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When the poor are ‘in the way’

Experts say community rebuilding invariably displaces poor people, but there are protections

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Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013 6:00 am

gen·tri·fi·ca·tion (noun): the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. (Source: merriam-webster.com)

BENTON HARBOR — Gentrification has been a hot topic in Benton Harbor as developments like Harbor Shores and the Benton Harbor Arts District attract wealthier people to the area.

But what exactly is gentrification? Does economic development have to lead to the displacement of poor people? Would a poverty-stricken community be better off if nothing were done?

Lionel Matthews, a professor of sociology at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, said when a community is rebuilt, it almost always leads to some people being displaced. But he said that displacement can be minimized. If the residents are included in the process, they may welcome it. He said planning is the key to minimizing gentrification.

“Every developmental initiative is accompanied by unintended consequences,” he said. “And displacement of people just happens to be one of those. The greater the planning, the greater we can control those unintended consequences.”

Victoria Morckel, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who teaches city planning and human geography courses, said displacement occurs when property values increase around new development, which leads to higher property taxes for property owners and higher rents for renters.

She said some areas give tax abatements to current residents to minimize the likelihood of their being forced out of their homes.

Other communities pass inclusionary zoning laws, which require a certain percentage of new developments be set aside for low-income people. Still others pass rent controls so the cost of rent can’t increase too rapidly as development takes place.

But she said something needs to be done in communities that are deteriorating, or they will continue to deteriorate.

“In communities that are declining, we can put in place nudgers that stop that decline and bring them back to life,” she said. “As far as spurring revitalization, it could be marquee projects that bring in people. A major employer could be helpful in bringing people into communities.”

Matthews said it is important to get the residents’ ideas on how to improve the community.

“Don’t come with a pre-planned project all worked out,” he said.

“Oftentimes we take the attitude that the locals, the people who live in those run-down communities, don’t know what they want. Oftentimes it’s not that they don’t know what they want. It’s that they don’t know how to get what they want.”

He said the most important resource a community has is its people.

“Talk with them. Ask for ideas. Go to their leaders and get a broad focus group,” he said. “The planning should not be done completely outside the community. Even if people have to be displaced, they would not be antagonistic towards those displacing them if they are informed. You might be amazed what they come up with.”

Helping poor people improve their lives helps everyone, he said.

“Anything that enhances the well-being of the working class urban dweller increases the well-being of the middle class urban dweller,” Matthews said. “If that consciousness accompanies the developmental efforts, the downside of gentrification can be alleviated, if not avoided. But that is easier said than done. There must be a willingness to talk to the people. Get ideas from them on how they can go forward in renewing the community.”

Matthews said communities can be revitalized not only physically, but socially and spiritually.

“We’re more than physical,” he said “The community’s spirit cannot be generated by the physical appearance of the community, but the physical appearance can help. But community security doesn’t just depend on the physical appearance of the community. That’s about the least important in a community.”

He said the only way for a community to become revitalized both physically and spiritually is if the people themselves have the desire and willingness to generate harmony to build a better community for themselves and others.

Email: lwrege@TheHP.com

Twitter: @HPWrege

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