When abandoned warehouses become upscale shopping centers and luxury condominiums displace tenements, neighborhoods undergo more than just physical transformations. A blighted neighborhood’s redevelopment affects an entire community, whose low-income residents may be exposed only to the adverse effects of the changes.
Often, people are displaced to make room for community improvements or commercial real estate interests. Research shows that minority residents from low-income communities are more likely to lose their homes and have limited choices about where to move. They often get no help dealing with the stress and strain of relocating, says Roger Williams, senior fellow at The Annie E. Casey Foundation and director of Responsible Redevelopment initiatives. “The government will give residents a check and usher them out the door."
Responsible Redevelopment strives to put people, rather than buildings, at the center of community renewal. NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit organization created by Congress, formed a partnership with the Casey Foundation in 2009 to promote the goals of Responsible Redevelopment. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a financial supporter of JCCF.)
Responsible Redevelopment calls for public and private developers to engage with residents; to create legally binding arrangements called community benefits agreements; and to include in development plans anchor institutions such as hospitals, universities and commercial enterprises to generate and sustain community growth.
Read a profile of a few of them below, then check out our tips for Reporting on Responsible Redevelopment in Your Community.
The once-handsome brick mills that tower over the streets of Lawrence, Mass., show their age. Once symbolic of Lawrence’s bustling textile industry, the buildings have fallen into disrepair. Arson blazed through the vacant factories in the 1980s and blight settled into the wood and brick structures.
Armand Hyatt, who grew up in Lawrence, remembers the city before its post-industrial decline. As a child in the 1950s and 1960s, he played in the city’s streets, and friendly shopkeepers plied him with provolone cheese when he fetched groceries for his mother. Doors stayed unlocked, and neighbors knew each other by name.
Hyatt returned to his hometown after completing law school and found a very different city. It was the 1980s, and an urban renewal plan had transformed a portion of the North Common neighborhood into an unrecognizable tract of land.
Hundreds of triple-decker homes had been demolished to make way for renewal. Many families faced the uncertainty of relocation. The private developers proposing change for this flattened area had given no thought to affordable housing. This meant that the families who expected to return to North Common after construction was complete could not afford to do so, according to Hyatt.
“It was sad and bad enough to know I had come back from law school and the destruction was done,” Hyatt said. “But when it came to light that the city had moved forward without an affordable housing component, I was horrified.”
Hyatt joined a group of activists who put pressure on the city to provide affordable housing. The group sued, demanding civil rights for the displaced residents. Ultimately, the group won the rights to become the developer of the project's affordable housing component. It joined forces with other nonprofit corporations to complete 140 units of housing.
The activists formed a nonprofit community development corporation called Lawrence CommunityWorks. Established in 1986 under its original name, Heritage Common Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit has pushed for community rights ever since.
“If we just build buildings, the city would only have better buildings,” said Tamar Kotelchuck, real estate project manager and acting co-executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks. “In order to be in a better place, we need to build the capacity of our residents and consider the needs of the community.”
Since 1999, Lawrence CommunityWorks has completed nine development projects, says Kotelchuck. These include affordable housing, parks, playgrounds and a community center. Each project has involved residents’ input.
Today, Lawrence CommunityWorks has more than 4,000 members who advocate for and serve the Lawrence community. Involved residents have built playgrounds, met with the mayor to express their needs and approached city officials with plans for the Union Crossing neighborhood, a multimillion-dollar project that will transform two old textile mills.
To facilitate relationships between neighbors and identify common issues that residents face, Lawrence CommunityWorks uses the NeighborCircles model, bringing residents together for three dinners. Often, the dinners are simply an opportunity for neighbors to learn each other’s names. But sometimes, dinners result in neighbors working together to accomplish a larger project.
For Hyatt, who still practices law in Lawrence and serves on the CommunityWorks’s board, this act of bringing people together to revive a neighborhood reminds him of his childhood.
“That’s what’s so exciting for me,” he said. “Nothing ever stays the same and you can’t ever go back, but you can restore that spirit and that sense of community.”
If residents are displaced by a federally funded project, the government is required to provide them with some advisory services and compensation for moving expenses. The Uniform Relocation Assistance (URA) and Real Property Acquisition Policy Act, for example, requires that discplaced homeowners of all income levels receive compensation for safe housing comparable to their original homes.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that approximately a half- million low-income residents were displaced, according to a Casey Foundation report. Some displacements are attributed to the exercise of eminent domain, a practice that allows the government to seize private property for a cost. Displacements also occur when public housing projects are converted into HOPE VI communities, which are designed to improve living conditions for residents of public housing. People can also be displaced indirectly as neighborhoods gentrify.
To minimize the adverse impact of these displacements, Responsible Relocation provides services like a family advocate, a relocation counselor and a direct services coordinator. Professionals work together to make sure residents receive adequate relocation benefits and have the opportunity to move to neighborhoods that are more stable than those they are leaving.
One of the Casey Foundation’s biggest commitments to Responsible Redevelopment is a project to transform a distressed 80-acre East Baltimore neighborhood into a successful mixed-income community that includes a research park. This redevelopment initiative combines federal, state and private resources. The nonprofit East Baltimore Development, Inc. has managed the revitalization project since 2003. It involves civic organizations such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), which has been active for more than 30 years. Relocated residents who choose to return to East Baltimore have first-pick of new and renovated housing through EBDI’s First Right of Return program.
In Cleveland, the nonprofit network Neighborhood Progress coordinates several programs to strengthen neighborhoods. The group uses community leaders’ input to transform neighborhoods affected by foreclosures and blight. Its development arm, the New Village Corporation, has built shopping centers, grocery stores and mixed-income communities since its inception in 1991, according to a 2009 report.
In Chelsea, Mass., more than 100 residents and city officials gathered in spring 2009 to create a new vision for the diverse but dilapidated North Bellingham Hill neighborhood. Chelsea Neighorhood Developers invited residents back for multiple discussions about community policing and real estate development.
Chelsea Neighborhood Developers is one of several case studies featured in Responsible Approaches to Neighborhood Stabilization: Case Studies in Action, a 2009 report by NeighborWorks America that highlights examples of Responsible Redevelopment across the United States.
The Obama administration launched a $250 million Choice Neighborhoods Initiative program for 2010. The initiative is similar to the HOPE VI program in that it seeks to revitalize the nation’s poorest communities by investing in distressed public housing.
In all of these projects, current residents are an integral part of the community planning process. To Casey Foundation Senior Fellow Williams, empowering residents means inviting community members to voice their needs to the people who plan, design and implement changes in their neighborhoods.
“Once you bring people into the process and get residents to see what developers are trying to do, you earn people’s support,” he said. Responsible Redevelopment “is a more holistic approach to community renewal.”
Look around your community for neighborhoods that have traditionally offered affordable housing. Is there a for-profit developer who is trying to build or rehab housing in neighborhoods and will want to displace existing families?
For a neighborhood undergoing redevelopment, who are the community representatives? Are they organized? What is their level of representation?
Go to public neighborhood meetings to get to know the people living in the neighborhood and their issues. Talk to community churches, local businesses and schools to get a full picture of the issues affecting the community. Don’t just do a “drive-by” tour of a struggling neighborhood that is targeted for redevelopment. What is the project developer doing to facilitate relocation? If it’s a large project, there is probably a city agency or a nonprofit agency involved in helping with relocation. If it’s a small project, has the developer put supports in place for issues such as housing, school transfers, transportation?
Use the HUD’s State Information Index to track how neighborhood stabilization grants are at work in your community. What kinds of resources are available to residents who will need to move out of distressed public housing? Are there any elements of Responsible Redevelopment in play?
Find a family that was forced to relocate. Use their story to outline the stresses and strains of a move to illustrate the larger narrative focusing on the issue of redevelopment.
It’s challenging to find quality housing that is affordable for low-income families. Where will these displaced families go? Some families are tagged as “hard to house,” meaning they may face issues such as extremely low income, poor credit history, substance abuse history, a criminal history or physical disabilities. Large, multi-generational families, which are growing in number and reached record-highs in 2008, may need large homes with multiple bedrooms. Are there places for these families?
Families with school age children face an added problem: Relocation disrupts a child’s education. Is the school system involved? Are they working to minimize the disruption? Are children relocating during the school year or to a new school district?
NeighborWorks offers nine case studies of similar initiatives across the nation in its 2009 report. Which projects has it completed? What kinds of institutions are anchoring those communities? Are residents satisfied with the progress made?
For neighborhoods where the redevelopment is complete: were displaced residents able to return to the community? How many came back? Were they encouraged to return?
For more information and sources on housing and related topics, visit JCCF’s Economics page.
Mina Dixon is a JCCF intern.
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