Gentrification: The Tension Between Displacement and Erasure

By Paul Richards-Kuan

Creating affordable housing is a tricky thing, I am learning. It’s expensive for one. But also, NIMBY (not in my backyard) voices drive up the costs. But affordable housing is really important as a key component of a comprehensive plan to resist gentrification. But what a challenging thing happens when you try to build affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.

First, let’s talk about gentrification. It’s a term that goes back to London, describing the way that city’s real estate has been used to park global capital and in turn has driven up prices and made the city only livable for the wealthy. All across the US though, there are neighborhoods that are changing and wealthier, typically whiter, residents are moving in. Gentrification, however, is such a loaded term it’s unhelpful.

Alternative words used to describe the real underlying affects of gentrification are “displacement” and “erasure.” Displacement describes the that gentrifying neighborhoods are pushing out lower income residents as new ones move in. Erasure can meet lots of things- cultural erasure, erasing the stories of the neighborhood, erasing the history of the people who had traditionally lived in that place. But those two ideas don’t always go together.

When new people enter a community, any kind of community, the community will change. This happens at church. With every new member, the nature of the community changes. The effect may be small, but the community inevitably faces stress as soon as new people move in. So, what if we stopped everybody from coming in? What if we discouraged new members at our church? What if we held protests at every new business that wasn’t like us? That is the strategy that a lot of neighborhoods take, and it makes sense. This is the defense against being erased. We are still here! We matter! Hear our stories and our history!

Too often that voice can mean the discouragement of new development. Of any kind. With no new development, the new residents keep coming and displacement increases. With it, the unintended consequence of erasure.

Can the East End of Houston resist the ugly forces of displacement and erasure? It will take a heart full of hospitality and a rooting in justice. We need to welcome new residents, but also teach the history and stories of the neighborhood. We need to celebrate the culture. We need to show the heroes of the neighborhood. We also have to accept that development will happen, but advocate for what that development looks like. It will take wisdom, a sense of solidarity, maturity, and a strong sense of identity.

One way we are working on this is through a community meeting discussing Community Land Trusts. This is an opportunity to discuss housing as a community and let people’s voice be heard. Sound interesting to you? Come join us!

This post was originally published on stpaulshouston.org on September 24, 2018.

Paul Richards-Kuan