To understand one of Lexington’s hot-button issues, you must appreciate that what some people praise as “urban revitalization” others criticize as “gentrification.”
People on both sides are passionate and opinionated. That’s because of deeply held beliefs about social justice and free enterprise, as well as two centuries of Lexington history steeped in race, class and the politics of power and powerlessness.
I applaud Together Lexington, a community improvement initiative led by business leaders, for choosing gentrification as a topic for what it calls Courageous Conversations.
The idea is to get diverse groups of people in this very polite city to have honest dialogue about tough, controversial issues. Other topics include race relations; crime and policing; drug abuse; homelessness and affordable housing; and LGBTQ inclusion. For more information, and to sign up to participate, go to: Togetherlexington.com/conversations.
I was one of 25 participants in the first gentrification session at the Lyric Theatre at East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane. The Lyric is in the East End, which along with several neighborhoods in the North Broadway and North Limestone corridors are ground zero for Lexington’s gentrification debate.
These are some of Lexington’s oldest neighborhoods, and after the Civil War they were segregated by race and class. After World War II, most of these neighborhoods became poorer, too, because many affluent and middle-class people, white and black, moved out to new suburbs. Absentee landlords bought many of these old houses, investing little in upkeep while renting them to low-income tenants with few other options. The neighborhoods deteriorated. Banks avoided lending there. City infrastructure was neglected. Crime increased.
But a lot has changed in the past 15 years. Urban living is popular again, and affluent people have rediscovered these walkable neighborhoods filled with great architecture ripe for renovation. Crime is down. Investment has returned. By almost every economic measure, these neighborhoods are improving. But there are costs.
Renters are being displaced as landlords sell to individuals and developers. Longtime homeowners, some too poor to improve their aging homes, worry about rising property taxes and feel pressured to sell. There is suspicion, too, because Lexington has a long history of displacing poor and minority communities when influential people decide they want their property for something else.
The changing character of these neighborhoods has raised touchy issues of race and class, which was evident in comments from residents who were part of this Courageous Conversation. There were complaints about “house-flippers” and “hipsters.” But others acknowledged that changes are needed.
“We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who don’t give a damn about the neighborhood,” said longtime East End resident Thomas Tolliver, adding that he would rather see historic homes restored than left to crumble as neglected rental property.
Like most participants, I came to the conversation with biases. I think it is smart to save and reuse old buildings, many of which have irreplaceable style, craftsmanship and cultural significance. Communities are stronger when they have handsome reminders of their past. I also think diverse neighborhoods that include a mix of homeowners and renters are more interesting places to live.
The social justice implications of gentrification are real and must be addressed. Affordable housing for the working poor is a big issue in Lexington. This city has never been more segregated by wealth, which has a strong racial component, according to a new report by the Lexington Fair Housing Council.
Look at it this way: Gentrification is a natural result of the free market, which is the key driver of community reinvestment. So let’s focus on helping the people hurt by gentrification. Other Courageous Conversation participants had the same idea, as well as some good suggestions for doing that.
For example: Should landlords be required to accept government housing vouchers, just as they are legally required to accept renters of any race? Should “house flippers” be assessed an impact fee to support affordable housing initiatives for renters they displace?
Should longtime homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods get a break from rising property taxes, perhaps in return for maintaining their properties? Should landlords pay an occupational tax as other businesses do, with those funds going to low-income rent subsidies?
How could a higher minimum wage or a state earned-income tax credit help make housing more affordable for low-income people? Should renters be given a voice in neighborhood associations, many of which are open only to property owners?
Some redevelopment contractors work as neighborhood partners rather than adversaries; what could be done to bring the others around? How could city government build on its successful “small area development plan” method?
Could code enforcement policies be made more flexible with longtime homeowners of limited means, but tougher on absentee landlords who are persistent offenders? What new laws are needed to make that happen?
Courageous Conversations is a good way to start this important discussion. But to succeed, it must lead to courageous policymaking at city hall.