Gentrification with Conscience: The Economics of Inclusion

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Louise Sano’s “Global Villages” on Grant Street

Is it possible for this to be a win-win-win situation?  Nobel laureates in economics, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen believe the rewards of a shared economic renewal have huge benefits.  Economist and founder of Grameen Bank, Mohammed Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has proven that developing the poor through micro-finance is a huge boon to local economics.  Finally, knowledge economy expert, Richard Florida, another influential economist has stated exhaustively, that diversity in urban cores is practically ground zero for germinal innovation.  Innovation, he also points out, stabilizes and accelerates economies.

What would this look like?  This alternate universe where diversity is revered, creativity is nurtured and the responsibility of the future of neighborhoods in our urban core belongs to the communities in concert with government and business?

Let’s go for a walk through the Fruit Belt, 10 years from now.  This is a Fruit Belt that embraced its challenges and turned them into opportunities.

The first notable thing is how few cars there are in the Buffalo Niagara Medical campus.  Parking ramps that were finished in 2016-17 are enough to handle the amount of cars that come in daily.  No longer do hospital workers have to park blocks away to save money.  Instead, if they live in the suburbs they drive to their local park and ride and park their car and get on either an express bus, or a subway which takes them directly to the Medical Campus.  Because the Express stops at a less than 10 stops, people can generally count on getting to work in about 30 minutes.

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The beauty is there if you are willing to see it.

The great thing about the public transit is first that they are very comfortable and falling asleep is easy.  There is also free Wi-Fi so moms and dads who usually don’t get a lot of time at home to surf the web, can take their time and enjoy it on  their way to and from work.  The walk from the medical campus stop is a short walk to an indoor tunnel which will take them to their respective building.  Since the campus is large, there are two stops there at either end.

If they want to, there are bike rental systems, easy to use Reddit bikes at all the stops.  So if it’s a beautiful day, they can grab a bike and ride to their building.  Because it is such a short trip, the ride is usually free.  For anyone taking public transit or using a Reddy Bike.  Workers also get a $100 monthly bonus just for not driving to work.

The Fruit Belt neighborhood has had its named changed back from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to “The Historic Fruit Belt.”  Pride is everywhere you look.  This part of town has become a tourist destination because of its well restored architectural gems, signature signage and lampposts designed by local artists as well several bustling commercial districts.  Though it is small, it is packed with everything you need for daily life as well as boutiques, entertainment, churches and community centers.

A few developments have sprung up throughout the neighborhood.  These multi-story buildings are joint owned by the Fruit Belt Neighborhood Land Trust and Super Cool Developer LLC.  In the past decade, the Fruit Belt Neighborhood Land Trust has taken control of empty lots and abandoned houses in the neighborhood, thanks to cooperation from the City of Buffalo and a seed grant from various state and local agencies as well as money received as restitution after the L.P. Ciminelli criminal case of 2016.  Priority first went to shoring up the residents that were in the greatest danger of losing their homes.  Getting residents to stay in the Fruit Belt was a top priority because there was a fear that too many outsiders moving in would destroy what was left of the historic heritage of the neighborhood.

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Residents received counseling on ways to pay back taxes.  They were also evaluated for loans to do much needed maintenance and cosmetic repairs on their homes.  In most cases, at-risk residents would receive a small grant, and a loan combination.  To ensure they could pay back the loan, their source of income was evaluated for fairness.  If there was any evidence of discrimination, action would be taken on their behalf.  In most cases residents were unemployed, underemployed or retired.  In the case of the unemployed there was a program started that outlined green cottage industries either single proprietors or groups of people could start.  This included recycling stores, furniture recycling, metal and rubber tire collecting, as franchises.  Cottage industries were also started based on needs specific to the Fruit Belt.  One woman opened a small coffee shop with Wi-Fi and a public computer in the first floor of her house.  Another woman started a farm stand.  A man opened a recycle bike shop which over the years was able to stock more diverse bikes including cargo and fold-up bikes.  The fold-up bikes become a big seller with medical campus workers and that has fueled expansion of his shop and a need to hire more employees.  All of these enterprises were helped along by the micro-finance arm of the Fruit Belt Fruit Belt Neighborhood Land Trust.

Another initiative put in place by City Hall were tax abatement with grandfather clauses for anyone who owned a house and had lived in the Fruit Belt for at least 10 years.  A cap on property taxes for people who owned their homes and were retired was also instituted.  Another great help was a micro-finance program that helped renters buy the properties they were living in, or to homestead a property that was vacant.  Working with local watchdog groups, several slumlord and absentee land lords have been successfully evicted from the neighborhood.

The Fruit Belt Neighborhood Land Trust also worked with Habitat for Humanity on building several multi-family houses in existing vacant lots as well as a few single family homes.

Because there are now more residents in the neighborhood, drug traffic has gone down considerably.  On the street it is common to see black and white people walking together, hanging out in the corner parks while their kids play together on the recreation equipment.  The Fruit Belt is proud of their city leaders and their corporate sponsors who listened when it was important.  Because of the success of the Fruit Belt, even though a major recession hit the economy, for the first time in possibly 40 years, Buffalo was not one of the hardest hit cities in the nation.  In fact, because so much of its population already had secure, living wage jobs, and affordable housing, unemployment was one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Real estate speculation was arrested in 2016 which caused developers throughout the city to think on a longer term basis and build units that were affordable.  As a result, when the recession hit, the Buffalo market had one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country.  Developers in Buffalo and Erie County, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the country, were able to bounce back from the recession quicker than cities of the same size.  Due to this the city has been able to take advantage of expansion opportunities before their other cities.  As a result, some local developers have been able to expand their businesses to cities across the former Rust Belt and beyond.

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The greatest news about the Fruit Belt is that somehow, through ingenuity and a lot of effort, the community of the Fruit Belt led the nation in healing the racial rifts particularly troubling during the 2016 presidential election.  Since then, Buffalo has become an example of the power of diversity and the necessity of having many different voices at the table when planning for the future.  Governor Cuomo, having scored a major victory in supporting the sustainable economic initiatives invented in the Fruit Belt and throughout Buffalo, has gone on to share these lessons through a program where leaders in the Fruit Belt go to at risk municipalities and consult with local leaders on how to make their neighborhoods work again.

Because of the brave steps taken at the end of 2016, Buffalo is now heading toward its historic place in the pantheon of great U.S. cities.

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