Gentrification in focus at forum

June 24, 2011
By

WEB EXCLUSIVE

Gentrification—a hot topic in Jamaica Plain because of Whole Foods—was the focus of the latest JP Forum. But panelists said to not blame Whole Foods.

Panelist Steve Meacham, tenant organizing director at JP-based City Life/Vida Urbana, made the point that the upcoming Whole Foods Market is a symptom of JP’s current shifts, not a cause.

“The problem isn’t Whole Foods. Anything we put there [in Hi-Lo’s place] that isn’t seedy would be gentrifying,” he said.

About 50 people gathered at First Church on June 9 to address gentrification and to discuss what’s being done to curb its influence.

Several tactics were discussed by the three panelists, Meacham; Leslie Bos, board president of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Corporation (JPNDC) and long-time JP resident; and Michael Stone, a professor of community planning and public policy at UMass Boston. They included a revision of real estate taxes, re-introduction of rent controls and tenant organizing among them.

The point, the panelists agreed, is “We don’t care so much about who’s moving in. We care whether those leaving have been forced out,” Meacham explained to the 50-member audience.

Gentrification disproportionately affects people of color and/or immigrants more than other lower-income residents, Stone said.

One of the keys, Bos said, is combating racism and stereotypes: “‘Those [poor] people’ are us,” Bos said. “They’re all around us and we need them.”

“Diversity is valued but the complexity it presents is not acknowledged,” Bos said. By having higher-income and lower-income residents in one neighborhood, JP is culturally diverse, but must deal with friction between those neighbors in issues such as Hi-Lo’s closure, she said.

In one recent year, Meacham said, 5,000 tenants were evicted without fault in Boston—that is, the landlord would not renew the lease, through no fault of the tenant.

This is usually due to rising property values, though it could also be caused by higher property taxes. The landlord decides to charge higher rents, which current tenants cannot afford to pay. The landlord does not offer to renew the lease, choosing to offer it to someone else at higher prices instead.

City Life/Vida Urbana has been organizing tenants like these, trying to force landlords to accept rent to prevent further evictions. Many tenants have organized to have collective bargaining power with their landlords after City Life became involved.

Meacham said that the removal of rent controls in 1994 “opened the floodgates” for these kinds of abuses by landlords.

As long as real estate is a commodity instead of a home, “gentrification, as a process, is an inescapable part of capitalism,” Stone said.

To stop gentrification, Stone said, speculative house buying needs to stop and “permanent social ownership,” where the owner of a property is invested in that property’s surroundings, needs to be promoted.

“The goals of a community and those of capital interests are completely incompatible,” Meacham said.

Real estate values are not created by developers or real estate agents, Meacham said, but by the people who live in the communities. Often, after years of work invested in improving a neighborhood, the residents who enacted the change are the same people forced out by gentrification once developers and realtors notice the improvements.

This is the “bizarre nature of real estate capitalism,” Meacham said, adding that people are then caught in an “obscene dilemma” between improving their neighborhoods and keeping their homes.

Stone also advocated for a tax where those people buying property for speculative purposes would pay higher taxes.

Bos recounted several measures the JPNDC is taking, notably the construction of long-term affordable housing in JP, like the Blessed Sacrament complex.

It’s an “ever-more-precious resource,” Bos said.

She added the goal should be to balance between revitalizing and gentrifying an area. She agreed that affordable housing alone is not enough, but, “We could do it messed up or we could do it not at all.”

“We can fight the fight in the form of public opinion,” Bos said. “As challenged as we are, we need to continue to fight the good fight.”

“It gives me hope” to see the turn out at events like the JP Forum, Bos said.

 

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