Local leaders share strategies for revitalizing underserved neighborhoods

East Baltimore

Photo by Prêt à Voyager, via Flickr.

How does a community pursue smart growth in underserved neighborhoods where infrastructure problems, concentration of poverty and concerns about gentrification and displacement abound? Two-dozen leaders from diverse communities discussed this very question during the Local Leaders Policy Forum, held on June 16th in Washington, D.C.

Mayor Jacqueline Goodall of Forest Heights, MD shared her experience from living in several different cities over the years. “Gentrification and displacement are real, not perceived, concerns,” said Goodall. “Lower income and minority families can be very vulnerable to neighborhood changes that drive up costs even moderately. As leaders, we cannot overlook that threat.”

“Smart growth and equity go hand in hand,” said Deeohn Ferris, President of the Sustainable Community Development Group. Ferris argued that rental subsidies, home improvement loans and inclusionary zoning laws help, but they are not enough by themselves to provide good choices for working families. She posited that revitalization in disadvantaged communities requires a comprehensive approach where an inclusive process and trust-building efforts are critical to success.

Councilmember William Cole of Baltimore City, MD agreed, saying, “In working with underserved neighborhoods, the process, how the questions are asked and how the conversation is actually managed can make all the difference.” Neighborhoods in his 11th district are changing rapidly as the City’s proximity to major employment centers fuels revitalization of underserved neighborhoods. Cole emphasized that public outreach and education about the opportunities and the challenges those changes present to community members is very important if concerns and fears are to be addressed effectively.

Smaller cities don’t have the advantage that big cities have when it comes to attracting investors. Mayor Mark Stodola of Little Rock, AR spoke about the challenge of getting the private sector involved unless clear financial and other incentives are offered. In response, a few local leaders suggested that expensive infrastructure projects and flashy public programs may not be the only or even the best ways to create value in underserved neighborhoods.

Councilmember Candace Mumm described how in Spokane, WA they simply passed local laws to allow residents in her lower-income district to sell the fresh fruits and vegetables grown on their property. Residents embraced the idea, especially as access to healthy food has been a major problem in this community. Some residents also partnered with area restaurants to sell their produce, resulting in jobs, reduced crime and healthier lifestyles. The struggling neighborhood has become a model for sustainable, equitable reinvestment, creating value without tax incentives or federal programs.

Macon, GA’s Mayor Robert Reichert described a how a neighborhood association partnered with the local university to designate a pool of funds to cover property tax increases for low-income residents. When a resident decides to sell, that money is repaid to the neighborhood association. “This arrangement keeps housing affordable for homeowners even when the housing market escalates,” said Reichert. Macon may soon have some company in implementing this unique community-based model as this idea received many positive responses from other local leaders.

While balancing the goals of economic progress and social equity can often be tricky, all the leaders seem to concur that keeping residents in underserved areas involved in the planning process is a crucial responsibility. However, this can be difficult to achieve. Underserved communities often have low voter registration rates and a high skepticism and distrust of traditional planning processes, which take years to go from concept to reality. St. Louis, MO is working to give disadvantaged residents a fair voice in the changes that affect their community through something called participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote to determine how funds allocated to their community will be spent. Over the course of months, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia and her team knocked on 12,000 doors in her Ward 6 neighborhoods, targeting residents who had little history of voter participation and inviting them to discuss how to spend $100,000 in capital money. Residents proposed grand and modest ideas. The community interacted directly with city officials during numerous project expos and finally voted for their favorite neighborhood proposals. Winning projects included items like new bike lanes, security cameras and public restrooms, which will all be fully implemented. “When residents see ‘oh hey I voted for that project, and there it is,’ they’ll continue to believe they can trust the process and choose to be a part of it,” said Ingrasssia.

Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendenning applauded the innovative solutions shared by the leaders gathered at the event, “Blight breeds blight, and investment breeds investment. You may not have the answer to revitalizing an entire community, but if you can get one investment started—one block, one sidewalk—you can begin unlocking potential.”

This session was part of the Local Leaders Policy Forum, which was organized by Smart Growth America’s Local leaders Council – a nationwide network of local leaders working to build great communities are economically strong, inclusive and sustainable. Learn more about local innovations around the country and see how local leaders are implementing their local smart growth visions.

Neha Bhatt contributed to this article.

Local Leaders Council