Building a new home in a run-down neighborhood in Atlanta was a decision that neither of our parents supported. It was a bad financial move, they counseled us, not to mention the danger. But my wife Peggy and I were not relocating into the inner-city for economic reasons. We had finally come to the conclusion that our ministry would be more effective if we lived among the people we felt called to serve than continue to commute from the suburbs. And so we graciously thanked our parents for their love and concern and went ahead with our construction plans.
New construction in the neighborhood was unheard of – at least for the past 50 years – and so the activity attracted much local attention. And some unexpected attention from outside real estate developers, as well. Within a few months of moving into our new home we were delighted to see four new homes go up just two blocks from us, as well as a good number of renovations beginning throughout the neighborhood. Our property value was going to increase after all!
But during prayer and sharing times at our neighborhood church we began to hear prayer requests for housing needs. “Please pray for us – our rents have just doubled.” “Please pray for us – we’ve just gotten an eviction notice.” It wasn’t until Opal, a church member who lived within sight of the church, came in weeping one morning that I first made a disturbing connection. She had just received an eviction notice from the home she had lived in for many years – the city told the landlord to fix it up or board it up, and he had decided to board it up until property values made it attractive to sell. For the first time it dawned on me that as my property value was nicely increasing, so was the value of the surrounding affordable homes. As my wealth was accumulating, Opal’s poverty was deepening. It was my investment that was the catalyst for her displacement. I could no longer sit in the circle and pray with integrity. I was the problem.
There was a name for this dilemma, I soon learned: gentrification. It comes from the old English word gentry, the land-rich ruling class of the 16th century who controlled the economy by virtue of their land holdings. They were literally “landlords,” the rulers of all who lived as serfs on their vast estates. They eventually disappeared from the social landscape with the emergence of the industrial revolution as wealth shifted away from the land and to the factories in burgeoning cities. The term gentry has been resurrected in our generation to describe the return of landowners to the city. I discovered that I was one of them. And it was not a complement.
Gentrification by contemporary definition is “the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by the middle classes, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.” It is a new national norm. Over the past 50 years American cities have declined as the suburbs blossomed. This pattern is quite different from most of the large cities of the world where wealth and power are concentrated at the center and poverty spreads outward toward the outlying and less developed outskirts. In developing nations, people migrate from the rural areas, settle in poorer edge cities (or sometimes shantytowns outside the city) and try to work their way toward the prosperous center.
U.S cities, on the other hand, are like donuts with a hole in the middle and the dough around the outside. Our center cities are where our poverty is concentrated. But all this is changing. A massive demographic shift has begun, a great reversal as wealth returns to the inner core, and poverty is pushed to the periphery. U.S. cities are beginning to conform to the pattern of most world cities, and in the process a diaspora – an uprooting and scattering – of the poor has begun.
Devastating Impact, Absolute Need
I have now seen firsthand (yes, inadvertently participated in) the devastating impact that gentrification can have on the poor of an urban community. I have faced panicking families at my front door who had just been evicted from their homes, their meager belongings set out on the curb. I have helped them in their frantic search to find scarce affordable apartments and have collected donations to assist with rent and utility deposits.
But I have also seen what happens to the poor when the “gentry” do not return to the city. The effects of isolation are equally severe. A pathology creeps into a community when achieving neighbors depart – a disease born of isolation that depletes a work ethic, lowers aspirations and saps human initiative. I have seen courageous welfare mothers struggle in vain to save their children from the powerful undertow of the streets. I have witnessed the sinister forces of a drug culture as it ravages unchecked the lives of those who have few options for escape. Without the presence of strong, connected neighbor-leaders who have the best interests of the community at heart, a neglected neighborhood becomes a desperate dead-end place.
The romantic notion that the culture of a dependent, poverty community must somehow be protected from the imposition of outside values is as naive as it is destructive. Neighborhoods that have hemorrhaged for decades from the “up and out” migration of their best and brightest need far more than government grants, human services and urban ministries to restore their health. More than anything else, they need the return of the very kinds of home-owning, goal-driven, faith-motivated neighbors that once gave their community vitality. In a word, they need the gentry.
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. The poor need the gentry in order to revive their deteriorated neighborhoods. But the gentry will inevitably displace the poor from these neighborhoods. The poor seem to get the short end of the stick either way.
Reclaiming With the Poor
But must gentrification always spell displacement for the poor? To some degree, yes. Yet displacement is not entirely bad. There are drug dealers and other rogues who need to be dislodged from a community if it is going to become a healthy place to raise children. Over-crowded tenements and flop houses should be thinned out or cleaned up, and this inevitably means displacement of some of the vulnerable along with their predators. Bringing responsible property management back into a neglected community does spell disruption for those who have chosen or been forced by necessity to endure slumlord economics. But what may be disruptive for the moment can become a blessing for those who yearn for a better way of life if – and this is a big if – the poor are included in the reclamation process by the returning gentry.
Opal forced me to look squarely into face this big if. Housing had not been on my radar screen when I moved into the city. It was not part of my ministry game plan. But neither could I sit passively in a prayer circle asking God to help my sister Opal knowing that my well-intentioned move was working to her detriment, knowing too that the same thing was about to happen over and over again to more of my church members and neighbors. And so I reordered my priorities.
In addition to my church planting and mercy ministry strategy, I ventured into the arena of justice. I rallied suburban church partners to come to Opal’s aid, bought and restored her house and structured a loan that enabled her to become a homeowner. Then as my property value went up, so did hers. She became vested. Opal’s house became for me a modern day parable of “good news to the poor.” Many of those who volunteered their time and skills to transform her home were deeply moved as they cared for a widow in this personal and practical way. They asked if there were other Opals in our church. Indeed there were. The end result was the creation of a housing division within our ministry that has mobilized thousands of volunteers and enabled hundreds of Opals to become homeowners in our community.
“Gentrification with justice” – that’s what is needed to restore health to our urban neighborhoods. Needed are gentry with vision who have compassionate hearts as well as real estate acumen. We need gentry whose understanding of community includes the less-advantaged, who will use their competencies and connections to ensure that their lower-income neighbors share a stake in their revitalizing neighborhood. The city needs land-owning residents who are also faith-motivated, who yield to the tenets of their faith in the inevitable tension between value of neighbor over value of property. That is why gentrification needs a theology to guide it.
A Theology of Gentrification
The people of the kingdom have a unique mandate to care for the needs of the vulnerable and the voiceless. Our scriptures are quite clear about this. It has been from antiquity both our birthright and our responsibility. We cannot rightly take joy in the rebirth of the city if no provision is being made to include the poor as co-participants. It will not be enough to offer food baskets at Christmas to migrating masses of needy people who are being driven by market forces away from the vital services of the city. Nor will our well-intentioned programs and ministries suffice for those being scattered to unwelcoming edge cities. We must be more intelligent than this. More strategic.
While we remain committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, there is a prior command the followers of Christ are called to – the Great Command. Loving God and its inseparable companion – loving neighbor – form the bedrock of our faith. All the Law and Prophets are built upon this foundation. The prophet Micah captured its essence: “He has told you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, that you do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The body of Christ is amply resourced with the very talents needed to bring about both mercy and justice in our changing cities. In addition to those more spiritual-sounding gifts – those we have heard sermons about – there is a vast untapped reservoir of giftedness ready to channel into the work of the kingdom – secular-sounding gifts like deal-making, lending, insuring, lawyering, marketing, architecture, and real estate developing, to name a few. Under Christ’s lordship, these become spiritual gifts ideally designed for the work of biblical justice.
Christians who believe that their highest calling is to love God and love their neighbor are the very ones equipped to infuse into our culture both values and actions that will have redemptive outcomes. We can buy crack houses and renovate them for residences for mission-minded couples. We can structure deals to develop mixed-income housing. We can create innovative housing policies that will induce developers to include lower-income residents in their plans. We can pass ordinances that that will give tax relief to seniors on fixed incomes so they can remain in their homes. We can establish loan funds to give down payment assistance to lower-income home buyers. If we are both caring and thinking people, we can use our influence and resources to develop the means by which “the least of these” can share in the benefits of a reviving city – and foster healthy growth at the same time. We can harness the growing tide of gentrification so that it becomes a redemptive force in our cities. In a word, we can bring about gentrification with justice.
A Market With a Conscience
Resisting gentrification is like trying to hold back the rising ocean tide. It is surely coming – relentlessly – with power and growing momentum. Young professionals as well as empty nesters are flooding into our cities, buying up lofts and condos and dilapidated historic residences, opening avant-garde artist studios and gourmet eateries. If market forces alone are allowed to rule the day, the poor will be gradually, silently displaced, for the market has no conscience. But those who understand God’s heart for the poor have a historic challenge to infuse the values of compassion and justice into the process. But it will require altogether new paradigms of ministry.
The urban church that seeks to minister in disadvantaged areas faces the eventual disappearance of lower-income renters from their communities. Such urban ministries are approaching an inevitable fork in the road. If they remain committed to the poor, they must decide to either follow the migration streams as they gravitate to the periphery of the city, or get involved in real estate to capture affordable property in their neighborhood to ensure that their low-income neighbors retain a permanent place. “Migrant ministries” move with the people, establish ministry centers in the affordable suburban apartments, and remain flexible. “Community development ministries,” on the other hand, remain rooted in the parish, purchase housing and land, form partnerships with builders and developers that enable their members (neighbors) to remain in a reviving community that has a healthy mix of incomes. Either strategy is legitimate. Both require significant retooling.
Gentrification brings to the suburban church an altogether different challenge. The poor are now showing up in the classrooms and bus stops and grocery stores of homogenous neighborhoods once thought to be safely beyond the reach of inner-city troubles. Mission-minded churches that for years have been journeying down to the ghetto to serve those in need now find these needs at their own doorstep. The new hues, the unfamiliar languages, the unintelligible signs on new businesses in the strip malls – these are the sure indicators that gentrification is affecting the suburbs. They also signal a new era of opportunity for the suburban church. It is a divine invitation to the church to extend a welcoming hand, to start new congregations, to share facilities, to hire new workers, to teach ESL classes, to acquire and manage housing that insures a hospitable environment. It is a unique time in history to “let your light so shine before others [in your neighborhood] that when they see your good works they will glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Harnessing Gentrification for the Sake of the Kingdom
Definitive works have yet to be written on how to harness gentrification for the purposes of the kingdom. However, a few guiding principles are rising to the surface from some of the best practices around the country. Here are just a few:
Gentrification is here to stay. Some rail against it; others laud its arrival. For good or ill, it is our new reality. And it will only increase in the years to come. It means welcoming new economic and social life for our cities and, with the proactive involvement of the saints, can introduce a whole new era of hopefulness for the poor. Our mantra must be “gentrification with justice.”
Diversity is a gift. Communities that are economically and racially mixed can be the richest of environments for families as well as singles and older adults. Diverse community is God’s plan, the final destination toward which all the righteous are heading – the city of our God where people of every tribe, every nation, every tongue will take up eternal residence.
Community doesn’t just happen. This is especially true in a diverse community. It must be built. Focused and sustained effort must be invested in getting to know neighbors, organizing community activities, modeling neighborliness and communicating good news. Love of neighbor must be practical and visible over time.
Indigenous neighbors are a treasure. It is easy to ignore seniors, easy to push on past less-communicative neighbors, easy to exclude those who don’t show up at community functions. But the rich history of the neighborhood is imbedded in the lives and family albums of long-term residents. The effort to extract and honor this history is well worth the time and effort. And everyone, no matter how unlikely, has some valuable talent to contribute to the life of the community.
Economic viability is essential. A community will not be healthy unless it has ample neighbors with discretionary income to attract and sustain businesses. The gentry are essential. However, justice demands that we ensure that the poor are embraced and included as beneficiaries in a healthy community.
God’s shalom must be worked at. The roles of peacemakers, communicators, gatherers, organizers, and connectors are some of the most vital talents needed for the establishment of “peace and prosperity” and a prevailing sense of well-being that God desires for His creation. Shalom is not merely the absence of crime on the street, it is the prevailing presence of peace and goodness in the relationships of God’s diverse family. It is achieved only by intentional effort.
Bob Lupton is founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta, Ga., a community development organization that revitalizes urban neighborhoods. He has lived and served in the inner-city for the past 35 years. He holds a Ph.D. in psychology, has authored four books on urban ministry, and consults and lectures internationally on urban issues.