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Investment Without Displacement: From Slogan to Strategy

By Anna Cash and Miriam Zuk

Highlighted here is Chapter 10 of the new book, Transit-Oriented Displacement or Community Dividends? Understanding the Effects of Smarter Growth on Communities from MIT Press, downloadable here.

Many cities around the country are struggling with the same question: How do we invest in ways that help to curb greenhouse gas emissions without displacing residents? The stakes of this question are high: Displacement has lasting impacts on physical and psychological wellbeing, community cohesion, and long-term economic mobility. Moreover, when low-income people of color are displaced from communities by rising housing prices, we often see patterns of re-segregation emerge, deepening racial inequity in our regions.

Although anti-displacement policies and toolkits abound, cities are realizing that there are no simple solutions to this seemingly intractable problem. We’ve been studying gentrification and displacement patterns in California and around the country for six years. Currently, we are working with SPARCC to replicate our gentrification and displacement typology maps in SPARCC sites, and work toward building a cross-context national narrative of gentrification and displacement. In Safeguarding against Displacement: Stabilizing Transit Neighborhoods, a chapter in Transit-Oriented Displacement or Community Dividends? Understanding the Effects of Smarter Growth on Communities, Miriam Zuk, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, and Karen Chapple detail some hard-won lessons on anti-displacement strategies. In this post, we’ll share some of those insights about how to balance proactive strategies that get out ahead of investments, with responsive strategies that address displacement pressures that are already underway.

Activists have long advocated for investment without displacement, or development without displacement, in our cities and communities. This framework – which was explored in depth at the SPARCC Investment Without Displacement convening last year – recognizes that investments, both public and private, can spark and fuel displacement and can transform not only the built environment, but also who is able to live in the area. For example, our research shows that neighborhoods with rail stations are more likely to gentrify than areas without a transit stop. Researchers also find that environmental cleanups and amenities like parks can increase property values, changing the composition of the neighborhood – this is often called “green gentrification.” Because of this, communities around the country are becoming concerned that any investment will lead to displacement.

Researchers still have many unanswered questions about how and when investments drive displacement. However, cities should not avoid investing in their communities in order to avoid displacement. Instead, cities should adopt anti-displacement policies and frameworks as they invest. The question should not be whether to invest or not, but rather, how can investments be leveraged to ensure residents get to stay by choice and reap the benefits of new amenities, increased accessibility, and more resources?

To start, being proactive is critical – cities need to center equitable development and anti-displacement as they plan for new investments. It is important to plan and adopt policies and programs before the investment is even announced instead of after, when prices have already risen and people have already been displaced. At the same time, cities need to be responsive to ongoing gentrification and displacement pressures while they are working to avoid those forces in the future. And anti-displacement policy strategies must consider the varied drivers of displacement – changing regional housing trends, exclusionary markets, poverty, income inequality, and disinvestment can all lead to displacement. Below we provide a series of strategies that follow the widely used three P’s anti-displacement framework: tenant protections, production of affordable housing, and preservation of affordable housing. Within each section we provide examples of proactive and responsive strategies. A more comprehensive list of anti-displacement policy strategies can be found here.


With ever-rising rents and eviction pressures, tenant protections are needed to help residents stay in place in the face of myriad displacement pressures. Proactive strategies protect tenants from rent hikes via rent stabilization, and from arbitrary evictions by requiring that landlords have a “just cause” to evict. These two strategies need to go hand-in-hand to be effective. Due to the ever-deepening housing affordability crisis, campaigns have emerged around the country to expand rent regulation, including efforts to reform or repeal state restrictions – in Seattle, Portland, California, and Colorado. Debate continues about the pros and cons of rent regulations including their potential impacts on housing production and quality, but the impact on sitting tenants is clear: turnover and economic displacement is reduced for residents of rent-regulated units (Zuk, forthcoming).

Responsive strategies are also key. One increasingly popular effort is guaranteeing tenant right to counsel in evictions cases – cases tenants would likely lose without proper representation, which many low-income tenants are unlikely able to afford. New York City and San Francisco are both experimenting with such programs and a number of other cities, including Philadelphia, are considering them. In Chicago, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found that having a lawyer decreases a tenant’s odds of getting evicted by about 25%. Assessments of the first two years of the program in New York City find that while eviction rates have decreased, thousands of evictions are still being carried out. More research is needed to understand how responsive strategies can most effectively keep people in their homes.


In terms of strategies to prevent future displacement, the production of permanently affordable housing is among the most effective. Our research finds that subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate housing in mitigating displacement. Proactively, acquiring land for affordable housing production before a major investment is announced is a smart strategy to promote neighborhood affordability. For example, in a unique case, TriMet in Portland acquired and banked land adjacent to a light rail expansion, which the agency later dedicated to subsidized affordable housing development, using transit money and federal funds.

In many U.S. cities, new housing production is needed to address the supply and demand mismatch.To this end, policymakers around the country are looking to zoning reform and permitting processes to help ramp up production. In our brief on California’s upzoning bill (SB 50) we highlight core equitable development considerations for any strategy that seeks to ramp up production. For example, increased land value should be captured for public benefit. One way to do this is to open up high-opportunity neighborhoods to low-income households. At the same time, efforts should be made to stabilize neighborhoods as new developments take root.

In terms of responsive policy, when affordable housing is produced, preference or right-to-return policies are often considered. These policies offer housing opportunities to those who have already been displaced so they can return to their communities. Such policies are in place in a number of cities, including Santa Monica, Cambridge, San Francisco, and others. Portland’s North/Northeast Preference Policy is an innovative example that seeks to recognize and address historic injustices of displacement through urban renewal in historically black North/Northeast Portland. Through this policy, residents receive preference in affordable units in the area if they, their parents or grandparents have a current or former address in that zone, as well as if a member of the family had property seized through urban renewal.


Preservation of existing affordable housing stock can help keep neighborhoods more affordable. Preserving existing units is often more cost-effective than building new affordable housing and can be a good fit in places that are already built out. Preservation can be leveraged in the lead-up to an investment to remove land from the speculative market, establish long-term affordability, and help stabilize neighborhoods. For example, in anticipation of rising housing costs in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods of Denver, a neighborhood coalition started a community land trust, leveraging funds from the Colorado Department of Transportation. Community land trusts acquire land and maintain ownership permanently, with prospective homeowners entering into long-term renewable leases of the land and getting the chance to build some wealth and equity. Research points to community land trusts as a potential strategy in equitable transit-oriented developments; and the role of public agencies in facilitating land acquisition and funding can be critical.

Preservation can also be done responsively, where the threat of displacement triggers strategic acquisition/rehabilitation for long-term affordability. For example, in San Francisco’s Small Sites program, lower-income tenants in small buildings can nominate their building for acquisition/rehabilitation by nonprofits. The program actively seeks to support residents facing displacement pressure; as of 2016, 30% of the people whose units were acquired and stabilized were under active evictions proceedings (which were stopped through this program). In Washington D.C., the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, gives right of first refusal to tenants who are threatened with displacement because their building is up for sale. Tenants can either purchase or assign purchase rights to a nonprofit, enabling them to form cooperatives and condo associations that provide ongoing ownership. Since 2015, over 1,400 units have been preserved through the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.

New construction replaces old in downtown Oakland. (Shutterstock)

Guiding Principles

Considering a menu of policies across the three P’s, including both proactive and responsive strategies, we’ve compiled a list of guiding principles that can help cities and advocates prioritize solutions best suited to their context:

  • Understand your community: Data and analysis are critical to understanding what is happening in communities and to ensuring that strategies are tailored to their needs. What stage of change are neighborhoods in? In what condition is the housing stock? What kinds of pressures are residents facing? Analyzing available data, and collecting information by talking to residents, realtors, developers, community groups, etc., is the first step to understanding what’s needed and can help find a balance between proactive and responsive strategies.
  • Engage the community in the design and implementation of solutions: Early warning systems are helpful but should not replace engaging community groups to better understand what residents’ most pressing challenges are and what support they need to be able to stay in their homes and communities. Partnerships are also critical for implementation. For example, in D.C., ten community-based organizations are contracted by the City to do outreach around the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Program. These organizations make sure tenants are aware of, and can access, their right to acquire or allow a nonprofit to acquire their building.
  • Get ahead of investments and change: Property appreciation and speculation happen rapidly after investments have been announced; once that market signaling has happened, it can feel like it’s already too late to stem the tide of displacement pressures. It is therefore imperative to implement policies and carefully consider how to minimize displacement impacts long before investments are made public.
  • Consider scale: How does the scale of the solution compare to the scale of the issue? How many households are at risk versus how many households would be affected by a suite of interventions?
  • Implementation doesn’t happen on its own: With any policy, there is a difference between what’s on the books and what is enforced. It is essential to design and fund strong enforcement mechanisms in anti-displacement policies. For example, rent regulation programs should have the resources to establish rental registries and proactively follow up on information they collect. This can make all the difference for a household on the verge of being priced out of a home.
  • Organizing is key: Community organizing is key in getting good-fit policies passed in the first place. Organizing can also ensure long-term accountability so that policies go beyond checking a box and actually lead to meaningful outcomes for residents.
  • Don’t forget how we got here: We must recognize history, and the realities and legacies of racist urban policy in order to address historical injustices. One example of this is the fight to identify “sensitive communities,” where implementation of California’s proposed SB 50 upzoning policy would be deferred during a community planning process. Advocates have insisted that communities that have been most burdened by discriminatory policies “deserve sufficient time and self-determination to plan for an inclusive future for their neighborhood.

While anti-displacement work can feel like an uphill battle, there is hope. There has been a dramatic increase in the recognition of the problems of gentrification and displacement over the last five years. This comes coupled with an increase in organizing and coalition-building work. The three P’s are taking off; because there are no silver bullets for equitable development, policies must combine protections, preservation, and production. Decision-makers and community leaders must come together to understand how these approaches can work in conjunction in a specific community. If the right people are involved – particularly those who are most likely to be affected – large campaigns, regardless of their overall success, can provide the foundation for a community’s future organizing and planning efforts.

We believe everyone has a right to live in a place where they are safe, feel a sense of belonging, and where they have access to good schools, healthy food, public transit, nearby employment opportunities, green space, and other building blocks of a healthful, fulfilling life. When communities are at the table in planning processes, armed with accessible data and knowledge about effective policy strategies, they can help ensure investments are leveraged to create more inclusive futures.