At Essence panel, mayors discuss ways to combat gentrification

Leaders discuss solutions at Essence Festival

American mayors have tools available to them to combat neighborhood gentrification that forces poorer people out of their communities, the leaders of four cities said at an Essence Festival panel discussion Saturday.

“The way to avoid displacement is to focus your will and stop letting mayors off the hook with this gobbledygook acting like they don’t know what’s going on,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said during the “Our Cities Our Solutions” panel discussion at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The annual Essence Festival, which began Thursday, concludes Sunday.

Reed said mayors can refuse to grant building permits and can block the use of tax incentives for developments they feel may harm neighborhood cohesiveness.

“You can demand and insist upon inclusionary housing,” he said.

Also on the panel were New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Compton, California, Mayor Aja Brown.

Another tool, Reed said, is for cities to acquire land. He pointed to Turner Field, the stadium the Atlanta Braves are vacating for a new home in suburban Cobb County. He said there’s a good chance that Georgia State University will wind up using the land.

He also pointed to plans, not yet final, for filmmaker Tyler Perry to take over part of the former Fort McPherson military base to build a movie studio.

Gentrification refers to what happens when an old, relatively poor neighborhood becomes popular again with an influx of new, wealthier residents. The higher property values that result can lead to higher rents or property taxes and drive longtime residents out of places they and their families may have lived in for decades.

Perhaps the best-known example of this process is in Brooklyn, New York, where it prompted an angry reaction from filmmaker Spike Lee, who grew up there and whose parents still live there.

In New Orleans, there have been complaints about gentrification in neighborhoods such as Treme and Faubourg Marigny.

Gentrification, Landrieu said, “is the result of having more people wanting to come (to the city). In terms of problems, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s one that we have to concentrate on.”

Landrieu said that when New Orleans’ large public housing projects were torn down after Hurricane Katrina, officials made sure there were incentives in the rebuilding programs to ensure a diverse population moved into the developments that replaced them. The new complexes include units that can be owned or rented, with varied cost structures for high-income residents as well as people who need government housing assistance.

Brown, who is a city planner by profession, said mayors need to remember to include restrictive covenants on such housing to ensure they remain inclusionary — that is, attracting a variety of economic classes — in the future.

“It’s one thing to offer affordable housing, mixed-income and workforce housing for today, but what happens in 15, 20 years, 100 years, when those affordable housing mandates sunset?” she asked.

Rawlings-Blake said a diverse population is important.

“Think about the communities that our parents grew up in,” she said. “You had a doctor living across the street from a teacher living across the street from the people who cleaned the houses. That was a diverse and strong community.”

Reed said President Barack Obama’s challenge for cities to decrease homelessness among military veterans has taught valuable lessons to city officials.

“Veterans come with services,” Reed said. “They have resources that come with them from the federal government.”

As a result, it’s easier to help homeless veterans, but doing so gives cities models they also can use to house homeless people with no resources, he said.

The mayors also emphasized the needs of cities’ youngest residents.

Baltimore has a tough curfew law that Rawlings-Blake said sends a message to parents: “You’ve got to choose what kind of life you live. And when you live in a city, you can’t just let the kids run free all night and day.”

Brown pointed to after-school and summer programs in Compton where parents can send their children when school is not in session.

“If we don’t engage our children, somebody else will,” she said.

The panelists pointed out that cities are important because they house the bulk of the country’s population.

“If you want America to have a strong future, you’ve got to care about cities,” Reed said. “And in those cities are these babies, these boys and girls. We’ve got to change their life outcomes if we want the United States of America to continue to be what it has been, the unique source of good in the world.”