The Washington Post
‘Greenlining’ heals the historic injustice of redlining
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.