Belonging and Community Health in Richmond



The overall pattern in Richmond is a mixed one of gentrification that is in its early and middle stages in some areas across the center of the city and in North Richmond and near Hilltop, while other areas of the city show no signs of gentrification. The fact that the number of African Americans in Richmond fell by 12,500 between 2000 and 2013, a drop of 35%, is alarming and deserves further analysis. For those concerned with the displacement that accompanies gentrification, this research suggests the city may still be early enough in the process to prevent it from intensifying.

Some of the economic and housing trends at the city level show troubling signs. Median household income in Richmond fell 15%, twice the rate of Oakland and far more severe than El Cerrito and Berkeley, suggesting that the city is still reeling from the financial crash. The decrease in homeownership in Richmond is only exceeded by Vallejo and Antioch, both cities well known as among the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. The result is large portions of the city made up of low income renters. Some 6,740 renter households (37% of the total renters) earn less than $35,000 annually and spend more than 30% of their income on housing. In North Richmond and most of the central and south Richmond areas, there are areas with more than 80% renters. These facts raise concern that if regional trends of accelerating housing prices and persistent inequality hit Richmond, a substantial part of the city could be vulnerable. 

In order for Richmond to grow in an equitable way, it is critical that local policymakers and community groups act swiftly to implement local anti-displacement protections and policies to enable residents to stay and benefit from neighborhood change. As a phenomena tied to regional and even global economic structures, gentrification can only partly be addressed at the city level. Effective responses must be nuanced and targeted. There are several useful reports and policy guides for developing anti-displacement policy.5

Several principles and frameworks are important for understanding and responding to potential displacement. First, place matters. Community health and opportunity are very much shaped by place. Identity and sense of self are often deeply tied to a place. Displacement can mean fragmenting and losing touch with these life anchors. Secondly, people matter. One of the reasons place matters is that human relationships are embedded in a place. Social networks embedded in place are a primary source of resilience. Resilience is the ability to cope with, stay well, and grow in the face of adversity. People look to their nearby friends and family, neighbors and community resources when faced with challenges - whether they be facing foreclosure, dealing with physical illness, or loss of a job. 

But another relevant truth is that sometimes changing places is an essential way to access greater opportunity or connect with a more supportive social network. The Great Migration of African Americans from the southern US in the first half of the twentieth century was an example of how changing places was a way to realize greater opportunity, safety and inclusion. Yet it also entailed the breaking up of relationships within and among families and communities. The migration from Mexico to the US reflects a similar combination of enhanced opportunity combined with ruptured relationships and networks. Some have pointed out that “the human truth is that all people move, and all people have rights”, using the metaphor of the butterfly to describe the essence of migration.6 People, like butterflies, pick up and move across space and touch down in a new place. 

What distinguishes displacement from other forms of movement or migration is the lack of power that people have to stay in their place. As David Bacon argues, “Migration should be a voluntary process in which people can decide for themselves if and when to move, and under what circumstances.” But for this decision to be voluntary, many other conditions must be met. In the words of Rivera Salgado, “The right to not migrate is not meaningful if it is not also the right to go to school, the right to make a living from farming, or the right to health care and decent housing.”7

Put positively, we might say that the right to not be displaced is the right to belong. To belong relies on housing, education and other necessities to be available in a place. But clearly, the provision of these necessities relies on the institutions, norms, and policies that govern them. Thus the definition of belonging as described by john a. powell is that “belonging means that your well-being is considered and your ability to help design and give meaning to structures and institutions is realized.” The ability of community members to design the structures and institutions that shape their well-being is integral to belonging. This may be the most important principle for answering this paper’s initial question of whether development will displace historic communities. The data show that parts of Richmond are in the early stages of gentrification, which means displacement is a possibility. If Richmond is to pursue a vision in which everyone belongs, the communities at risk of displacement must be fully involved in structuring the city’s development. 8