The ever-present threat of gentrification and persistent lack of affordable housing

AntiPovertySoldierOn a handful of occasions I have used this column to discuss the issue of affordable housing, as well as its troubling relationship to the trend of gentrification. In one such article, I used the city of Portland, Oregon as something of a case study. I suggested that Portland’s fate raises a number of concerns relative to the Twin Cities and its low-income communities, particularly communities of color.

U.S. Census tracts reveal that Portland’s historic African American community was decimated by gentrification, losing nearly 60 percent of its residents during a three-decade stretch beginning in the 1980s. In 2016, less than one-third of Black Portlanders remain in the neighborhoods North and Northeast Portland as many were priced out of the market or displaced by new commercial and residential development, including the expansion of the city’s light rail transit system.

(MGN Online)

Portland appears to be undergoing yet another round of gentrification as recently detailed by comedian W. Kamau Bell in his 2016 documentary television series United Shades of America. In the sixth episode of the television series, which aired this past spring on CNN, Bell visited Portland’s historic Albina community where more and more African American residents have been displaced by an onslaught of development projects.

Legendary Portland musician and Albina resident Ural Thomas told Bell that he is one of only four Black homeowners that remain in his immediate neighborhood. Thomas also took Bell on a walking tour of Northeast Mississippi Avenue, which was once a haven for Black-owned businesses, all of which have been replaced by trendy, upscale shops. Finally, Thomas notes that while the majority of African American residents prefer to stay in the neighborhood, they simply can no longer afford to do so.

Bell’s final comment again raises the continuing concern over affordable housing in American cities, whether gentrification is taking place or not. The latest report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) illustrates the current living wage necessary to rent a fair-market two-bedroom apartment in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

In 2014, a two-bedroom apartment in Minnesota required a 40-hour per week wage of $16.46. In 2016, according to the NLIHC, that number has risen to a full-time wage of $17.76 per hour. And while Minnesota is no longer the most expensive state to rent in the 12-state Midwest/Upper Midwest region, a distinction it held for the last five years, it is now second only to Illinois.

The requisite wage to afford an apartment in Minnesota is also higher than all but two states in the southeast, southwest and mountain states. Most states on the eastern seaboard and the west coast require a higher wage, and those areas also have a significantly higher cost of living than the rest of the United States.

Additional data from the NLIHC’s report shows that a minimum wage-earner living in Minnesota would have to work and average of 62 hours per week in order to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment. This figure is also somewhat skewed as compared to other states since Minnesota’s current minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage.

Clearly, affordable housing remains a vital topic in both the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota. As for gentrification, some analysts have suggested that while gentrification is occurring in the Twin Cities, it has not and will not affect low-income communities and other established neighborhoods as it has in cities such as Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver.

However, as other examples have demonstrated, it can take years and even decades before the true impact of gentrification in a community can be understood. In the Twin Cities and St. Paul in particular, the addition of light rail and related development projects along the University Avenue corridor has already had a significant impact in several neighborhoods. A great deal of this change has been viewed as positive. Still, will this development be seen as positive in the coming years? As some may greatly benefit from such development, will others suffer?

The landscape of St. Paul’s midway district could also change drastically with the proposed construction of a new major league soccer stadium adjacent to St. Anthony and Snelling avenues. Will local residents and small business owners benefit from the new service industry that is created by this project? Perhaps it is far too early to tell what the end results will be.

Let us not forget, however, that St. Paul’s historic African American community was already gutted once due to the construction of Interstate 94. Many will argue that this was done in the name of progress, which oftentimes causes collateral damage. Many of us use I-94 daily to traverse the metro and it can no doubt seem convenient at times.

Unfortunately, it seems as though progress and convenience are far too often achieved at the expense of low-income communities and people of color.


Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.

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