It’s been said so many times of Hudson Valley cities and towns that it’s become a local joke: ___ is the new Brooklyn. First Hudson and Beacon, then Newburgh and Catskill; lately, even sleepy little Catskills towns overlooking the Valley are being “rediscovered” by both wealthy New Yorkers playing at local real estate and vacationers using Airbnb to get a taste of the upstate life.
Block by block, town by town, gentrification is transforming the Hudson Valley. New cultural institutions and an influx of visitors have brought new life to Main Streets, but they are also setting off neighborhood conflicts and challenging local planning boards. The pace of change brought by new waves of incoming transplants is beginning to worry not just longtime locals, but former New Yorkers who emigrated to the Valley before it became red-hot. The region is losing full-time population, driven in part by housing costs that are rapidly soaring beyond the means of many of the Hudson Valley’s full-time residents.
The relentless media coverage of the changes afoot in community character and economic makeup is itself part of the phenomenon. In a 2017 senior sociology thesis, Bard undergraduate Nora Cady analyzed thirty years’ worth of New York Times stories about the city of Hudson, and wrote that the paper “primed” the city for gentrification, encouraging “pioneers” to take advantage of urban decay, and aggressively promoting the business efforts of transplants as part of a larger narrative constructed around place and identity. Cady writes:
News is reported by a certain class for a certain class and so there is an inherent structural problem. In the case of Hudson, the news of a winebar opening receives coverage in The Times. But dropout rates in Hudson High School go unmentioned because they hold no relevance or interest to The Times’ readership. So, a narrative is produced that affirms the values of a certain class of people, is widely disseminated and forms the collective imagination of that group.
As relentless as the march of gentrification is, there are robust local efforts underway to temper its effects in Hudson Valley cities. In Ossining, a local housing nonprofit is building bridges between renters upstate and downstate to fight for rent control. In Newburgh, planning policy think tank Pattern for Progress is studying how gentrification is playing out in the region, and tracking local efforts to balance economic development and affordable housing.
Land Banks and Trusts: A Solution?
Like other small cities in the Hudson Valley, Kingston is currently in the grip of rapid transformation. In just a few short years, real estate prices in the city’s hottest neighborhoods have soared dramatically, driving rental rates up and pushing out longtime tenants. At the same time, Kingston has a problem with “zombie” properties that have been left to decay and deteriorate.
Last year, an effort to fight both problems at once got a major boost: an anonymous $3.1 million grant to Kingston’s new land bank.
In many cities, land banks are used to deal with blighted properties: buying them at foreclosure, fixing them up, and moving them back to the open market. What makes the Kingston land bank also a potential tool for fighting gentrification is a proposal to use it to help move local low- and middle-income residents from renting to homeowning. The Kingston Times reports:
While land banks can sell properties to the highest bidder, [Mayor Steve] Noble said Kingston’s proposed land bank would likely aim to sell the homes at a discounted rate to families making between 50 and 80 percent of the Area Median Income. That’s in line with Noble’s stated goal of stabilizing low-income neighborhoods by moving residents out of rental housing and into affordable owner-occupied units.
“I think it can be a valuable tool in our toolbox as we try to create sustainable development,” said Noble of the land bank.
Beyond the land bank, there’s an even more ambitious approach: the community land trust. While land banks don’t hold onto the properties they acquire, a community land trust holds property in perpetuity, sheltering homes in the trust from the wild price increases of a rapidly-gentrifying real estate market. Kingston already has a land trust focused on open space, and there has been talk of broadening its mission to encompass housing as well.
The social and economic dynamics of changing neighborhoods are a tough thing to study, but there is some empirical evidence that this approach might have promise. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs looked at 46 “community land trusts” in 22 states, and found that they help to blunt the effects of gentrification in a variety of ways, including slowing the displacement of lower-income local residents, retaining rental units, and helping to keep neighborhoods more affordable.
One of the oldest community land trusts in the country, Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, has been in operation since the 1980s. Land trust resident Tony Hernandez, speaking to a reporter from Yes, explains how it works:
Although the market value of homes in Boston has skyrocketed in recent years, Hernandez says he “can’t flip the home,” as the resale price is restricted to a one-half percent increase per year, capped at 5 percent after 10 years. He explains, “The purpose is to cap it so that affordability can be extended to another family.” This continuing affordability is made possible because the land trust owns the land and leases it to the homeowner, who owns only the housing structure.
But for Hernandez, “it’s not just about investing in the property but the neighborhood.” Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and its land trust are the “bridge between the homeowner and the neighborhood. We just had a great block party a month ago, with people coming out of their homes and hanging out. It fosters a culture of neighbors actually knowing each other. Now if you see my kid doing something they shouldn’t, then you can watch out for them.”
Is gentrification happening in your neighborhood? What does it look like? Should towns and cities act to protect housing prices for local residents, and if so, how? Let us know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson. Set in a future New York City that has been flooded by rising seas, Robinson’s climate-fiction thriller was nominated for a 2018 Hugo “Best Novel” award. Robinson explores what happens in a wildly speculative real estate market when unpredictable weather widens the divide between rich and poor in this quasi-utopian story.