Marla Nelson / Contributing Writer
Marla Nelson in an associate professor in the Department of Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans.
The rapid redevelopment of some of New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods since Hurricane Katrina has prompted heated discussions about gentrification and its consequences. For some, gentrification is a welcome sign of revitalization in communities that have long suffered neglect and abandonment. For others, gentrification raises concerns about displacement and the loss of the city’s distinct cultural traditions, many of which are rooted in working-class neighborhoods experiencing change.
Gentrification is a complex process of neighborhood change characterized by the displacement of original, lower income residents by higher income households, altering the character of the neighborhood. The pace and impact of change varies by city and neighborhood and how one interprets or evaluates these changes depends upon their priorities and positioning. In New Orleans, neighborhood change is often associated with the influx of mobile, young professionals, many of whom moved to New Orleans to take part in rebuilding. Their preference for neighborhoods with access to amenities, vibrant culture and street life, historic architecture and relatively low housing costs has helped drive the recent wave of public and private reinvestment in neighborhoods such as the Bywater, Treme and St. Roch. Reinvestment has resulted in the rehabilitation of the housing stock, the reduction of blight and abandonment, streetscape improvements, and the development of new commercial and retail activities all of which stand to strengthen the local tax base. Gentrification can also improve neighborhood conditions for both newcomers and longtime residents through improvements in pubic services, reductions in crime and better access to basic retail services.
While gentrification can produce tangible neighborhood-level and citywide benefits it carries substantial costs, which tend to fall on households and businesses least able to afford them. Rising rents increase cost burdens on low-income families and small, locally owned businesses forcing relocation to more affordable neighborhoods. And while some original homeowners may welcome the rise in property values and the benefits of appreciation, others, particularly elderly homeowners on fixed incomes, fear the resulting increases in their property taxes.
Gentrification’s negative consequences extend beyond physical displacement and can result in political and social exclusion. Longstanding community members, many of whom have fought for neighborhood change and improvements, can lose influence and control over community decisions as political power shifts and newcomer’s interests dominate. New shops and restaurants that appeal to the tastes of middle and upper class newcomers contribute to the changing character of the neighborhood and exacerbate social tensions.
Many proponents of revitalization and gentrification discount these costs noting that change is inevitable and gentrification is better than the alternative--decay and disinvestment. While change may be inevitable, how change takes shape in cities and neighborhoods is not. We need to move beyond the false choice of disinvestment or displacement and promote more inclusive, equitable development that averts or addresses the negative consequences of revitalization and gentrification.
The preservation and expansion of affordable housing is central to equitable development. Recognizing the link between appreciating real estate prices and affordable housing needs, cities throughout the country have created housing trust funds to combat gentrification. Housing trust funds support the creation or of affordable housing through fees from commercial development or real estate transfer taxes and can help low- and moderate-income families remain in revitalizing and gentrifying neighborhoods.
Another strategy is to create permanently affordable housing through community land trusts. Community land trusts take real estate off the speculative market and ensure long-term affordability for renters and low-income homeowners. In New Orleans, the Crescent City Community Land Trust, a two-year old non-profit, is working to create permanently affordable housing by forming land trusts in neighborhoods experiencing escalating property values and a shortage of affordable housing options.
It is not enough to attract new, well-educated residents to the city. We need to increase the low incomes of our current residents. This entails concerted efforts to attract and grow businesses that pay wages sufficient to support households in the higher cost, post-Katrina environment and workforce development initiatives that connect low-income workers to economic opportunity. Through interventions such as these we can help build strong, economically diverse neighborhoods and help ensure that a broader base of residents benefit from revitalization.