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Getting the jump on gentrification in central Vancouver

Central Vancouver is on the verge of a renaissance.

A lineup of public investments are pouring into the swath of the city between Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 — projects such as Fourth Plain Forward, the redevelopment of the Heights District, a new Mill Plain bus rapid transit system, a rebuild of the city’s Operations Center and updates to David Douglas Park are all underway — in an attempt to revitalize an area that’s lagged in post-Recession recovery.

Hopefully, city leaders say, all these projects will add up to a higher standard of living for Vancouver’s low-income residents. But investments in low-income areas are a double-edged sword, and the Vancouver City Council is worried that the region could slide into gentrification.

“Our region is experiencing significant growth, certainly a testament to the livability of this area. But it also poses certain challenges,” Rebecca Kennedy, the city’s long-range planning manager, told the city council earlier this month.

Investing public and private resources into a low-income region could cause property values to spike, pricing long-term residents out of their family homes and keeping them from enjoying the very neighborhood improvements they’re meant to enjoy. Look to Portland’s Sunnyside neighborhood or Seattle’s Beacon Hill, where vulnerable populations have been largely boxed out.

Gentrification — or “involuntary displacement” — disproportionately affects renters, low-income earners and people of color.

In an attempt to prevent that from happening in central Vancouver, the city contracted with a group of Portland State University students in a masters program for Urban and Community Planning. Together, they created “Reside Vancouver: An Anti-Displacement Strategy,” which lays out a series of aspirational anti-gentrification proposals as well as a more modest list of recommendations.

Reside Vancouver

“The mission of our project was to create relevant and effective anti-displacement policy, which were informed by community input and best practices,” said Jeff Lane, a PSU student who worked on the project.

Over the past six months, Lane and Tay Stone and four of their peers in the Urban and Community Planning Program have conducted interviews with residents and stakeholders in the area. They spoke with roughly 500 residents and 31 stakeholders, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Noble Foundation and Workforce Southwest Washington.

The Maplewood and Meadow Homes neighborhoods are at the highest risk of gentrification, the group found. Residents in those neighborhoods are more likely to be renters, more likely to be people of color, more likely to be low-income households and less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the rest of Vancouver.

James Dougherty, interim chair of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association, said residents have voiced concerns about the rising cost of living at association meetings.

“Elderly (people) on fixed incomes were concerned about being priced out and having to move,” Dougherty said. “Maplewood has about 28 percent homeownership, so it’s majority rentals.”

The PSU team worked to identify strategies the city could deploy to help residents avoid involuntary displacement.

To make it into the report, plans had to be evidence-based, with success demonstrated in other cities. They had to be equitable, ensuring they helped the most vulnerable people. And they had to be feasible — ideas that Vancouver could reasonably use.

“Based on our best-practices research, using our equity framework and our robust community engagement results, we came up with four project goals that we defined as the four Ps,” Stone said: People (policies that protect tenants), production (of new affordable housing), preservation (of existing affordable housing) and prosperity (ways for residents to ensure long-term economic stability).

From there, the team came up with two sets of recommendations. The first was an ambitious list of proposals that had found success in other parts of the country, Lane said.

“These are more difficult to implement because they’re new to Vancouver, but they’re evidence-based recommendations that exist in other places,” he told the council.

Those goals include a citywide program that would help low-income renters buy a home and a new zoning area that would preserve low-cost housing.

Mobile home parks, in particular, could benefit from zoning protections as parks are eliminated to make way for other development nationwide, Lane said.

“Vancouver’s adoption of this program would be a cost-effective option that would preserve low-income homeownership opportunities, especially in areas close to public investment projects,” he said.

The more modest set of proposals would expand on policies and programs that Vancouver already has in place. For example, the city could better leverage its affordable housing fund if it took full advantage of a state law that lets publicly-owned surplus properties be repurposed for affordable housing projects, Lane said. King County recently put together a countywide database of all its surplus properties, he added, a strategy that Vancouver could adopt.

As a Maplewood resident, Dougherty said, he appreciates the motivation behind the anti-displacement strategy, but he’s skeptical of any plan that doesn’t also center on landlords’ role in increasing the housing supply.

What can we learn from other cities?

In San Francisco County earlier this year, the median home sold for $1.38 million. When it comes to exorbitantly priced property for renters and buyers, the Bay Area is among the worst offenders. Despite that, one of the oldest and most iconic ethnic neighborhoods in the country continues to endure in the downtown, without the threat of corporate headquarters or luxury condos looming over the 20-block core.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is an example of anti-displacement policies in action, according to academic magazine Nonprofit Quarterly. Despite the rising cost of living across the city, the neighborhood’s majority Chinese population remains intact, largely thanks to the Chinatown Community Development Center.

The nonprofit has spent the last 40 years guiding solutions to displacement, including rezoning and one-to-one affordable housing replacement. The group also works to build a culture of civic engagement among residents, ensuring a seat at the table when decisions are made about the neighborhood’s future.

In Vancouver, the scale is smaller. Similar principles apply, though, in ensuring populations can stay in their homes as the community’s standard of living rises.

“We tried to pull policies from a number of different cities, because I think that Vancouver is in a really unique position,” Lane said.

Stone said that bringing vulnerable populations into decision-making groups is one of the most effective ways to combat gentrification — the city needs to set up a framework for neighborhoods to raise their own leaders and foster a culture of involvement.

“Communities are very enthusiastic and invested in what happens in their neighborhoods. It’s about reaching them,” Stone said.


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