Raising the Bar: Gentrification

September 1, 2019

A few years ago, you were unlikely to see a middle class family walking in the streets of low income neighborhoods in the Bronx or Brooklyn. Today, they begin to wander the streets, and you may even spot them entering one of the new luxury living homes being built in these neighborhoods. We’ve heard about the protests revolving around rezoning, not-so-affordable affordable housing, and the massive amounts of vacant storefronts throughout New York City. The neighborhoods the previous generation and current generation live in are completely different. As the new building rise, so do the rents for the tenants in other buildings. The rate of displacement is increasing rapidly, and the situation is getting worse. Why is New York City only being sculpted for the rich?

Raising the Bar host Jason Clark, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association is joined by Chanell Autrey, NBA Immediate Past Chair of the Young Lawyers Division, and Henry E. Floyd, Jr., President-Elect of the Washington Bar Association to discuss gentrification.

Aired September 1st, 2019.


DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN info@mnn.org

Jason Clark: Hello, and welcome to Raising the Bar with MBBA. I am Jason Clark, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. Sadly, my cohost Adeola Adejobi, won't be able to join us today, but will be back with us soon. The Metropolitan Black Bar Association is the largest association of predominantly African American attorneys in New York. Our goal is to advance equality in the pursuit of justice, assist in the professional development of our members, and address legal issues affecting New Yorkers. The purpose of Raising the Bar with the MBBA is to foster a substantive conversation about justice issues in our community, and try to identify a couple of solutions in the process. Today, we're going to take a deeper dive into gentrification. Joining me today are attorneys Chanell Autrey and Henry Floyd Jr. Welcome, and let's get to it.

Henry Floyd Jr.: All right.

Jason Clark: Actually, before we start talking about gentrification, why don't both of you say a little bit about who you are?

Chanell Autrey: Sure.

Jason Clark: Ladies first.

Chanell Autrey: Sure. My name is Chanell Autrey, as you mentioned. I am a lawyer down in DC. I work for our local city council, and most of my work focuses on business and economic development policy in the community. I've also done some criminal justice related legislation as well. So that is my background.

Jason Clark: Great. Thank you. Welcome.

Henry Floyd Jr.: Thank you for having me, Jason. My name is Henry Floyd, Jr. I am an associate attorney at Koonz McKenney Johnson DePaolis & Lightfoot. Try saying that five times, right? My practice area is focused primarily on personal injury, workers' comp and medical malpractice. I'm also president of the Washington Bar Association, which is the DC affiliate for the National Bar Association. Our motto is, equal justice under law. We have some of the same initiatives and mottos as the MBBA, so we're just trying to fight for our communities.

Jason Clark: Right. That's actually what's great about this episode and a couple of others. I mean, we're going to have people from the National Bar Association, which the MBBA is the New York City affiliate of. So we're going to hear some ideas that are not just affecting folks in New York, but some of the things that are out there affecting other communities. So today, we're talking about gentrification. Let's get started by saying, what is gentrification? And how does it affect communities?

Chanell Autrey: I'm going to let Henry start.

Henry Floyd Jr.: Okay.

Chanell Autrey: And then I will follow.

Henry Floyd Jr.: For me, gentrification is simple, it's the systemic displacement of people through economic development. We were talking earlier about when you bring in certain things such as the Whole Foods, we know that, okay, someone is targeted. But it really is a displacement of communities of color, and that economic development that comes along with that displacement is making home prices so high that we can not afford them. That's the tragedy of it.

Chanell Autrey: I mean, I'll just echo what Henry said. I think that gentrification most certainly is systematic displacement of folks of color, but I also think it further erodes the opportunity to build generational wealth, because it leads to a lack of affordable housing, opportunities to, if you're interested, become a small or local business, or even if you're interested in commercial retail space, when pricing gets so high, it's very hard to then be able to invest in the community in that way.

Jason Clark: That's interesting, because when we hear about gentrification, usually there the two sides we hear about. We hear about the fact that usually when a community may be gentrifying, sometimes it's accompanied by maybe the area being safer, or maybe some of the schools getting better, because there's more money that can actually go to them. But there is this other side, which Henry and Chanell, you've been talking about, which is the idea that sometimes the folks that are actually living in those communities are displaced and can no longer be there. So let's talk about that economic side of that. How does economic development play a role in gentrification, especially when we're talking about cities and governments? Chanell.

Chanell Autrey: Sure. The interesting thing about economic development is that, depending on where you are, it affects land value, it affects the prices for homes in the neighborhood that you are in. If, for instance, a very large, let's say, shopping mall comes in a community, then at that point, it's going to bring in more tourism. It's going to definitely bring in more dollars, which I think is what you've alluded to. But at the same time, it's then going to cause other community related issues, which is, if I was interested in buying over here, I might now be priced out, because the price per homes has increased exponentially.

In addition to that, I might not have the money to go to the mall that was just created. And so now there's this amazing amenity in my community that I don't benefit from or that I can't take advantage of. And so I think when we think about it from the economic development side, the most important thing we have to think of is what are the community benefits associated with these economic development deals? Are we talking to the community about what they want and what they need in these developments? Is there going to be workforce development that they get? Are there going to be construction jobs? Longterm permanent jobs? All of those things kind of come as a whole package when we think about economic development.

I think to some extent, cities have to do a better job of making sure that communities, particularly communities of color, have an opportunity to invest in what's being created.

Henry Floyd Jr.: I echo everything Chanell has said, and add to that, it's a twofold. You of course want the benefits of the economic development, but the disadvantages normally outweigh the benefits of it. Like Chanell said, I don't think we have the necessary conversations that we need to have with the people who are living in those communities, in order to make informed decisions. Normally, those decisions are being made by our politicians, our elected officials and the developers. I will say, what? Maybe one or two town halls where they can get the information and hear from the people in those communities, but that's just not enough.

One or two town halls saying, "How do you feel about bringing this project to this area?" It's just not enough, because some people may not be able to make it out to that particular meeting or one of those meetings, so you don't get a majority of how people are feeling in those communities. Understand, they don't have an obligation to do that, but in order for anything to be successful, they would need that information.

Jason Clark: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You see, that's the interesting thing, because I think, especially when we're talking about New York, one thing that comes to mind, and what people always celebrate, is that when Congressman Charlie Rangel was able to bring empowerment zones to Harlem. And in doing so, he was able to infiltrate new revenue that was able to help with the developments of the community. Now, the other side of it is, I mean, Harlem now is in an area where I think most people would describe it as gentrified, where there are a ton of entities and individuals are purchasing property to put high rise, luxury apartment buildings there. But at the same time, I know that the median income in an area like Harlem is 29,000.

I know there's been some similar stuff in DC. So, I guess, can we talk a little bit more, I think, especially to what you were starting to allude to is, how do you, I guess, get some of the benefits? Because I think most of us want some of those things, but at the same time, what benefits or what policies are there that can really be able to protect the communities that have been living there? Or protect the individuals who've been in those communities for years?

Chanell Autrey: It's super interesting. There's a bunch of articles out about DC, and between 2000 to 2013, DC was considered the most gentrified city in the United States.

Jason Clark: Wow.

Chanell Autrey: We have a history of really wanting economic development, wanting to have a very burgeoning, large nation's capitol, but at the same time, some of the policies that were originally put in place didn't necessarily benefit the communities that needed those benefits. And so now, we have several different policies, but one thing we do have is we have a requirement that each development agreement has to include a community benefits agreement. And it has to be negotiated with what we call our local ANCs, which is our Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and they have to agree to it. The developers are held to making sure that they comply with the agreement. If they don't comply with the agreement, then the community can go to the zoning commission and say, "They are not abiding by what they said that they would do."

And so then, there can be a hearing, and then more collaboration and other things to happen to try to right the situation. And so there are things like that, but similar to what you alluded to, we have a lot of tax policies and tax incentives that are for commercial development, for what we call our QHTC, which is Qualified High Technology Companies. And so companies that are coming to the district, that are providing some type of burgeoning technology, or providing opportunities in this technology space, there are additional tax incentives for them to be able to be in the district.

All of those things are great, but I think what we have to do a better job of is probably doing a look back. So two years after the development, what is it looking like? Because you said you were going to create 336 jobs in the community, is it really 336 or is it six? Where have we-

Henry Floyd Jr.: Correct.

Chanell Autrey: Where have we ended up after that? Right? So I think we're getting better, but we need more policies that provide transparency both during and after the process.

Henry Floyd Jr.: I agree with Chanell on that as far as the analysis of it, go back and see how it has worked. And if it has not worked, let's get together and figure out why and find more solutions. I think when it comes to gentrification and economic development is, "Okay, here it is. We put it in. You all let us put it in, and we forget about everybody that it's affected." So now you have a majority of communities of color that are leaving the city, leaving DC, and moving to Maryland. So now, Maryland is booming with communities of color, because of the price differential. It's cheaper to live in Maryland. Everyone knows that, because DC has always been higher than Maryland. DC has always been higher than parts of Virginia.

At the same time, you're making those prices in DC higher, so you don't give anyone any incentive on staying or even trying to come back. That's the only areas that most communities of color know. So in this analysis, what do we do? Okay, like Chanell said, how many jobs did it produce? If it didn't hit your target audience or your target number, you need to reevaluate. At the same time, when you put in, you mentioned the high rise condominiums and all of those beautiful buildings that we see, were there a certain number of those apartments and those buildings or those condos ... Is there something in place that says, "Okay, this is a cap on how much we can charge for this particular condominium or apartment, so people are not just displaced?"

That people can make adjustments in what they feel like they may be able to afford, so they don't have to displace themselves, so they don't have to move out. Is there something in writing? Is there something in the policy or something in the agreement? The contract that says, "Okay, out of 300 condominiums or apartments, 25 of them are capped." Do we have that? And if we don't have that analysis, then whoever's negotiating the contracts with the economic developers are doing a poor job.

Jason Clark: Yeah. That's an interesting point. It actually even kind of makes us think back to some of the other shows that we've had recently. We've had a couple of shows now that have to do with that tenant harassment. The idea behind there is the fact that folks would maybe purchase a parcel of property, again, put in some high rise condominium buildings, but in doing so, try to have some tactics to try to push people out of actual apartment unions that are already there. And especially in New York city and Manhattan, there's a finite amount of space. There had been, for a long time, this extra incentive to try to displace folks.

It may be a little different, as I'm saying that, with New York may be as opposed to DC and Maryland. Let's flush out a little bit more about that displacement part, how do we prevent folks from being displaced from communities where maybe they've been living there for a number of generations until now, all of a sudden, this is the next hot and booming property or neighborhood?

Chanell Autrey: I'll go. I think there's a real need for education about rights, housing rights, tenant rights, landlord rights, just generally. Because what often happens is you don't know what you don't know, and so if you have a landlord who's telling you something and saying, "Oh, well, I can increase the rent by 20% each year, and that's my right, don't you remember you signed that agreement, it says it. Oh, you can't find it." Right? But it sounds wrong. It feels wrong, and it is wrong. And so I think we have to work on figuring out how to educate folks about their rights. And then even a step beyond that, I think we also have to figure out more organizing power with more grassroots organizations and other nonprofits who are working in these spaces.

There are great organizations as we know, like Catholic Charities and Bread for the City in DC and other entities, that work on housing rights and that work in these spaces. We need to be having more community forums, more opportunities for people to learn about what their rights are, and also how to create generational wealth. Because if you don't know how to do that, or you can't figure out how to create a viable plan within your budget, then you never get there.

Henry Floyd Jr.: And one thing, to piggyback on Chanell, Washington Bar, what we have is we have a committee, our Knowledge is Power Committee, and that's strictly for service to the community and getting the resources out to them. We had an amazing housing seminar some time ago, and it was bringing in different organizations, Neighborhood Legal Services Project, Bread for the City, different organizations to bring in the resources, because the community did not know that they had these resources.

Jason Clark: Sounds like a good idea, we'll have to steal that from you, and start doing it. Next year the MBBA will be having its housing symposium

Henry Floyd Jr.: You heard it hear first, from Washington Bar. We had an amazing turnout at the seminar, because people just really did not know what their rights were. We were saving people from foreclosure and different things like that because they just did not know. And that's what we do as the Washington bar. We just provide them those resources and put them in touch with the people that they need to be in touch with. Like Chanell said, we have amazing community activists, but it's us supporting them in order to protect everybody. It's whenever they go to even the district council, and making sure that when something is in place or someone has proposed a bill, supporting that bill. I think most people don't do that because it's a fear of, "Well, I just don't know what it says."

It's a lot of words on the paper to a lot of people who don't know what to do with that particular piece of paper. As attorneys, it's us giving the pro bono hours to the communities and say, "We'll break this bill down for you." Holding those seminars and saying, "We'll explain this to you so you get a better sense of what it is and how to protect yourself." We can't make you do it, but providing you the information, that's the least that we could do as attorney.

Chanell Autrey: Absolutely. Just before you ... Henry hit the nail on the head when he said you have to be involved in your state and local government. It is essential to change. And what often happens is the people who show up don't look like those of us sitting at the table.

Henry Floyd Jr.: Correct.

Chanell Autrey: And so then those needs and those issues and concerns tend to get addressed a little bit more quickly, because they're coming down and sitting in the local legislator like, "Hey, if you guys pass this bill, you guys are going to get some political pressure, and it's not going to be good pressure," So we have to figure out ways to get more folks to come out and lobby, figure out how to do that within the confines of their schedule, because, right? Single mom can't come to the Wilson Building, which is our local seat of government, and be there waiting to testify from 9:00 to 2:00. She's got to work and she's got to go pick up her child. So we've got to figure out better ways to meet people where they are with that.

Henry Floyd Jr.: And I know it opens up a lot, but it's tactics, because I've testified before congressional bodies on bills that have negatively impacted our communities, and what the writers of those bills have done is, see a lot of our communities come in, they're ready to testify, so at 9:00, you got buses and everything else and we're flooding the building ready to testify, and what they do is they push the bill back to the end of the day, 5:00, 7:00, 8:00. Well, by that time you got maybe 10 people that's ready to testify, when you had about 1000 this morning. And what they do is they take other bills and take other bills and take other bills. It's a tactic.

It's really trying to deal with those tactics, but at the same time have our locally elected officials fighting for us as well, and fighting for everybody, not just us, but fighting for everybody for what's right.

Chanell Autrey: Absolutely.

Jason Clark: So it certainly sounds like what both of you are saying is that, I think, maybe you have to be a little bit more mindful of some of the tactics people use to try to obstruct some of the work we try to do to reduce some of the negative effects of gentrification. But at the same time, we have to figure out ways to mobilize and empower so that we can do a better job about pushing for some of our policies that would be helpful to folks who have been in these communities that are gentrified.

Henry Floyd Jr.: And don't get me wrong, we want the benefits, we want everyone to enjoy the amenities of the development. We just don't want to push anyone out to where they can not enjoy those. You know what I'm saying? And we're not saying don't throw out the high rise condominiums, but don't put everybody out in the process.

Jason Clark: Yeah, and that makes a lot of sense. I mean, again, it's those struggling two issues, where one, you want better communities, you want better resources for the people in your communities, but you also don't want the people that have been in those communities for generations to now be displaced and have to leave all that they've known, just because all of a sudden it's become a hot spot. So with that said, so what are some of these policies? I think we kind of flushed it a little bit, but what are some of the policies that you think can be able to protect people from having to be displaced?

Chanell Autrey: I mean, I know a lot of localities have a core requirement that certain percentages of units in a development have to be devoted to certain percentages of the area median income. We have a concept which is called inclusionary zoning, there's a finite amount of units that have to be set within each development for people who are considered low income, which is defined in the district code. But I think there's some new interesting things happening. Opportunity zones, really interesting concept, and I know that the district has, I believe, 20 to 25 census tracts, where they're working on getting more folks, more developers to buy into those neighborhoods and create some commercial development with the community.

Jason Clark: And that's your definition of opportunities? I was going to ask that, but it sounds like that's what you're saying, for our viewers.

Chanell Autrey: Yes. It's a federal concept, but each government has chosen certain census tracts that fit within that, what they're calling distressed business areas or areas where there's not a whole lot of economic viability right now. So I think it's things like that, but I also think that we have to think a little bit more creatively about like food deserts. Like Henry knows, east of the river in DC, we have a food desert in many neighborhoods, only corner stores and only liquor stores and things like that. And so policies that lend themselves towards providing opportunities or other incentives for developers to bring things that communities need, like fresh produce, those are things that we have to focus on, and those are the policies that make sense.

Henry Floyd Jr.: And again, I think I've addressed it, I think we've touched on it earlier, is our elected officials listening? Coming out and listening to the community? What it is that they need. And not just during election season. And that's a big thing because you're not just displaced during election season, you're displaced all the time. So don't let your elected officials only come out, hold them accountable. Make them listen to you. And I mean, if that means going back to the Wilson Building and flooding the Wilson Building and saying, "I want to talk to my council member." Do that. And we need to organize, but not just during ... What? Once out of every four years when they feel like it's going to be beneficial for them to keep a seat. They need to listen to their communities.

Chanell Autrey: I agree.

Jason Clark: So one thing you'd actually alluded to a couple of times is this concept of generational wealth. So how does generational wealth play a role in gentrification, and I guess, economic development for folks? And what we should be pushing for with some of these policies.

Chanell Autrey: Sure. I mean, I think when you have generational wealth, you have economic power, you have the opportunity to buy the warehouse spaces, to buy the commercial developments, to create the wine bar that never existed in the neighborhood or create this local artisan pizza shop that came out of nowhere. But if you don't have access to capital, if you don't have access to things that allow you to be able to bid on construction contracts, then how would you be able to take advantage? Or be a part of that economic development? And so I think having generational wealth allows someone to be able to become a business owner if they want to or a local entrepreneur.

In DC, we have a lot of what we call legacy businesses, are small and local businesses and they struggle. And they're struggling right now because their property taxes are increasing exponentially, but at the same time, the revenues are not the same. And so having generational wealth and having access to capital and things like that, help to keep those local legacy businesses, and then it helps to create new businesses that hopefully if communities of color have that generational wealth, then we own pieces of the pie.

Jason Clark: Got it.

Henry Floyd Jr.: Yes. And you have that capital and that generation generational wealth, then you have a seat at the table. They're willing to take a meeting with you. They know they have to listen to you. Even if it comes down to the community having to pool its resources to have that conversation and say, "What are you looking for? This is what we have in order to keep our legacy, in order to keep our communities together."

Chanell Autrey: Absolutely.

Jason Clark: Right. Well, we're going to have to figure out a way to bring you guys back, because we're already out of time.

Chanell Autrey: Oh goodness.

Jason Clark: Already gone through it all. But thank you guys both from coming from the National Bar Association, making your way up here from DC.

Chanell Autrey: Absolutely.

Henry Floyd Jr.: Thank you.

Jason Clark: Unfortunately, as I was mentioning, that's all the time we have today. But again, I'd want to thank both of you, Chanel.

Chanell Autrey: You're welcome.

Jason Clark: Thank you, Henry.

Henry Floyd Jr.: You're welcome.

Jason Clark: And thank you for watching, Raising the Bar on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Goodbye.

About the Program

Raising the Bar with the MBBA

Co-hosts Jason Clark, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA), Attorney Adeola Adejobi, and their guests discuss legal issues facing the African American community.

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