Gentrification may be an issue that New Bedford has not yet addressed but in Boston, several area academics said urban communities have long been grappling with the problem, and even solving it.
Two lecturers at Tufts University, who specialize in urban and environmental planning, described displacement that seems similar to the concerns in New Bedford.
Penn Loh, a lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Tufts, said that neighborhoods are vulnerable to gentrification when property values are relatively lower; when they have the potential to attract public and private investment; and when their population has relatively less political power and economic resources.
He suggested more community control over land use and the creation of community land trusts (CLTs).
“Then the area is less prone to development decisions that benefit only developers and politicians,” he said.
It is challenging to protect affordable housing when there is rapid turnover of properties for gentrifying developments, according to Loh.
CLTLs, in which a municipal government conveys property ownership to a neighborhood, is a method that has been successful in Boston, where the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) has been operating since the mid-1980s. It obtained the power of eminent domain from the city as the result of political pressure during a down market, he said, but it is more difficult in an up market like the present.
If land keeps turning over to the highest bidder, then you have to use political leverage and more limited policy mechanisms (maybe around historic preservation) in order to balance the forces, Loh said.
“Zoning can be a tool too, but it takes a lot of effort and politics to change zoning,” he said.
Robert Terrell, another lecturer on urban planning at Tufts and a member of the board of the Dudley Street Initiative, said there are any number of ways to address gentrification.
Terrell said he is familiar with the New Bedford real estate market and the doubling of prices over the past four years. “That’s a pretty fast pace,” he said.
His sense is that people from outside the city know about the coming commuter rail and are driving it, he said. “When all these forces come together, (the displacement) is going to be substantial,” he said.
Residential home prices in New Bedford are surging as supply remains low — and local buyers are finding it hard to compete.
“We’re seeing some folks really having challenging times being able to afford this rental market.”
As real estate prices increase, there is evidence that low-income residents are being forced out of homes in New Bedford.
Zoning changes are politically difficult, Terrell acknowledged, but he said they can be powerful tools to protect people who would otherwise be displaced.
He suggested mixed-use zoning, as has been done in New Bedford’s downtown; eminent domain; and taxing incentives that convey public property to community groups that can then develop the zoning they want. Another method is allowing for joint purchases of different parts of a single building, say a triple-decker, he said.
Zoning can be designed to benefit out-of-town developers or neighborhood residents, low-income people or wealthy people, he said.
“When development comes, we have to ask, who is the development for?” he said.
There can be controversial aspects to some zoning designed to prevent gentrification, he said.
To keep the properties affordable, the government could pay the owner of a property the market rate when the owner wants to sell. That would be cheaper than subsidizing the rent of that person for 25 years in a public housing development or private rental subsidy, Terrell explained. “If we can do it for banks, why can’t we do it for the average homeowners?” he asked.
There are still other ways of solving the problem, Terrell said.
You could adopt an assessing system in which you are only assessed once for your property taxes, shifting tax burden to new buyers. You could create special tax zones around train stations.
New Bedford needs to have the debate quickly before the gentrification hits, he said.
“If the city has the political will, it can make any of this work.”
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