Could Central Corridor gentrification threaten affordable housing?

AntiPovertySoldierIn a column from last June, I wrote about the lack of affordable housing and its disastrous effects on the Twin Cities’ poor. That particular column addressed the fallout from a foreclosure epidemic that assaulted neighborhoods in North Minneapolis and the East Side of St. Paul as well as critical issues like cost-burdened households and the recent spike in homelessness.

The issues of fair and affordable housing remain at the forefront of poverty-related discussions, and on January 19 (MLK Day) the Star Tribune dedicated several column inches to the topic, including its daily editorial and a commentary by Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Ifill’s commentary skillfully bridges the need to honor Dr. King by calling on us to continue his fight against unfair housing and segregation. She cites several examples of how the Fair Housing Act, passed only days after King’s assassination, has proven beneficial to this country. Nonetheless, she argues that past discriminatory practices, along with newer local zoning and housing policies, continue to nurture housing inequality and segregation throughout America.

One of the most controversial trends around the subjects of fair and affordable housing is gentrification. There is a long-standing, good-versus-evil debate over the practice of gentrification as well as a political battle to appropriately define the word. In 2008, the Spokeman-Recorder’s own Charles Hallman astutely wrote that gentrification “is a process of neighborhood change that historically has included a strong racial component, replacing Black and low-income residents with higher income White residents.”

It was around that time in 2008 that the trend of gentrification became a popular topic in the Twin Cities, having long been pervasive in other American cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, Denver and Portland. In July of 2014, the Star Tribune reported that since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 “Minneapolis is gentrifying as fast as any city in the country.”

Community residents and leaders have expressed great concern over this recent development. Still, some scholars and local officials contend that the gentrification of Minneapolis is dissimilar from gentrification in other cities and is not designed to displace low-income citizens.

Yet others argue that the true effects of gentrification can take years before they are fully realized. There is perhaps no better example of this than the city of Portland, Oregon, a case that has potential implications here in St. Paul. Recently, The Portland Mercury illustrated the ruinous effects of gentrification on the city’s historic African American community in the neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland.

Utilizing census tracts dating back to 1970, the newspaper notes that nearly all of the historically Black neighborhoods in Portland have lost more than half of their residents, including neighborhoods that were once anywhere from 50 percent to 84 percent African American. Starting in the 1990s, many African Americans were pushed farther north away from the city center, and ultimately many were forced to leave North and Northeast Portland altogether.

In 1970, more than 90 percent of Portland’s African American population lived in these historic neighborhoods. Today, only one-third of Black Portlanders remain in North and Northeast Portland, many having been priced out of their homes or displaced by new commercial and residential development, including an expansion of the city’s light rail system.

Even before the Central Corridor light rail line connecting downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis began operating last June, concerned citizens, policymakers and scholars began debating its potential impact on the community, particularly on households and businesses along University Avenue. The Macalester College Department of Geography even published a series of six essays under the title “Gentrification and the Central Corridor.”

Although no one can be certain of how the neighborhoods around University Avenue will look in five, 10 or 20 years, it is interesting to note that rents increased sharply in neighborhoods such as Frogtown even before the light rail trains started to operate. In 2014, the Twin Cities Daily Planet reported that the average monthly rent for duplexes and single-family homes in Frogtown, which account for nearly half of all households in the neighborhood, had jumped by nearly $200 since the Central Corridor construction began.

So the critical question is, “Will low-income residents and small businesses ultimately be priced out of their communities by increasing property values or be displaced altogether by new development?” In considering this question, it is important to consider the history of the African American community in St. Paul.

In the name of progress, Interstate 94 was constructed in Minnesota during the 1960s. The stretch connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis pierced through St. Paul’s Rondo district, its historic African American community, displacing thousands and forever changing the landscape of a neighborhood that dated back to 1870. Might history repeat itself in the name of gentrification and negatively impact the diverse communities of color and low-income citizens that make up the neighborhoods along the Central Corridor? Only time will tell.

Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.