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Jana Jackson

“Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders. But the effects of gentrification are complex and contradictory, and its real impact varies” (http://www.pbs.org/pov).

Huge construction cranes were, until recently, a highly unusual site in my old neighborhood of North Oak Cliff. Now, they are everywhere in the Bishop Arts District. Deteriorating homes and retail buildings are being cleared from land to make room for new apartment communities and retail. Sadly, a landmark restaurant building (I’d been a regular customer since the 1960s) was just torn down to make way for a new CVS. The word for what’s happening in urban neighborhoods like North Oak Cliff is gentrification. The old is being scrapped to make room for the new.

The energy that new construction, new businesses, and new people bring to a community is wonderful. However, the downside of gentrification is that many times lower-income people (especially renters) are priced out of the neighborhood. Then, they move wherever they can find affordable housing, thus accelerating the changing culture of the gentrifying community. Take, for example, the recent conflict regarding the displacement of low-income renters in West Dallas, another gentrifying neighborhood. Until the landlord of dozens of rent houses in the community provided his tenants with the opportunity to purchase their homes, hundreds of West Dallas residents were desperately looking in other parts of the county for places to live at the same affordable rents they were currently paying (read more about this here).

Churches have multiple opportunities to respond proactively to gentrification. For example, they can join current residents in advocating for compassionate solutions to the economic hardships low-income families experience when their neighborhood gentrifies. Church members can actively participate in existing neighborhood associations, attend town hall meetings, meet with landlords, and assess their own resources to help families find alternate affordable housing if necessary.

Also, churches can experiment with creative ways to develop relationships with new neighbors moving in. Traditional church “outreach” to upscale apartment communities does not work. You can’t go “door-to-door” on these properties during Tuesday night visitation. New properties are gated for security and have restrictions on who can enter. Even if you could get in, people value their privacy and don’t appreciate strangers knocking on their doors (do you?). Instead, church leaders should introduce themselves to management, asking them how the church can serve the new community. Church members can consider moving into the new apartment community, thus giving them the opportunity for unique ministry as a neighbor, not a stranger. Existing ministries like Apartment Life can be good models.

Often, our churches are more experienced serving people living in financial poverty than those with higher incomes. However, many other kinds of poverty exist that are not related to money. Wealthier people might experience spiritual poverty (no relationship with God) or relational poverty (few close friends). They, like all of us, can be bound by addictions and other destructive habits. Gentrification doesn’t mean that needs in a community go away. It just means that the needs change. I hope we don’t miss the opportunities God gives us in our gentrifying urban neighborhoods.

Is your neighborhood gentrifying?  Leave a comment.  Let’s start a discussion.