentions matter little when our complacency in the face of systems of injustice and oppression and the effects of our behavior are completely out of line with Jesus.

When I asked Leroy about this, specifically why the Church in America is not doing more to prevent to displacement of people of color, he said at the end of the day, we still don’t see African-Americans as human, as actual people. I wish I could say everything I have seen and heard in the last two years of living among people of color invalidates his point of view, but I cannot.

How else do we explain tolerating policies and economics that permit people to be boarded up inside molding apartment buildings just blocks from our clean, safe, dry church buildings where we sit sipping gourmet coffee?

The American Church at large seems to be just as liable as the political system for it’s complicity in valuing the creation of wealth over the creation of community and it is costing our low income neighbors their lives. If we believe they deserve better, what are we doing about it?

If we are to resemble Jesus, we must listen to voices from the margins. We must acknowledge and repent of our complacency and contribution to their dehumanization. We must not settle for Americhristianity. We must not conform to the systems of this world – we must resist them and renew our minds with the transforming power of Jesus. Because the good, pleasing and perfect will of God is surely safe housing for all.

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I do not know what your individual context is – I am still learning mine – but as Leroy points out in our interview, we are unfortunately, for many, still in the awareness phase of gentrification and displacement of communities of color. As equally unfortunate, there are very few adequate resources on the topic, particularly from a Biblical worldview. Three I can recommend today are Peter Moskowitz’s book already mentioned, my interview with Leroy on the Upside Down Podcast, and D.L. Mayfield’s article “Church Planting and the Gospel of Gentrification” in recent issue of Sojourner’s magazine. I would also recommend listening to any interviews by Propaganda you can find on iTunes and listening to his new song “Gentrify.”

As I said in the closing of the podcast, you will not trip into this work of creating a more liveable planet – you will need to be intentional. But it is never too late to start. 

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Stacy Hutchens August 15, 2017

    I’m so thankful you’re writing so much about this, as I really didn’t understand gentrification before and have been grappling with it for months as I read your posts. I always thought of it as a good thing– making a bad part of town better– and that the people who fought it were like Lillian on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Your raising awareness is so good. I’d love to see you write some concrete things we can do to step up to the plate as the church in our own cities.

    It also makes me think of churches like Sojourn and Immanuel in Louisville, and how so many members have moved into those neighborhoods so that the neighborhoods are kind of being gentrified… but not in a malicious kind of way. Is that bad? Are they doing harm by moving into those neighborhoods? What would you recommend to churches in positions like theirs?

    Reply
    • Lindsy Wallace August 20, 2017

      Oh Lillian! Yes, it’s a very misunderstood topic, and I think that’s intentional as well. And yes! I have a post in the works to address tangible steps we can take to step up to the plate in our individual places.

      And yes, churches who plant in gentrifying neighborhoods can certainly make things worse, although not always. One of the things Leroy points out is that we are trained to believe in order to plant a church we must bring our own people, but why not plant a church with/from the people already living there? Did you read DL Mayfield’s article I linked to? She tackles more the church side…

      I think the steps for church planters are much the same for those of us doing incarnational ministry: Listen to the community for a year before you do anything, assess what assets (churches/ministries) already exist in the neighborhood and how you can partner with them, let relationships with your neighbors be the foundation and the catalyst for anything you do. Do the local christians want a church plant in their neighborhood? What do they want it to look like?

      Reply
  2. michaelkeating August 16, 2017

    When you say “Another slumlord in our neighborhood has been raising the rent of his African-American tenants every one to three months for years. He refuses to let them sign leases, then charges an extra $100 a month for not having a lease. He only accepts cash as a from of payment and does not give tenants receipts for the rent paid. The Latino/a tenants are not subject to this same treatment.” do you mean that he does this to black tenants but not to white and Latino tenants? Or do you mean that all of his tenants are black and he does it to all the tenants?

    Reply
    • michaelkeating August 16, 2017

      To clarify, I guess I’m asking (assuming it is exactly as you say), whether there are other conditions that led to this situation. What you describe is clearly illegal under the Fair Housing Act, so l’m guessing there has to be more to it than this or the landlord would be in jail and HUD would own the properties.

      Reply
      • Lindsy Wallace August 20, 2017

        Hey Michael. Sorry if that was not clear, yes he is treating the AA tenants differently than the latino/a tenants. (There are no white tenants in his buildings that I’m aware of.) I’m not sure what you mean by other conditions that led to the situation… The tenants I know who live there have for over a decade and have continued to pay their rent despite these unfair practices. You are correct, in theory the FHA protects POC but putting someone in jail for this type of behavior is far more complicated than it should be. Also, these are not HUD units, they are privately owned and the tenant laws in Florida are horrible. Bringing the feds in is no easy task. There really isn’t more to it than what I wrote initially. It is exactly what it sounds like and is FAR more prominent than most would think.

        Reply

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