Equitable Development as a Tool to Advance Racial Equity

What is success, and how do you achieve it?

What is success, and how do you achieve it?

What is success? When the phrase “equitable development,” is no longer necessary because equity is an inseparable part of the single word “development.” It will happen when all people of color experience the beneficial outcomes from growth as whites do. It will manifest when communities of color have the capacity for self-determination to create their vision of urban growth. Success will be when racial equity is achieved.

These are lofty goals that may evoke pushback from public, private, and even philanthropic investors in the form of; “it’s too complicated,” “growth is only indirectly related to racial equity, it’s more about class,” or “this is affirmative action and doesn’t benefit everyone.” Applying a racial equity analysis to specific issues of growth can build the capacity of equitable development practitioners and community organizers to achieve these goals. Identifying the issues will serve to focus the analysis. Understanding the historical context and root causes of inequitable development is critical. Identifying best practices can provide additional resources to formulate solutions. 

Below is a policy framework fleshed out with equitable development strategies and accompanying best practices that local governments have adopted to address the historical and current context of inequity described above. The best practices are briefly introduced and referenced so readers can conduct further research into the details of each. Cutting across all these strategies is the need for citywide equitable growth policies and targeted investments that both explicitly aim to achieve measureable outcomes tracked over time.

Goal 1: Strong communities and people. People and communities with stability and resilience in the face of real displacement pressures. 

Strategy 1: Recognize and build on communities of color existing capacity for self-determination.

The current patterns of disparity by race had many causes, but a lack of organized power amongst communities of color in terms of decision-making authority, financial, and physical assets, or the capacity to organize and advocate for equitable outcomes is one cause that has very specific remedies.

Restructure decision-making processes so that people of color have real authority in planning and development decisions. This will require a process that is open, inviting, and transparent to people new to the process and will need to be structured to accommodate the schedule and location needs of those with the least flexibility. This would increase opportunities for people of color to sit at the decision-making table with public officials such as ad-hoc advisory task forces or on public boards and commissions. It should also include inclusive community engagement6 that brings the decision-making process to existing communication structures led by communities of color like standing meetings of cultural organizations and coalitions. Long-term community partnership should be based on and built upon interim successes, allowing for continual feedback and ongoing improvements to decision making structures.

Make capacity building investments to elevate community voice and leadership in planning and development processes.7 An effective strategy is to simultaneously support the growth of individual, organizational, and coalitional leadership capacity for communities of color, so that communities and the organizations and individuals that lead them work together to understand shared concerns and effectively advocate for themselves. For most communities, these organizations serve many purposes from providing services such as senior meals and youth programs; to being the location for community problem-solving. They are often the place where community leadership resides as well as the place that reinforces the cultural identity of the community— through cultural arts, history, and celebrations. For many, the work of influencing policy decisions is new. This may include individual leadership development curriculum, community-based organization staff and program resources, or resources for coalition infrastructure like shared communications and staffing.

Other approaches include using arts and culture investments to affirm community identity in the face of neighborhood change.8 Immigrant and refugee integration strategies can preserve cultural strengths as well grow economically strong communities.9

Making capacity building investments within government institutions. The responsibility of capacity building is also on government to give institutional staff the support they need to undertake equity work in a meaningful way. For example, supporting hiring managers to increase the diversity in hiring, retention, and recruitment of new staff as well as the membership of boards and commissions advising governments on development related issues. Developing inhouse curriculum on institutional racism, engaging with specific communities, and how to use racial equity tools to analyze planning processes and land use and investment decisions are all ways to increase government’s internal capacity.

Strategy 2: Anticipate and prevent displacement of vulnerable residents, businesses, and community organizations.

This strategy is important because involuntary displacement—either directly due to eviction or demolition or due to market forces associated with growth—disproportionally impacts communities of color. The tactics that follow acknowledge that the existing community will be competing with outside investors and incoming higher-income households for control of local assets like land and buildings, but it is important to identify opportunities to work cooperatively so that focus remains on the core goal—that as neighborhoods by their very nature evolve, that evolution does not become a choice between those who were there and those who now enter the community. Preparation for this balance between competition and cooperation is critical.

Establish community stabilizing policies and investments first. People of color who live and work in redeveloping neighborhoods need effective rights and resources to anchor their interests and benefit from this change. Fundamental tenant rights policies for residents and businesses include just cause eviction policies to ensure evictions happen rarely and only with good reason, rent stabilization to limit landlord’s abilities to quickly or substantially increase rents as their properties become more desirable, strong relocation protections and financial assistance for renters displaced by redevelopment, affordable housing preservation strategies (including policies for no net loss of subsidized housing), right of return policies to ensure displaced residents get the first choice of newly developed affordable housing, and proactive code enforcement to ensure that existing housing is being maintained for existing residents.10

Commercial stabilization strategies include providing public mitigation funding for small businesses impacted by major infrastructure improvements11 and technical assistance programs and access to low-cost capital for businesses in commercial districts experiencing rapid demographic changes.

Understand and make goals for managing neighborhood change. This strategy should include establishing clear and bold goals upfront for community stability and economic prosperity for vulnerable populations.12 Goals should be sourced by these vulnerable populations through a process that builds rather than drains their power—as is often the case in public planning processes. It should also include collecting disaggregated current and historical data on populations vulnerable to displacement pressures,13 then identifying areas of change and areas of stability,14 and assessing the benefits and burdens of land use changes and public investments on vulnerable populations. This process of goal setting and analysis can be done with GARE’s Racial Equity Toolkit, which can be adapted to fit a land use and community development context.

Anticipate change and develop tools to increase economic opportunity for existing communities. Some jurisdictions are now developing data-rich tools to predict neighborhood change15 and develop strategies to prevent gentrification from displacing existing communities.16 Tools to improve upward mobility of low-wage workers include skills improvements through targeted workforce development and educational programs, raising of wage floors by increasing the local minimum wage or restructuring wage scales in certain sectors, improving transit mobility,17 and negotiating labor agreements or community benefit agreements from new developments to include training and living wage job opportunities for low-income workers of color.18 Tools to preserve affordable housing choices include targeting public housing investments where gentrification is anticipated—like transit-rich areas.19 Comprehensive shared investment strategies tying housing, jobs, transportation, and cultural amenities together provide the most promising anti-displacement, pro-growth models of equitable development.20

These last two best practices are structural solutions that require creating shared goals across traditional siloes, forging new partnerships with community and multiple institutions to share power and decision making, and making long-term investments before displacement becomes a crisis.

Goal 2: Great places with equitable access. A city with an equitable distribution of great neighborhoods full of strong amenities that provide equitable access throughout.

Strategy 3: Distribute the benefits and burdens of growth equitably.

The practice of jurisdictions underinvesting in some urban neighborhoods with high populations of people of color means these areas and populations have greater needs. A public investment strategy that addresses this inequity by equally distributing resources or only providing public amenities in response to market-led growth will only exacerbate inequitable outcomes.

Use an equity lens to prioritize investments based on need to achieve equitable outcomes. Clear planning policies and community accountability structures that guide public investments21 can be coupled with programs that account for areas with greater need.22 Decision-making criteria for public service and capital investments can be weighted to account for the disparate outcomes experienced by communities of color listed on pages 2 and 3, and others.23 Criteria can also account for the historic injustices that led to current day disparities such as a neighborhood being redlined or damaged by urban renewal24 or even the future likelihood of disparities worsening such as the likelihood of displacement.25

Revitalize underserved areas while also connecting workers of color to the broader economy.26 For example, an equitable distribution of transportation investments will prioritize providing affordable and meaningful transportation options for people of color, low-income households, and renters because they have lower rates of car ownership and higher frequency of transit use.27 Public and private development in historically underinvested areas is an opportunity to skill-up and employ residents who are not fully participating in the economy. Priority or local hire and workforce training agreements can ensure certain numbers of people from targeted areas or populations with high unemployment are trained and hired to not only build new projects but also be employed by the incoming businesses.28

Prioritize rectifying environmental justice issues while also fostering green industries and pathways to employment.29 The concentration of environmental hazards found more often in low-income communities has resulted in communities of color being more likely to live near heavy industry and pollutants. This exposure contributes to racial disparities in health outcome from infant mortality to life expectancy. Identifying and ceasing any current environmental justice issues is an immediate first step. Remediation of hazards requires an equitable distribution of mitigation investments to eliminate these burdens. Investments in environmental clean-up projects and more environmentally sustainable development practices are an opportunity to also increase economic opportunity, capacity building, and self-determination of these communities.

Strategy 4: Increase opportunities for low-income households of color to live in all neighborhoods.

Due to our past segregationist policies and current day practices that maintain these patterns, many neighborhoods with high performing schools and other quality services and amenities have disproportionally low percentages of low-income households and households of color who cannot afford the types of housing available in these areas. Limited housing choices and high desirability of these areas excludes communities of color and perpetuates segregation. 

Increase housing choices for households of color. This can be done by identifying development and acquisition opportunities for affordable housing in higher cost neighborhoods,30 coupled with re-zoning lower density single-family neighborhoods with access to services and amenities to allow for greater variety of housing types and price points. The full range of tactics for both affordable rental and homeownership should be employed as a top priority for the jurisdiction. 

Invest in cultural institutions and capacity-building for communities of color. One potential unintended consequence of increasing housing choices in predominately white neighborhoods is the social and cultural isolation and assimilation of people of color as these areas desegregate. Investments in communities of color’s social and cultural infrastructure should be coupled with the land use and housing investment approaches listed above. Additional investments in culturally-specific commercial enterprises will also serve to maintain community integrity and make sure diversifying neighborhoods meet all the needs of a diverse population.

More detailed policies and tools are provided in Table 1 below. For any of these to be successful there must be accountability for public institutions in the form of measurable goals that are publicly reported on and tied to performance expectations. Also, the institutions must have the urgency, commitment, and internal capacity to undertake this work. This means public commitments from elected officials and a workforce that reflects the community and is trained to deconstruct institutional racism. Resourcing these strategies sufficiently and supporting staff to implement them in partnership with community are critical to achieving equitable outcomes.

  • 6. City of Seattle Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide
  • 7. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee’s model plan for public participation, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice’s Build Up Detroit, and PolicyLink Sustainable Communities Community Engagement Guide
  • 8. Kresge Foundation Arts and Culture Program
  • 9. PolicyLink and PERE Immigrant Integration Guide
  • 10. Alameda County Public Health, DWD
  • 11. Supplemental Mitigation Assistance Program for businesses impacted by the Seattle Link light rail construction
  • 12. All-In Nation, Manuel Pastor
  • 13. Equity Analysis of Plan Bay Area, Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments
  • 14. Watsonville Vista 2030 General Plan
  • 15. The Association of Bay Area Government’s Anti-Displacement Early Warning System. Comprehensive Plan Gentrification Neighborhood Typology, Portland Oregon. Mapping Susceptibility to Gentrification, Karen Chappelle. Seattle Equity and Growth Analysis of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan
  • 16. Maintaining Diversity in America’s Transit Rich Neighborhoods, Northeastern University
  • 17. San Francisco Bay Area Economic Prosperity Strategy
  • 18. University of Southern California University Park Specific Plan and Development Agreement
  • 19. City of Los Angeles’ Consolidated Plan
  • 20. Community Cornerstones, City of Seattle. Dudley Street Initiative, Boston.
  • 21. Richmond General Plan 2030 Land Use and Urban Design element
  • 22. PlaNYC, Million Trees Initiative. Turning Towards Equity, the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity
  • 23. Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan Equity Map and Performance Measures
  • 24. City of Portland North/Northeast Affordable Housing Preference Policy
  • 25. City of Seattle Equitable Development Implementation Plan
  • 26. The Equity, Environment and Jobs growth alternative of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments
  • 27. The Toll of Transportation, Northeastern University.
  • 28. City of Seattle Priority Hire Ordinance and Program
  • 29. Emerald Cities Collaborative. In Buffalo, NY, the Green Development Zone, organized by PUSH Buffalo
  • 30. New York City Housing Plan