Lighting a SPARCC to fight Displacement

by Mariia Zimmerman


As the end of summer approaches, I find myself trying to sneak in a little more family and sun before school starts back up and the fall conference season gets underway. Over the last several months, I’ve had the privilege to work with an amazing group of partners to launch the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). SPARCC is designed to support local cross-sector collaboratives working in six regions to develop policies and projects that advance racial equity, climate and public health goals. These six regions – Memphis, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area – each have created their own visions for how community-led investment can create stronger neighborhoods that intentionally work to stem displacement and create shared prosperity for existing and future residents and entrepreneurs.

Members of the Transformation Alliance in Atlanta, GA show SPARCC partners their vision for transforming MARTA stations into active, art-filled community spaces. (Photo: MZimmerman, 2017)

Members of the Transformation Alliance in Atlanta, GA show SPARCC partners their vision for transforming MARTA stations into active, art-filled community spaces. (Photo: MZimmerman, 2017)

SPARCC is unique in many ways, both through the partners that have come together to lead this work at Enterprise Community Partners, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Low-Income Investment Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank out of San Francisco; and through its focus on capital and capacity building tools to empower local collaboratives to accelerate broader systems change. For years, these regions have developed robust plans for new transit, affordable housing needs, stormwater and energy systems. But even the best plans gather dust if there is not funding and financing to implement, nor political will to support policy changes necessary to innovate and ensure that communities themselves benefit from major new investments and technologies.

We’ve seen in places like Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco massive gentrification and rising land values pushing thousands of low-income and people of color out of their homes and small businesses. For some places, like South Chicago and North Memphis, investment and economic growth have been largely absent and residents struggle with alarming asthma rates, escalating energy bills, unsafe housing, and lack of affordable and reliable transportation options to reach regional jobs. Investment is desired, but feared by residents who mean it’s the first sign that the will be forced out by, rather than benefit from, these improvements.  

Over the next three years, SPARCC will invest $90 million, with a goal of influencing larger financing tools that achieve tangible social, environmental and financial benefits including very specific health, climate and racial equity outcomes. Each SPARCC region is crafting their own unique approaches and pipeline of projects, but common across all is the desire for a new type of community development that is not done to a neighborhood but with the neighborhood to shape, implement, and possibly own. Advocates in Los Angeles are exploring how tenant protections can be strengthened as part of the region’s larger transit network build-out. In Chicago, residents are supporting the 606 Affordability ordinance to directly tackle gentrification happening along an old elevated railway turned into a linear park. In Atlanta, local partners are working with the regional transit agency, MARTA, to try and create a Living Transit Fund that would provide a new and steady stream of funding to support affordable housing near transit.

“And yet, gentrification offers a peculiarly small frame for trying to understand these paradigmatic shifts. When rents reach the tipping point, when old industrial buildings flip or are razed for flimsy new ones made of glass and chipboard, when poor residents have to leave, the gentrification narrative hits its limit. It has the odd, counterintuitive effect of privileging the narratives of those able to hang on in the changing city. But what of those who are displaced? Gentrification has no room for the question, ‘Where did the displaced go?’ Instead, the displaced join the disappeared.”
— – Jeff Chang, "We Gon’ Be Alright"

SPARCC partners and local residents are organizing to support new infrastructure (trails, transit, stormwater) and simultaneously crafting policies to reduce displacement. To be honest, this type of linked action is long overdue. The urban renaissance of the past decade, especially in places with new transit investment, is bringing people back to the city and revitalizing neighborhoods long overlooked by the market and public sector.

I’ve spent much of my career working to support and track this transformation, however, the loss of neighborhood culture, businesses, and homes is a real threat that is undermining this progress. People of color are the most impacted but even in a place like San Jose, a tech worker making a six-figure salary is hard pressed to find housing that is affordable anywhere near their job. Displacement poses health and educational disparities as families are evicted and forced to live further away from jobs, their personal support networks and social services.

I invite you to follow our work through SPARCC so that we may learn together, and push for larger reform to the institutions and systems where generations of racism are embedded. The growing suburbanization of poverty, persistent homelessness and growing racial disparities in health, education, employment, and a myriad of other indicators all give testimony to gentrification’s impacts. Racial biases within finance, land use, criminal justice, transportation and housing systems persist in virtually every region of this country. We are at a moment in time, it feels, where we can go backwards to the days of redlining, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration; or we can come together and move forward to find new ways for building wealth within communities of color and investing in infrastructure that contributes to health, climate, and economic goals while also meeting their core functions of moving people, water or energy.

I’ll be talking about SPARCC on Tuesday, August 8th at the APTA Sustainability & Multimodal Conference in Minneapolis, MN. Please join me if you’re there!

This summer included lots of travel which afforded me time to tackle the growing pile of compelling books and articles that came out earlier this year related to gentrification. Reading thoughtful and compassionate analysis proved a balm against the otherwise crazy, and sometimes cruel, news coming out of Washington. While no city or region can claim to have solved the displacement crisis, there is a growing body of literature describing the complexity of the challenge and how specific policy and investment decisions have exacerbated problems for the most poor and vulnerable living in suddenly hot market neighborhoods.

Among the top picks of my summer reading list:

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz

-          I loved this book and found myself talking back to it many times finding myself more often agreeing but wishing that I could convince the author many of the horrible outcomes he described where the opposite of what well-intentioned planners and developers were pursuing.

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on race and resegregation by Jeff Chang

-          Looks not just at displacement but at the much deeper and more disturbing ways that each generation fails to move racial justice forward. The chapter on Ferguson haunts me. And it should.  

Healthy Development without Displacement: Realizing the Vision of Healthy Communities for All published by the Prevention Institute

-          Hot off the presses, this short report does an excellent job of framing gentrification in a broad context and describing the connections with deeper social issues including public health. Most encouraging, it offers up a spectrum of alternatives including the power of mult-sector collaboratives.

How Homeownership Became the Engine of Inequality by Matthew Desmond

-          If you haven’t read Desmond’s seminal prize-winning book, Evicted, you should! But, if you’re at the beach and don’t want something so long or heavy, pull up this New York Times article on your ipad from earlier in the summer. Not only does it hit some of the book’s highlights but offers timely policy responses. With recent attacks on housing discrimination, the proposed decimation of HUD funding and emphasis on private sector solutions, this article is required reading for those working the front lines.

No Small Plans published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation

-          How can you resist a graphic novel on urbanism and gentrification? Developed by a group of Chicago teens as part of the Foundation’s three-year initiative working with the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Public Library this novel takes to heart that a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe 2,000 when that picture is drawn by a student’s hand.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein.

-          What do we mean by institutional and systematic racism? Read this book to find out. It covers in detail the legal history (from laws to regulations) that have embedded a lack of opportunity to home ownership, mixed-income communities and quality education to people of color for multiple generations, across political parties for generations.

Mansplaining the City: Why are men driving the conversation about the future of our neighborhoods? by Alissa Walker.

-       Shortly after writing my post, I ran across this piece by Alissa Walker who rightfully points out that all of the books about gentrification are written by men. In fact, most books about cities are written by men. This does us all a disservice.   Ironically, the term "gentrification" was coined by a woman. This article has a great set links to other urban writings by women, and other key pieces that perpetuate both gender-bias in planning and the future of our cities.