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Anti-displacement strategies signal winds of change in community development

On a recent spring day in south Phoenix, nature served up a chilly wind and some sprinkles of rain as a reminder of its power to affect how people feel. A few dozen desert dwellers who had gathered at the Rio Salado Recreation Area for a conversation about the socioeconomic importance of place shivered and tried to brace themselves.

It was an appropriate metaphor for a day of reflection about the powerful, unnatural force of displacement. It’s chilling. Community development institutions and organizers, in Phoenix and throughout the United States, are hunkering down in their fight against it.

Displacement is the forced movement of people from places where they have deep connection to the land and typically where there is cultural relevance. When it moves low-income households out of their neighborhoods to make way for housing that only higher-income renters and buyers can afford, displacement ushers in gentrification.

David Greenberg, national director of research for LISC, sees the need for well-organized counter movements to displacement, particularly in the area of affordable housing.

“Through organizing, it’s often possible to expand upon what we think might otherwise be possible to support the affordable housing movement more broadly and bring together people to policy to shape place,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg, author of a new policy brief about partnerships using promising tools that could address neighborhood decimation, was a featured speaker and panelist at an April 16 half-day forum in Phoenix about anti-displacement strategies. He was also part of a conversation that same day featuring a walking tour in south Phoenix that highlighted past, present and future impacts of displacement.

About 80 people attended the forum at Burton Barr Library. In addition to Greenberg, speakers and panelists included Elizabeth Mattiuzzi, community development senior researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Shea Lemar, a geographic information science project manager at Arizona State University; and Allen Carlson, executive director of NewTown Community Development Corporation in Tempe.

Panelists defined displacement in terms of disconnection and exclusion.

“Displacement can mean the direct impact of people being evicted because a building turns over or for other reasons or it can also be the longer term impact of being unable to live in the place where they have traditionally lived because of rising rents,” said, Mattiuzzi, author of the recent report, “Funds for Kickstarting Affordable Housing Preservation and Production.” “I would just challenge people to also think about it in terms of exclusion in places that have always been expensive and may be high opportunity.”

A national challenge needing local solutions

No region in the United States is spared the devastation of displacement, and every region has examples of local anti-displacement strategies. LISC and others are exploring ways to leverage those strategies to create a more effective response to displacement.

National data reveals the enormous scale of displacement. Greenberg’s policy brief cites U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics showing that the number of low-income, non-subsidized households paying more than 50 percent of their income in rent grew from about 6 million in 2005 to about 8.3 million in 2015. Real-estate dynamics combined with stagnant wages and rising inequity have created pressures have caused spikes in eviction fillings and the number of households forced out of their homes, Greenberg reports.

Greenberg researched partnerships between community land trusts (CLTs) and community development institutions. CLTs are programs or entities that hold land and govern ownership or tenant use to create permanent affordability, typically through resale restrictions and income eligibility.

“CLTs are becoming seen as an increasingly popular vehicle for affordable housing,” Greenberg said. “In 2018, in cities across the country, in different places like Nashville, Denver and Tallahassee all formed municipally supported land trusts. This kind of organizing for new pipeline and new resources is really critical because it’s only with new pipeline and new resources both that CLTs or any kind of affordable housing effort can be scaled up or even sustained over time.

“If there aren’t adequate resources to rehabilitate properties and maintain them as permanently affordable, nothing in the CLT model itself will make sure they are permanently affordable. They will eventually have to be sold if they can’t be maintained.”

Greenberg said partnerships among CDCs, community development financial institutions and CLTs can have the potential for reframing expectations about land and property in a way that could build more ambitious movements for community control and affordable housing. It could also revitalize CDC relations with the community, he said.

LISC’s interest in this work is two-fold.

First: Obvious need. The lowest earning fifth of all renters across the nation spent more than half their income on rent and on average had only $15 a day left over for all other needs, including transportation, food, clothing and clothing, Greenberg said. There are about 225 community land trusts across the nation, including the Phoenix metropolitan area, that help combat these trends by providing permanent affordable housing, but they are small in comparison to need, he said.

Second: LISC’s longtime interest in roots and revitalization of communities and establishing the partnerships essential to preserving places for the people who live in them.

Some CDC practitioners believe land trusts create an opportunity to reframe local conversations about what the property is, Greenberg said. History, awareness, partnerships create movements for anti-displacement strategies, he said.

“As an education and an organizing tool, CLTs ask organizations really fundamental questions of neighbors and of government about what it means to own land,” Greenberg said. 

NewTown CDC has a community land trust, established in 2001 with the support of LISC, that has 135 single family homes and three deed-restricted townhomes/condominiums in Tempe, Chandler, south Scottsdale, Glendale. Carlson stressed the importance of stewardship in the community land trust model.

“The land trust is the tool to create permanent or perpetual affordability but there’s also that perpetual responsibility part,” Carlson said. “I don’t know if we talk enough about what that means when we talk about perpetual responsibility. What does that mean? We’re the developer and we say that we’re the developer that doesn’t go away. What does that mean? We sell the house to someone. We’re not just going to sell the house to anyone. We’re going to make sure they’re going to be successful and we’re going to stick around to help make sure they’re successful.”

Displacement, segregation and restoration

A river runs through one particularly searing displacement conversation in Phoenix. InSite Consultants brought several highlights of the anti-displacement strategies forum discussion to life during the Rio Salado walking tour. InSite used its “creative insurgency” framework to lead a discussion about the history of indigenous people who once thrived in the river valley and about the policies that have scarred and poisoned the land and that continue to marginalize communities of color.

The human and environmental impact of displacement is in clear view at Rio Salado, which has been a traditional demarcation between south Phoenix and the rest of Phoenix for several generations. At one spot along the walking tour, beautiful wetlands were in the foreground of a restoration area lookout point. Immediately in the background was a landfill, one of many along the river that wends through the Valley. It took years to repair the wetlands in south Phoenix. It will take hundreds of years to restore the land from pollution.

Joseph Larios, a south Phoenix organizer and a partner in InSite Consulting, said attention also must be paid to restoring human dignity. Displacement strips away connection to land, which leads to a loss of power and the ability to build important relationships, he said.

“Displacement separates people from the land,” Larios said. “Segregation is what keeps it in place.”

With the planned light-rail construction in south Phoenix and the redevelopment pressures that come with it, Larios said it’s crucial to know and respect the history of the place — to acknowledge the traumas, beliefs and experiences of the people — to be engaged in anti-displacement strategies.

After the walking tour, while huddled under a ramada that offered some protection from the elements, participants were asked to call out responses in association with the word “displacement.” The wind carried “trauma,” “Trail of Tears”, “destruction” and “recolonization.”

One young participant said she didn’t have a verbal reaction to displacement, “It just makes me do this,” she said, shaking her arms with fists clenched tightly in a show of tension, anger and angst.