Inequality, Gentrification, and Justice: Continuing the Conversation with Jonathan Bradford

Humans can only put up with disconnection for so long.
June 26th, 2014
This week we continue our conversation with Jonathan Bradford, CEO of ICCF, whose mission is to provide housing opportunities and services that contribute to stable communities and a flourishing society. (Click here for the first part of the conversation.) This work often concentrates on "the other side of the city," those parts of our core cities that we too often overlook. As Jonathan explains, if you care about justice and flourishing, you have to pay attention to the basic realities of property, real estate, and development. And sometimes that requires a prophetic critique of our existing practices and policies.

—James K.A. Smith, Editor

James K.A. Smith: Jonathan, last time we were discussing how ICCF focuses on the basic building block of housing as a kind of baseline or platform for other aspects of societal flourishing. Our places—our neighbourhoods, our homes—shape us. Bad places rob us of all kinds of other opportunities to flourish. So the pursuit of shalom starts with "place-making."

Jonathan Bradford: Right. Now, let me complicate it just a little bit by a discussion of the question of where this place-making is happening. For a long time, traceable back a minimum of sixty years, in terms of land use we have been identifying certain areas of our developed communities as the place where manufacturing happens or where retail happens or where institutional stuff is or where residential stuff is. While you can find exceptions, in North America it is reasonably common that these uses are separate. You'll also find because of the tyranny of the appraiser, the real estate appraiser, and the mortgage lender, you can also find economic stratification. So this is the area over here where wealthy people live, and around the bend, down the road another few miles, this is where middle-income people can be found.

We all experience design.

The reason is: the lender will only lend according to the value of the houses next door. The result is that the older housing, the less desirable housing and as we often say in our "core city" neighbourhoods or "inner city" neighbourhoods, that is the residual, that is what's been left over for those with little economic power. Those are the areas where the public services are deficient. That is where the public schools or other facilities are not well maintained: the streets, the curbs, the gutters, the sidewalks are cracked. That's the place where crime is common. So for our friends, the Hernandez family or the Johnson family, if their place in life—in terms of what they can afford for housing—kind of consigns them to that neighbourhood, that is, in effect, a reversed gentrification. We have said to you, "You need to stay here. This is all that your buying power will get you."

I would maintain that is a direct contradiction to the shalom that we are to be pursuing. Again, in the fact that there is no Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male or female in the eyes of our Lord in celebrating the reality that all of us are created in his image, I am crazy enough to believe that the person who scrubs pots and pans in the kitchen in the basement of St. Mary's Hospital can successfully live on the same block that the Director of Anesthesiology does. We are deliberately seeking to develop a community where that kind of standard is put behind us.

JS: Do you have to fight law and policy in that respect, or is it more like an informal "practice? Is it just commercial practice that drives that?

JB: It's a perceptive question. Goodness knows there isn't an upfront policy in Grand Rapids or any place else that I've ever heard of that explicitly says, "Well, this part over here is for rich people. This part over here, for poor people." But there are certain situations where you have, for instance, minimum lot sizes for single-family construction. When the code requires that such lots be at least one-half acre, the development cost is obviously increased. These requirements are not accidental; the lower income person like our kitchen worker friend cannot afford this area. So there are secondary implications of such requirements.

We, however, are starting with this sort of core premise that good design is for all of us whether you're rich or poor. We all experience design. When you pass by a building, you don't know what goes on inside.

I think you've seen, Jamie, recently we completed two mixed-used buildings on Wealthy Street. They contain a total of 32 housing units, six of them are to be occupied by people whose income is not higher than 80% of area mean income (AMI), four of them to be occupied by those whose income tops out at 60% AMI. The other 22 units may go up to 120% of AMI.

Right away, one might say, "Why should ICCF worry about the family with 120% of varying mean income? They can deal with the market fine." You're right, but it's the Hernandez family that needs that family and that family needs the Hernandez family. We are literally, in a completely practical way, demonstrating that we should not be separating ourselves according to our economic status.

JS: This gets at something I've heard you talk about before. Forty years ago, most of those folks making 120% of the AMI were fleeing the city and were leaving the neighbourhoods where you and I live. But that's no longer the case. There's been a really interesting return of young professionals and other folks to the city. In that context, some legitimately worry about gentrification.

JB: Sure.

JS: Now you earlier spoke about "reverse" gentrification, which, I think, is a really important insight—that by our policies and practices, we consign the poor to certain neighbourhoods. And ICCF is countering that by creating spaces where rich and poor live together—in no small part, you seemed to suggest, because there are mutual benefits to be gained.

Elsewhere I've heard you talk about "gentrification with justice." Can you explain that? What's the difference between good gentrification, just gentrification, and forms of gentrification that are legitimately unjust?

JB: Gentrification that is legitimately unjust is a monoculture. This area over here, friends and neighbours, is only for those who earn $150,000 or more. It's only for those who can afford to pay for the best housing.

JS: I suppose there are some urban centres in which historically impoverished neighbourhoods actually just flip and become new enclaves of the wealthy?

JB: It happens. Generally you can't quite see it overnight.

In contrast, gentrification with justice seeks good for all without distinction of income. It is to say that the kitchen worker and the doctor both need sidewalks that aren't cracked and broken. Both need high-quality schools to send their kids to. Both need to be able to put their kids out on the front sidewalk to play and not be worried about prostitutes or drug dealers.

The way that we achieve that is to have a desirable place that is accessible by a person's own buying power but is also accessible to a lesser-income person with certain kind of structural aids. I use the term "structural aids" as opposed to subsidies. I don't mean subsidies; I just mean that there are ways for us to structure the financing of what we do so that hypothetical kitchen worker can be there with the doctor.

If the doctor would like to have granite countertops in her unit, she can, okay? The kitchen worker probably isn't worried about granite and, by the way, doesn't have extra money to afford the granite countertops. The kitchen worker will be very happy with plastic laminate.

When we design exteriors—and that means not only the building itself but the spaces around the building—we design in a way that is people-oriented, that actually facilitates human interaction. It brings people together in the shape of the building, in the definition of green space, etcetera. We are creating community. What is that really, then? It's celebrating our common humanity, even our oneness in the Lord.

JS: Those spaces are "commons" in the best sense of the term because they're not owned. They're not dominated by those who can afford the granite, so to speak, right?

JB: Right.


JS: But earlier you seemed to suggest that that there is . . . well, you didn't use this term but it almost felt like there's a kind of "trickle-down effect" of having those higher-income folks in that housing development that you're talking about. Is that true? How does that go?

JB: I would prefer to stay away from that sort of poisonous term, "trickle down."

JS: Yes, I figured! [laughter] What can we say, then? There's some kind of reverberating mutual benefit.

JB: Yeah. The fact is a person with economic capacity has certain standards. He or she wants the shaping of the public realm in a certain way, wants quality of design, quality of materials in a certain way. It could be that our lower income family doesn't know much about that but that might be traceable back to the, if you will, cultural deprivation of their whole lives having been denied an education, an exposure to that. Back to that compass again: the Hernandez family will respond just like our wealthy Jones family responds. If it's good for one, it's good for the other.

JS: What about how they then inhabit those communities? So, say it's built. You've pulled together this actually remarkable community that has this wonderful socio-economic diversity. What happens in the community's living, having now inhabited those spaces? Are there interactions that are mutually beneficial?

JB: Two things. First of all, you have to program interactions. There have to be picnics. There have to be July 4th parties and the like. Secondly, there have to be rules and there has to be a method of accountability to the rules. It doesn't matter if whether you make a lot or a little money, the person next to you deserves respect from you and you deserve it from him or her. We make it very clear that there's no middle ground here.

But we also know that there will be different lifestyles. So we design for that.

One thing I'd like to add to this. We talked about younger people coming back to the city. And why is that? Are we suddenly seeing kids who went to suburban high schools ten years ago and now have master's degrees? What is this pill that's gotten inside of them that they're ready to cast off the exurbs and the one-acre lots? I believe there are two things going on, maybe three.

Number one, the human condition can put up with such anomy, such disconnection, for just so long. We are "packed." We are critters who like to be in packs. It's rare that you find a person who absolutely does not thrive in a group, okay? Sure, there's the hermit who goes off and lives in the woods and so forth but people, by nature, respond to the stimulus, the reinforcement that happens in community, in relationship with others. We had thirty years of people sort of trying to be away from one another. I think we are cycling out of that bad idea that denied this social aspect of human nature.

JS: Yes. Augustine is quietly saying, "Amen. Amen."

JB: Second thing is environmental concerns. I'm delighted with the increasing sensitivity about environmental stewardship. The fact is: to live on a half-acre or a one-acre lot in the exurb, you were required to drive ten miles to get to it.

There are also some economic changes. My dad or my mom always told me, "Try to own a house as quickly as you can so you're actually accumulating equity." Since the recession, we are seeing that the responsibilities of ownership might not be all that it was cracked up to be. The economic peril of losing value and owing more than value scares people. So there are many people who are saying, "I don't need to own like I was told to. I will rent." How does rental housing happen? Most often it happens in multi-unit buildings. Where are multi-unit buildings built? They were built in poor neighbourhoods. You don't see too many multi-unit buildings in the suburbs. There are some, but they're not built well and generally, they're not as hip as older buildings or older neighbourhoods are. Environment, the economy, and community.


JS: I also wouldn't downplay your earlier value too about beauty and the aesthetic. In other words, they don't make houses or apartment buildings like they used to. There's something about the craftsmanship and design of these older houses and buildings that is also a draw—a kind of aesthetic pull that seems to be at least one of the factors too that figures in to this, right?

JB: There's no doubt about it. The interesting thing is we demolished so much of that kind of housing stock for a good forty years!

JS: Crazy.

JB: We took just thousands and thousands of those kinds of units down. After a while, there won't be much of that left.

JS: Right. That also informs, in a way, the kind of work that you guys are doing. The kinds of buildings you're building are recovering that commitment to craftsmanship and quality and so on too.

JB: Right.

JS: You started getting involved in this work in the '70s. Have you seen the needle move on anything that gives you encouragement, even hope?

JB: I am in a dialogue with a church right now that, probably fifty years ago and before, many of its members could walk to church. Now, virtually none of its members walk to church. I've asked them if they would set a goal that in five years, 10% of their members will be able to walk to church.

This is about recovering a "parish" concept. Dare we think about the church as an anchor in our civic lives? We darn well better dare.

JS: Absolutely. This is a wise word to end on to because this doesn't happen overnight. You've had to establish credibility, earn a hearing, demonstrate conviction, and that's a long game to play sometimes, isn' it? Now, it's starting to pay off in that churches are listening. That's both humbling and encouraging.

Thank you so much for your time, Jonathan. Even more, thanks for all your good work.

JB: My pleasure. Thanks.

 

When asked about how his career path led him to affordable housing and community development, Jonathan Bradford allowed that his early work history lacked focus: peddling an ice cream cart around Chicago, bricklayer's labourer, garbage truck driver, farm hand, semi-truck driver hauling everything from turkey products to steel to modular houses, bus driver and short order cook. He continued, "It sure is a good thing that God has this thing called providence, because how was I going to make sense out of this résumé?" He readily recognizes that all of those experiences provided him with a special appreciation for the challenges faced by the low income families served by Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF).

Bio
 

James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos).

Bio

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