Gentrification is a jedi mind trick where (mostly) black people conclude entire communities have no value, although everyone else can see it. Gentrification is generally unpopular among black people but in fact we bear some responsibility for it. When we refuse to see the value in our communities and others do, that’s on us. I’m tired of hearing black people complain about gentrification while refusing to invest in black communities — even middle class black communities. Real estate is finite and if we don’t buy it, someone will. If we really despise people who are wholly unconnected to the culture of a neighborhood moving in and displacing the population, then damnit start seeing the worth in black communities before everyone else does.
Gentrification — as we understand it — is not completely inevitable. Washington was about 70 percent black just a generation ago but today the city no longer has a black majority. Masses of white people did not come in the night and wipe out the black population. The dramatic loss of affordable housing is significant but the unwillingness of black homeowners to stay put cannot be ignored. The decline in federal funding to house the poor is exacerbating yet black people and organizations — while admittedly challenging — made few sustained, organized efforts to collectively invest in black communities while the real estate was still at giveaway prices. Whether the communities in question were legitimately unsafe or simply decent neighborhoods that lacked desired amenities, many made the choice to walk away.
It is curious that communities we so often deem wholly undesirable are consistently valued by everyone else. It tells me that our valuation is off, in many respects. If a developer can see the potential of a community filled with poor black people, so should we. If investor X believes there is money to be made on a block with 8 homes — of which 4 are boarded up — maybe we should, too. Why couldn’t our churches and local organizations organize families to collectively buy that block and fix up those homes? Why couldn’t families looking for starter homes put their money together and buy multi-family homes before they were swooped up by an investor and turned into swanky apartments that rent for $2,000 monthly? Why can’t our local Urban League and NAACP chapters organize citywide initiatives to pair our people together to buy communities, raise the property values and in doing so attract all the amenities we seek out in other neighborhoods?
I live on the South Side of Chicago now, having recently relocated from DC. Chicago is now in the process of gentrifying in much the same way DC has. But it doesn’t have to be. I live in a condo building that has three units and two apartments on the basement level. The units are very nice — hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances and a secure entry system. The unit directly under me was just recently renovated and it is gorgeous. It is 1,700 square feet and features three bedrooms with two full baths. It is also a duplex unit, a bonus. While such a unit in DC would easily cost half a million dollars or even more in wealthier neighborhoods, that unit just sold last month for $150,000. Seriously, that’s it. The reason is my neighborhood is just outside of the gentrifying zone and while my street is nice and quieter than a street in the city should be, the neighborhood is still quite black and that is a turnoff for many buyers and thus values are suppressed. That unit, while only $150,000 today, will easily be worth 3 times that in 10 years and too many of us will lament that we didn’t simply buy it while it was easily affordable.
To be sure, there are many forces at work far beyond any personal decisions we might make. In far too many places older residents on fixed income are priced out of the homes they own because property taxes have skyrocketed. Even worse, many cities unfairly advantage newcomers. In Philadelphia, for example, new buyers qualify for a 10-year property tax abatement while older residents are often without relief. There are many challenges and yes, organizing as a community is far more difficult than being a private investor with cash who can develop entire blocks overnight (not to mention the federal and local tax incentives many of them utilize). This is not easy but it is not inevitable, either. There are still many communities in cities around the country where property values are very modest. They will eventually be developed, the only question is by whom.
Perhaps you think losing black presence in American cities is not problematic and if so, there’s nothing to worry about. If you do find it problematic, however, there are solutions. We must organize, buy and stay. If you find that too difficult or if you have an aversion to investing in black communities — poor, working or middle class — then please stop complaining about gentrification.