When we think of blighted neighborhoods, we might immediately think of the most visible problems: vacant homes, high crime rates, poor and underperforming schools, and unemployment. However, these are symptoms of broader structural issues that are harder to notice, but directly affect each of these issues. One of these fundamental problems is that the people who live there do not have control over their own neighborhoods. It’s not “theirs,” in any meaningful sense; they may be residents there, but other people have ownership of the properties and make all of the decisions.
Because the land is controlled by people outside the neighborhood — usually private interests like banks and developers with significant access to financial capital — the decisions that are made do not take into account the needs of the residents who live there. For example, one of the problems is real estate speculation. Investors from outside the area will buy up properties when the market is doing poorly, and then wait for the conditions to change. In the meantime, they either rent it out, or in many cases in Baltimore, simply leave it abandoned and vacant. These vacant buildings then become a blight that drives down property values, and creates a cycle of decline where more and more properties become empty. Eventually, the only option left is simply ignoring that community, or bringing in total redevelopment that displaces the existing residents — a displacement made possible, in part, by the high number of rental properties, where landlords are happy to evict previous tenants in order to bring in people who can afford to pay higher rents.
Residents often watch their communities spiral further and further down, as they have no control over what happens with the land and no support coming from outside. Then, once the neighborhood has hit rock-bottom, outside developers enter the picture and redevelop the area for a more profitable clientele, pushing out whatever people remain after decades of neglect. This is the process of disinvestment and gentrification has become commonplace in cities throughout America.
The public sector does play a very active role in these neighborhoods, but unfortunately, the programs that exist to address housing issues — like Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) — do nothing to change this dynamic because they do not change ownership of the land or the properties. Tax credit properties are still owned by developers; housing provided through vouchers are still rentals, allowing the landlord to collect the financial assistance while tenants live in homes that do not belong to them. While these programs provide a valuable service that ensures there is a supply of affordable housing, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, the subsidy payments are made to developers, landlords, banks, and other entities that are generally not part of the neighborhood. In effect, this way of addressing affordable housing maintains the same relationship between the residents and the land and sends a message: it’s not yours. While the tenants do get a roof over their heads, the money goes to developers and landlords and guarantees that they continue to profit from their control of the land.
To address root causes of unfair development, we must change that relationship. Specifically, the residents of communities that have experienced long-term disinvestment need to be able to make the decisions on how to restore and rebuild their own communities, because they are the people who live there and the ones who have experienced the consequences of that disinvestment. Neighborhoods that have been redlined by banks, ignored by political leaders, and either neglected or completely bulldozed over by developers are not going to see their problems addressed by allowing those same forces to make decisions for them. New solutions — truly equitable solutions — can only come from new decision-makers who have a personal investment in the broader health of the neighborhood because they live there.
If churches are going to partner with communities in order to break these cycles and create a system that provides housing justice rather than one that relies entirely on housing charity, we have to re-think how people relate to the land that they live on. Housing must not simply be a tool for creating more money for far-off entities but should belong to the people who live there and who understand its significance. We need public programs that go beyond providing housing subsidies and look at how to place decision-making power into the hands of the people who will be most affected by those decisions. A local leader in Baltimore, Danise Jones-Dorsey of the Northeast Housing Initiative (NEHI), put it well at a recent gathering for housing advocates: “We need to control the land.”
There is Scriptural precedent for understanding the relationship between people and land in this way. Coming into the Promised Land, the Hebrew Law promised each family a fair allocation of land — and put into place a system of Jubilee that would guarantee the land was re-distributed evenly every few years. Land is understood as a gift from God, meant to be used for the benefit of all, and the fair way to accomplish this was to keep it directly in the hands of those who would be living and working on it. In the Torah, government had a major role in ensuring that land was governed democratically, not being used strictly for profit, but rather for human flourishing. The failure of the Hebrew society to live up to these standards is one of the frequent critiques of the prophets, like this passage from Isaiah 5:8, “Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land.” The accumulation of wealth and property by private individuals, to the harm of their neighbors who are eventually forced out of that place, became one of the major charges against Israel through the prophet Isaiah’s ministry, and their unjust division of the land became one of the reasons for their removal from it in the Babylonian captivity.
Real estate — land — continues to be an important driver of inequality in modern American society, and so as Christians we need to think about what an approach to fair development looks like. It needs to directly include those who are the most affected by that distribution, and who can best take into account all of the costs and benefits that go in each decision, rather than allowing communities to bear the burden of vacancies while developers reap the profits from gentrification and displacement.
One of the solutions, proposed by local leadership in my city of Baltimore and already enacted in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, is community land trusts (CLTs). Rather than putting properties under the control of developers and banks, CLTs have an organized board that includes residents, members of the surrounding community, and other public stakeholders. The board is responsible for making decisions on what to do with properties in their communities, taking into full account how that will affect the people living on those properties, near those properties, and the broader neighborhood context in which they exist.
Churches should start to re-frame the conversation around land in their neighborhoods, and that process begins by asking questions like: Who owns the land? Who makes the decisions? Who are the people and the institutions that exercise control over what happens with properties in the area, and how well are residents represented in the process? Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, there is a tendency to move quickly to blame the problems on the people who live there. Instead, as Christian citizens and as members of the Church, we need to recognize that we cannot understand what is happening in communities until we understand who has control over land, and who does — and does not — get a say in how properties are being used. Once we acknowledge how decisions are being made, then we can start to work towards public processes that will better include residents who are currently being excluded from decision-making, and to use our own financial resources in ways that will encourage more local control by investing in community land trusts and other neighborhood-driven institutions.
-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, a project manager in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and an advocate for great neighborhoods.