Real Estate News

Opinion: Yes, gentrification can be good — or it can be bad

In last week’s Business Monday section, land-use lawyer and lobbyist Neisen Kasdin argued that “Gentrification is good. The opposite of gentrification is stagnation and decline.”

Mr. Kasdin argues that “the vibrant culture, jobs and original immigrants largely moved out” of Little Haiti long ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. Little Haiti is a vibrant, historic and diverse neighborhood with proud, long-term taxpaying homes and business owners. It also provides a significant portion of the affordable housing available in the city.

The vibrancy of the Little Haiti community has been on display as large numbers of passionate residents and community leaders have repeatedly come out at city commission and planning, zoning and appeals board meetings to stop developers from “saving” their neighborhood by demolishing it and displacing them.

GOVERNMENT UPZONING

It is important to begin by recognizing that “gentrification” — the influx of more affluent residents and businesses — is neither good nor bad in and of itself.

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It is also important to point out that the projects Mr. Kasdin promotes involve gentrification through governmental up-zoning, with Mr. Kasdin often lobbying the city of Miami on behalf of developers to get permission to build more than they are otherwise legally entitled to build.

Developers are not being told they can’t build on property they purchase. Rather, they are asking the city to build much higher and more densely than they can “as of right.”

Such government-led gentrification is not organic or the result of natural market forces. Instead, in theory, the city agrees to allow more density and height in exchange for the developer providing certain community benefits, such as affordable housing, public green space, job creation, workforce preferences, and living wages. These “public benefits” are specified in Miami 21, but they are negotiated with only vague neighborhood participation requirements. And even those benefits can be over-ridden by the city commission, as was done in the Magic City SAP when over $100 million in affordable housing obligations was reduced to a $30 million phased payment to a community trust spread over a long period of time.

Obviously, these “community benefits” are only as good as the negotiating process. All too often, the existing residents of a neighborhood don’t get what they need and deserve because they are included in the negotiation process only nominally.

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PARTICIPATORY OR PREDATORY?

Governmental up-zoning is a development tool. All up-zonings provide stimulus for new development, but development for whom? It can help achieve neighborhood goals, such as affordable housing and job creation.

Or it can be used to disrupt existing businesses and displace residents, thereby promoting inequity and segregation.

For example, a recent article in the American Bar Association’s Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law found that this type of development resulted in “mass displacement,” and greater “social/economic segregation,” as displaced residents “are likely to move to areas that are more segregated, and, as such, they are likely to also receive less or worse municipal services and be further away from job markets and public transport.”

While poor neighborhoods need and want the revitalization that new private investment brings, existing residents must be able to have a meaningful voice to promote participatory development instead of predatory development. Rather than patronizingly concluding that outside developers must be incentivized to “save” Little Haiti, we must empower Little Haiti residents to express what they want to happen in their neighborhood.

This is the foundation of building equitable and inclusive communities that respond to the needs of all residents. The Miami 21 Zoning Code and Miami Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan, which govern the planning of the city of Miami, both explicitly include language aimed at ensuring that all residents have a place in the future of the city. This language is not purely aspirational. It is the law. We must empower residents to be able to express their desires for what happens in their neighborhood in order to promote participatory development instead of predatory development.

Unfortunately, the mandated policies and procedures to preserve the character of neighborhoods and protect their existing residents by providing a way to meaningfully engage in the planning process are often flouted by the very city officials charged with representing their interests at the negotiating table with developers.

WORTH SAVING

Little Haiti, like every neighborhood in Miami, deserves the protection that Miami 21 explicitly provides. “Better late than never” applies to Little Haiti, where new development is being hyper-stimulated by the powerful tool of governmental up-zoning. If carefully implemented, the resulting rising economic tide can lift all boats — of existing residents and property owners alike — and not just those of developers and speculators.

In the end, the right thing for Little Haiti and all of the Miami’s neighborhoods is ensuring that residents have a meaningful voice and role in preserving and shaping our own neighborhoods.

What becomes of Little Haiti will show if “justice for all” applies to all of Miami’s amazingly unique neighborhoods, or only to the rich and powerful.

Marleine Bastien is executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM) based in Little Haiti. David Winker, Esq. is a Miami attorney active on civic issues.

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