It’s past time we talked about gentrification

Since the word “gentrification” is on the lips of many New Mexicans now (due to the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project displacing some, negatively impacting many businesses, and possibly using funds designated for low-income communities, and Meow Wolf opening in Santa Fe), it’s time to talk about what the long-term effects of gentrification are and how to prevent the negative impacts.

Let’s start with the definition of “gentrification”:

gentrification: renovate and improve (especially a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste; the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families andsmall businesses.

Improvement is good, right? But at what cost? Poor people’s lives are not improved by gentrification – they’re just displaced. Sure, the neighborhood looks better and becomes safer and the economy of the area is “improved,” but the original inhabitants don’t get to reap the benefits. Check out this 2014 article, “7 Reasons Why Gentrification Hurts Communities of Color”:

“Gentrification is new-wave colonialism, and it has economic, societal, and public health repercussions for poor communities of color. Many times when wealthy people move into a low-income neighborhood, they truly want to help. Oftentimes, they even start community programs and become leaders in the community, often through beautification projects. And while I get why this seems to be good at first glance, it really isn’t. When neighborhoods are gentrified, those moving in are looking for cheap rent and the ability to make a better life for themselves.”

Good intentions don’t mean good results. One way to help prevent the negative impact of well-meaning projects is to include people of color and residents in the community at the beginning of the project, not after it has been completed.

Here are the seven reasons mentioned in the article, but read the link for detailed explanations and info.

  1. As wealthier people move into poor neighborhoods, landlords raise their rents to cash in from the wealth of the new influx of residents.
  2. Local businesses suffer as large competitors start opening shops in what were previously undesired locales.
  3. People of color are criminalized because new people feel ‘in danger.’
  4. New developments are profit-driven and not community-driven.
  5. Children’s education suffers. (what happens to neighborhoods also happens to schools.)
  6. Culture shifts, and communities lose their safety net.
  7. Public health of residents suffers.

These are long term effects. And it’s difficult for people to comprehend how this can happen when you  build a seemingly-community oriented project to “improve” the neighborhood.

“Neighborhoods are not static. They change through the years, and there is nothing wrong with an organic shift in the demographics of a neighborhood. But it shouldn’t happen at the expense of poor people and people of color.

Poor communities of color have spent years battling disinvestment and abandonment, but redevelopment only seems to occur when white and wealthy people move into a neighborhood.”

Gentrification and its negative effects on people of color and impoverished people is much more obvious in certain areas than others: East Bay or Williamsburg, for example. In New Mexico, the change tends to be more gradual and so less obvious. Do people today know that the Canyon Road/Acequia Madre area in Santa Fe was originally farm land? Gentrification began innocuously, with artists moving in for the cheap studio space and good light. Now it’s jam packed with gallery after gallery and with homes valued in the multi-millions. No more farms. No more affordable live/work spaces. And it only took 60 years to happen.

It’s time to have a community-oriented conversation about gentrification, neighborhood development and beautification, and equity. The conversation has started, but it needs to reach deeper into all of our communities. We need to hear people’s stories, examine what the real issues are, and develop strong plans to address those issues together. No one needs a white savior to come into any neighborhood to fix what is wrong. And we need to embrace quality projects that are seeking community engagement.

When you ignore people outside of your new neighborhood project, they get angry. And rightfully so. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Make sure that every stakeholder in the community has a place at the table and is on equal footing before the process advances too far. When we listen to people we can have a better understanding of how to combat the negative effects of gentrification and still improve and strengthen communities. We must ensure that there are policies in place to have housing for various income levels. Protect residents and preserve diversity. Freeze property taxes for long-time residents so they are not forced out due to increased property values. Limit the amount of luxe developments. Strengthen community outreach programs and fund existing neighborhood non-profits. We need equitable development . Don’t white-wash over the culture and community that was there prior to new money moving in. Be aware of the underlying systemic processes that cause gentrification, and then use whatever social and political power you have to change them. Empower people in different communities to improve their own neighborhoods.

In Santa Fe, Chainbreaker Collective is doing what they can to bring this conversation to the forefront while including diverse members of our population. The ABQ Journal covered this last Fall.

“People in Santa Fe experience life here in very different ways,” said Tomás Rivera, executive director of Chainbreaker Collective. “What’s happening is we’re creating a city that’s increasingly segregated, and it’s very much along race lines.”

This week, Chainbreaker had a call out to the community to attend a City Council meeting, and to talk about the “elephant in the room.” And what is that elephant? Inequity. What was the City Council meeting about? Raising property taxes…and contributing to the constant gentrification of our town. Thankfully, the City Council chose to approve a budget that relies on projected savings.

“Inequity affects all Santa Feans. It divides our community. The conversation about equity may be uncomfortable for some, but the failure to have the conversation makes living uncomfortable for us all. Santa Fe is better than that. Small and large decisions about how resources are allocated can help heal these divisions or widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.”

I commend Chainbreaker for raising their voices and including others in the important conversation. Let’s keep talking about equity, economic development, and how to improve existing neighborhoods without pushing people out.

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