As President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, economic inequality has reached an epic height in our nation, shutting the doors of opportunity for millions of Americans. In urban centers, we see this growing inequality through gentrification. Too often the “development” of urban centers means the displacement of low and moderate-income long-time residents and new housing and amenities for the rich. A first step in ending the growing economic inequality, which is deeply tied to ongoing racial inequality, is to stop this displacement.
The corrosive effect of gentrification can be found throughout the nation even in the “liberal” whitest city of America Portland, Oregon. Portland is known internationally as a leader in urban design with many boasting its bike-friendly streets, accessible 20-minute neighborhoods and quaint local business culture. In fact, this year, Portland was named the best US city by the real estate company, Movato.
Unbeknownst to many, however, Portland is also a case study in gentrification, a glaring reminder that urban economic disparities will persist as long as the structural inequalities of our economy remain.
Other cities riding the cusp of the latest development trends have experienced the same results. In Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, inner city neighborhoods that were once majority black have been inundated with plans for redevelopment. The upward redistribution of wealth through public-private partnerships, have rewarded real estate speculators, exporting long time black residents and bringing in higher income predominately white residents
To halt this practice a growing community-led movement calls for an end to displacement by promoting policies that dismantle systemic barriers to economic opportunity and prosperity.
Last November, the City of Portland’s Development Commission (PDC) announced plans to provide a 2.4 million dollar subsidy to develop a long time vacant property with billion-dollar California developer Majestic Realty. The property is in the heart of the city’s historically Black community; which happens to be one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in America. This decision was announced only weeks after the city committed to including a new network of Black leaders, the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF), in any major development decisions that would impact the Black community, and months after inviting Portland’s NAACP Chapter to a key PDC advisory group– only to later deny their application.
In a recent open letter, PAALF called into question the cronyistic city policies that continuously funded the rich at the expense of the poor, and then demanding that any further development in the area support the stabilization of its historic Black residents. A statement released by the Portland NAACP strongly encouraged a stop to the development.
As more and more Americans find themselves barred from economic opportunity, ideas once considered extreme are becoming mainstream. Nationally, there are signs that this movement is accumulating political power. In Seattle, the NAACP is fighting for a $15 minimum wage and collaborating with newly elected City Council Woman Kshama Sawant in an effort to reshape their economy. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio successfully ran a “tale-of-two-cities” electoral, declaring economic and social inequality his highest priority.
Nationally there is much to be done that can address the record level of American economic inequality. It is a fight which must occur city by city. Growing economic inequality will only cease with an end to gentrification. There must be restorative policies that address past wrongdoings, and forward thinking policies that will make our urban centers as places of opportunity for all racial and income groups.
Dedrick Muhammad is the Senior Director for Economic Programs for the NAACP. Audrey Terrell is President of the Portland, Oregon Branch of the NAACP. Rachel Gilmer is a member of the Portland African American Leadership Forum.