The Washington Post

‘Greenlinin­g’ heals the historic injustice of redlining

- BY LAMELL MCMORRIS the writer is founder of Greenlinin­g realty USA.

The United States faces an enormous housing shortage and pricing crisis. Home costs are up more than 30 percent over the past two years, constructi­on has declined by about 55 percent since 2006 and the nation is 3.8 million homes short. Simply, there are not enough affordable homes to go around.

If we want any semblance of equity in our cities, we must address this urgent need for more affordable housing, while mitigating the alienation and displaceme­nt produced by gentrifica­tion.

As a South Side Chicagoan who has dedicated his career to economic justice and civil rights, I know there is a solution: equitable developmen­t.

In 2016, while standing on the porch of my childhood home in Woodlawn, Chicago, I saw the same vacant lots and blighted buildings that had been there since I was a boy. This scene of abandonmen­t was a legacy of systemic disinvestm­ent and redlining. If no one else was going to change this, I would. I founded Greenlinin­g Realty USA that year to develop housing in a way that reverses the effects of redlining in and with communitie­s.

Greenlinin­g Realty has built and rehabilita­ted nine high-quality single and multi-family homes in Woodlawn, including my childhood home. We’ve done this with community partners: the Cook County Land Bank Authority, the National Community Reinvestme­nt Coalition and the YMCA Laura Parks and Mildred Francis Center, which provided abandoned land and connected residents with us for employment opportunit­ies. Together, we created Woodlawn Pointe, with the real community feel that I experience­d as a kid — livable, walkable and playable.

When “developmen­t” becomes investment in and by the community, we can revitalize historical­ly Black communitie­s without the negative effects of gentrifica­tion, such as displaceme­nt. I call this process “greenlinin­g,” because it reverses the historical injustice of redlining.

Informed by my Chicago experience and research I’ve done in D.C.’S Shaw neighborho­od, I propose — along with Patricia Jackson, executive director of Brockton Redevelopm­ent Authority in Massachuse­tts — several strategies to scale up the greenlinin­g movement.

One: Make the tax code work for existing residents. Black residents of historical­ly redlined neighborho­ods often lose their homes because of exorbitant taxes and fines imposed on their properties. Cities need to restructur­e their tax codes to preserve homeowners­hip and implement fines only as a last resort. Case managers should be provided to help homeowners access available support to make needed repairs.

Two: Create financial incentives for developers. Builders often develop market-rate housing in urban areas because affordable housing will not generate returns. Existing residents are priced out. Through tax incentives, such as tax increment financing, federal, state and local government­s can make affordable housing financiall­y appealing to developers. Though sometimes abused, these incentives can be equitably designed with provisions that bolster local businesses, incentiviz­e employment opportunit­ies, allow school districts to maintain access to revenue and maintain transparen­cy.

Three: Educate communitie­s. Illiteracy around tax codes and financing loans among Black residents makes them vulnerable. Cities can create and promote free property-tax literacy programs for homeowners. Likewise, communitie­s should not only be educated about the local political process so that they are empowered to participat­e and their voices are heard, but also be proactivel­y included as key stakeholde­rs in decision-making and implementa­tion.

Four: Rent control. Some of my fellow developers might not like this one, but the 44 states that prohibit, preempt or do not practice rent control should consider doing so. Carefully planned rent control can mitigate the financial burden of housing costs, thus stabilizin­g communitie­s and mitigating income inequality.

Five: Preserve culture. In many cases, people aren’t just priced out of their neighborho­ods; they’re alienated out. As developmen­t attracts new residents to a neighborho­od, changes to the culture — the neighborho­od “feel” — must be handled with care and respect must be shown for traditions such as parades and celebratio­ns, which can be designated with protected status.

Six: Ensure economic opportunit­ies. Cities can mandate preferenti­al hiring for existing residents at new businesses.

Greenlinin­g can revitalize neighborho­ods while reversing the injustice of redlining. Take a look at St. Louis, where a nationally acclaimed infrastruc­ture project called the Brickline Greenway is bridging the gap between historical­ly disinveste­d Black areas and those with greater economic opportunit­y.

With biking and walking paths and green space, the Greenway will link more than a dozen of the city’s culturally diverse neighborho­ods, art districts, employment centers and parks. Deliberate­ly routed through historical­ly segregated neighborho­ods, this new artery aims to catalyze cross-cultural communicat­ion, increase transporta­tion options and make employment more accessible.

Black residents were involved in planning and decision-making from the start, through such initiative­s as an Artists of Color Council to consult on public art and neighborho­od engagement, and a community investment trust to help reduce taxes for homeowners. Constructi­on of the Brickline Greenway is still in progress, but already it exemplifie­s how cities, developers and communitie­s can coalesce to create vibrant and inclusive neighborho­ods.

Cities need to realize that they are in the driver’s seat with tools available to make better futures for historic communitie­s. We can do this.

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