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The Urgency to Build the Public Will to Tackle Displacement

By Dr. Tiffany Manuel (@DrTiffanyManuel)

All across the country, there is an explicit public conversation going on about gentrification and displacement.

While such topics have been fodder for debate and analysis in academic circles, they are not ones that typically lead the nightly news or play out in contentious PTA meetings. Today, however, that’s exactly what’s happening– creating a perfect storm that may get us to rethink how policymakers and communities should tackle these issues. 

A perfect storm arises from a rare combination of unpredictable factors, and the ones at play here include:  

  • An administration’s rhetoric that has polarized the nation around issues of place, race, and inequality
  • Rapidly changing demographics, sometimes called the “browning of America,” that may be changing how Americans see themselves, their communities, and the neighbors around them
  • Widening economic inequality

These issues by themselves could sustain gale-force winds in the public consciousness but they accompany a national crisis in housing that brings them directly into our streets and neighborhoods.  The severity of the national shortage of housing is driving up housing costs across the country– upending communities that have long been home to low-income residents and many people of color, displacing them to the outer edges of cities and reinforcing long-standing patterns of segregation.

As this dynamic has played out, contentious battles over the siting of affordable housing in neighborhoods large and small are erupting, as everyday people try to make sense of the rapidly changing racial, economic and spatial dynamics in their communities. As such, issues like zoning and land use policy– typically of interest only to policy wonks– today bring people out to community meetings voicing as much passion as in local football or baseball games.

Dr. Tiffany Manuel’s webinar on displacement

Housing and community development advocates are wading into the erratic eye of this tempest despite the challenges, to take advantage of one of the best opportunities we have had in years to advance real solutions to the interconnected institutional policies that have preserved the boundaries of poverty, race, and class inequalities in our communities. With better data than ever to underscore alternative (and more equitable and inclusive) development models, people are pushing hard to find real solutions. 

Gentrification and displacement are “hot topics” debated on television news programs, at political rallies, artists’ spoken-word forums, in newspapers, and online. As one recent  headline put it starkly- “Poor people are running out of places to live.”

With the housing supply so low but demand so high, we are seeing fierce battles playing out in communities all across the country over who gets to live where and why.  Where do we add density? Where can we rezone to support the creation of new housing? And in high-cost housing cities, how can we preserve what little affordable housing is left? 

Many of us have been excited and encouraged by the sudden and frequent reporting on these issues.  We have been encouraged because the news brings more visibility and broader acknowledgement that displacement is a problem worthy of public deliberation. And, we have also been eager to center the voices of people experiencing displacement to authentically elevate the public discourse.

On these grounds, we are right to be encouraged. Yet media attention comes with a slew of risks and potential setbacks when we lose nuanced storytelling that actually benefits the kind of Strategic CaseMaking™ that we need to build stronger public will. Many news stories, for example, don’t talk about the history of redlining, restrictive covenants, and other exclusionary policies, or the dangerously high levels of economic inequality that are exacerbating segregation across our cities and towns. 

The way the story usually goes is that higher income people make individual choices to move into poor neighborhoods and lower income people make corresponding individual choices to move out. This misses the importance of the systems that set these so-called choices in motion, ignoring the bigger issues— that low-income people are being displaced either because long-term disinvestment in the infrastructure of their communities has turned around, creating market pressures, or disinvestment has gotten so bad that the communities have become virtually unlivable. Such situations aren’t easily communicated in 30-second sound bites.

The Good News is We Can Take Back the Public Discourse

As challenging as the situation is, advocates across the country are starting to understand how to take back the public discourse and build stronger public will around these issues.

At the SPARCC Investment without Displacement convening in December 2018, for example, hundreds of advocates came together to compare notes, share ideas, and build their capacity for action. In a plenary session that I moderated with my colleague Jeff Chang at RaceForward, we focused on the importance of shapeshifting the public conversation so that the narratives on displacement can be better understood.

A follow-up webinar that I led earlier this year focused more squarely on building the public will to scale solutions, providing evidence-based strategies for surviving the backfire that occurs when we are not strategic and intentional about how we make the case for systems change. In a follow-up brief, I summarized the dominant narratives on displacement, discussed why those narratives have been so challenging for us to overcome, and provided a set of recommendations to help us begin to do so.

Taken together, along with a growing body of online resources to support advocates of equitable and inclusive development, we are capitalizing on this growing national conversation and building the bigger tent we need to scale policies, programs and investments that build inclusive places.

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