The goals of these initiatives are usually quite clear: affordable housing, good education, public safety, commercial development and sustainable development. The challenge is how to achieve those goals without displacing residents or compromising a neighborhood’s traditional identity — a challenge shared by city officials, real estate developers and community organizers.
“It’s always a balance,” he says William Townsadjunct professor of social impact at Kellogg and President of the National Market for Community Revitalization and Public Housing for Gorman & Company, a national development firm focused on community revitalization.
Towns works with city housing authorities, community leaders and city officials to develop plans to redevelop communities using innovative financing tools such as “Opportunity Zones”, where companies have a tax incentive to expand commercial activities and programs, including the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which is designed to address the issue of aging public housing infrastructure.
But redeveloping a community is easier said than done, he says.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve noticed is a community’s fear of gentrification,” Towns says. “People rightly want better housing stock, improved schools, new retail amenities, safer neighborhoods and stronger public transport links, but they don’t want anyone else to know.”
Towns identifies three tips to make these initiatives more successful.
Listen to the community
Community reinvestment works best when new projects actually respond to the wishes of the community itself. This means engaging them in a transparent dialogue even before the formal planning process begins.
“The basic amenities that people want are pretty universal, but each community has its own priorities and ideals for how those amenities should be provided, so the process has to be collaborative,” says Towns. “It’s never top-down. You rarely tell the community anything they don’t already know, so dictating what should happen is often seen as insulting and—at best—a waste of time. If the community doesn’t feel like they’re part of the process, they’ll reject even a necessary amenity.”
Ultimately, it is the people who live in the neighborhood who decide what amenities and services they are interested in and what kinds of businesses to support. Without community support, businesses or homes will fail.
So the job of anyone facilitating investment—whether they’re a city official, developer, or community organizer—is to translate community priorities into the language of development and policy. Part of this translation requires addressing and mediating between different interest groups.
Take the redevelopment of Grove Parc Plaza. Originally built in the late 1960s to serve low-income residents of Chicago’s Woodlawn community, by the turn of the century, the development was in such poor shape that HUD considered closing it before the Preservation of Affordable Housing, a non non-profit organization based in Boston. was selected to redesign the project. The development had design flaws and concentrated poverty and was seen as a barrier to investment in the neighborhood, which created a spiral of disinvestment and an increase in crime.
Through a long series of community listening sessions, which did not start smoothly, Grove Parc was able to begin its transformation to incorporate new and renovated mixed-income housing, as well as the community’s first new full-service grocery store in 40 years. This has contributed to the development of a healthier mixed-use and mixed-income community.
“If they listen carefully, take notes, and remain empathetic, community developers and policymakers will be able to understand the underlying issues and desires,” says Towns. “For some projects, these conversations can come across as a lot of anger, frustration and confusion. But in all this, there are bits of truth. The challenge is to cut through it all and help the community refine the message. Because it has to come from them.”
Respect the ecosystem
Too often, well-intentioned organizations and city officials try to jump-start development by focusing efforts too narrowly on one aspect of a community. But when organizations plan reconfiguration items in relative isolation, the item itself may succeed, but the community may see little change from the current situation.
If, for example, an initiative invests heavily in the development of affordable housing in a community suffering from high crime, poorly prepared schools, and a lack of amenities, without a plan to address these issues, the housing initiative will not revitalize the community.
“You have to be able to see the entire ecosystem as you design,” says Towns.
The challenge for community leaders, of course, is to balance a holistic approach, which addresses the entire ecosystem, with the reality of limited resources and competing priorities.
“The key here is to understand that even a lack of resources—or competing priorities—do not prevent you from showing the market that there is a clear and thoughtful plan to address the other areas of concern,” says Towns. “Residents, investors, business owners and future community members need to be able to see how ecosystem issues are addressed, because people rarely decide where to live based on one thing.”
Thinking holistically about revitalization also involves addressing the displacement caused by rapid gentrification. In Pilsen, Chicago’s first Latino community, property taxes rose as wealthier residents moved in, making it difficult for owners and renters to stay long-term. Or consider West Philadelphia. When the The University of Pennsylvania invested in public secondary schools in that neighborhood—after working with local authorities to assess community needs—the area became so popular that it honored the legacy residents who had sought out the schools in the first place.
“The community needs to understand that we live in real time and that these things are fluid,” says Towns. “The goal is to come up with plans combined with policies that enhance community goals while mitigating the unintended consequences of necessary investments.”
There are many tools that have been developed to help deal with the unintended consequences of the intentional act of community regeneration. One such tool is the Anti-Displacement and Gentrification Toolkit Project developed by the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. The primary goal of the project is to create a pool of resources for use by local governments to mitigate the effects of gentrification and displacement.
Another popular solution to the displacement problem is to use community land trusts. These non-profit organizations own land on behalf of the community, often subsidizing home purchase prices in exchange for limiting future sales prices of the same homes as a way of discouraging speculative buyers. Trusts can also act as managers of community gardens, civic buildings and other public spaces. The Chicago Housingfor example, it works with city planners, community groups and private developers to provide long-term affordable housing options to all residents.
“Whatever mitigation strategies a community ultimately lands on should be incorporated into the overall planning process,” says Towns.
Keep the momentum going
Public and private sector developments that include retail corridors generally exist in distressed markets. This makes it vital that planners, investors and residents see the project as having the potential to succeed – and work to keep the momentum going.
A single initiative to develop new housing or safe roads is rarely enough to spur much additional investment.
“It’s not just one problem,” Towns says. “It’s great when the prodigal returns to a community and gives back to the neighborhood. But how can this investment be leveraged with other existing initiatives—or should we create new ones—to take advantage of the current situation? An announcement is not the end but merely the beginning.”
This is one reason why large institutions tend to play a large role in building trust for neighborhood revitalization projects. If, for example, a large company or university decides to expand into a disinvested community, others are more inclined to follow, helping the project achieve critical mass.
“Larger institutions tend to create clustering effects that can foster new growth and send a strong message to the market,” says Towns. The Obama Presidential Center is a recent example of this in Chicago. “Given the historic nature of the Obama presidency, the center has the potential to attract a global audience of hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, spurring the need for new restaurants, gift shops and tour companies in the community, as well as new purchase rates and affordable housing.” .
But it’s also important to ensure that a development’s new businesses stay open. Ultimately, this means community members must patronize the new shops and restaurants.
“I often say to community groups, ‘If you say these are the amenities you want, then it’s imperative that you support them,'” says Towns. “In an established neighborhood, a storefront might change every six months, as the demand for retail space is high. But in disinvested neighborhoods, when a store closes, it can be ten years before another business comes back.”
That, in turn, reinforces Towns’ original point about investors doing their homework to ensure they’re creating amenities the community wants to support. Getting this part wrong can torpedo the entire resuscitation effort.
“There’s no bigger setback to an underinvested community than a new business going out of business,” Towns says. “The market looks at these signals and may decide, ‘This is an area that cannot support a business.’