Urban Revitalization Projects Bring Economic Challenges

As million-dollar urban revitalization projects take place in cities across the country, African American developers and city officials are working to ensure that the largely minority residents there enjoy and participate in the economic growth.

“We’ve all seen where you simply move the old economy out and a new economy in,” says Vincent Barnes, executive director of the Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp. of Chicago’s South Side. In many cities, revitalization has increased housing and commercial rental costs, making the cities unaffordable to residents, he says.

To combat this trend, Barnes and others involved with development projects are seeking creative ways to make revitalized areas affordable. “We want to make sure that individuals in the community presently are part of that development process … that they benefit from it,” says Barnes. “That is, as incomes grow, community residents’ incomes also grow. As houses are built, individuals in the community can buy those houses.”

Since 2000, the Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp. has spurred more than $19 million in economic growth through new housing, job creation, and small business development. One way the organization has sought to make sure Englewood residents aren’t displaced is by partnering with corporations to offer residents jobs that pay $4,000 to $5,000 more than the community’s median income.

Kansas City, Missouri, is another city experiencing a renaissance of sorts. City Manager Wayne A. Cauthen oversees $1.2 billion worth of economic development downtown. Among the planned projects are a $276 million sports arena and an $850 million entertainment district.

To ensure that the city remains affordable, Cauthen plans to make available both subsidized and market-value units. In addition, some developers’ contracts require them to set aside a percentage of affordable housing units.

Striking a balance with upscale development is just as crucial as providing for lower-income residents, says Michael E. Johnson, president of Em Johnson Interest Inc., a San Francisco-based development company currently working on a $72 million construction project in San Francisco’s Fillmore jazz district.

“In neighborhoods like this we cannot continue to have all subsidized, Section 8, and below-market-rate housing and expect to increase economic development in the community. We must bring in a mix of higher incomes, both residential and commercial,” Johnson says.