Drafted by Brandy H. M. Brooks and Joel Rothschild of the Ecovillagers Alliance
Gentrification and intentional communities
Gentrification, the demographic replacement of a population with lower income levels by a higher-income population in a particular neighborhood or city, is neither accidental, inevitable, or benign. It is driven by the actions of both public and private entities intending to make a neighborhood and its amenities more attractive to wealthier residents, generally based on the premise that wealthier residents are necessary to increase both the economic and social value of a place. Ecovillage, cohousing, and similar intentional community endeavors can, but need not necessarily, perpetuate this privilege-centered dynamic.
The interests and concerns of the wealthy are prioritized in most public planning and economic policies, reflecting an unspoken official belief that residents with low income levels, racial and ethnic minorities, returning citizens, elders, and other vulnerable populations make less valuable contributions to our economy and society, and deserve less the benefit that our neighborhoods and cities can provide. The same bias is reflected when an intentional community’s founders envision a place reshaped in the image of their needs and values, without inquiring first into the needs and values of others with less income, aggregated wealth, and influence.
Specifically, when a community is to be built within an existing neighborhood of lesser privilege, government and real estate markets will seek to develop business, housing, and other amenities to attract a demographic of comparable privilege into the surrounding neighborhood. Alternately, when a community is planned for undeveloped property at the urban edge, resources are inevitably drawn away from existing neighborhoods to service this new one designed by and for those with the means and mobility to participate. In either scenario, decision-making that excludes the less privileged ultimately harms the less privileged.
Ecovillagers Cooperative and gentrification
Ecovillagers Cooperative recognizes that economic vitality is an essential aspiration for any neighborhood, however we reject methods of economic development that cause harm to existing communities and ecologies. In particular, we reject the treatment of land parcels and commercial and residential building units as commodities to be individually bought, sold, and owned. Ecovillagers Cooperative is exclusively dedicated to shared-equity cooperative ownership of neighborhood real estate, because only within such a system can economic improvement and an influx of new residents be democratic, just, and sustainable.
Why not individual ownership?
So-called “free market” real estate development awards the most profits to transactions that externalize the most costs. For instance, when property owners in gentrifying neighborhoods see double or triple return on their purchase price, it is due to neighboring renters’ and new buyers’ loss of affordability resulting from the rapid buying and selling of nearby properties. Likewise, razing and replacing a building is profitable because the new building commands a higher price, but also and only because also the embodied energy of the razed building’s wasted materials is a loss to the larger economy and environment that the developer himself doesn’t bear. Short-term profitability arises from transactions that consider a land or building unit’s value narrowly, divorced from any accounting of the long-term social or environmental sustainability of the context within which that unit exists.
When the constituent parts of a neighborhood are freely traded as a commodity, concerns of the community at large can always be externalized, and therefore economic development in that neighborhood cannot help but reinforce status-quo inequities. It thereby perpetuates systemic racism, classism, and anthropocentrism. No matter how enlightened some individual property owners or municipal policies may be, gentrification as a system ultimately erases the habitat, built collective memory, and place-based social fabric of less-privileged communities — including communities of color, communities whose labor is less valued, and the community of plants, animals, and ecological processes upon which all depend.
Why cooperative ownership?
This understanding of the forces reshaping our cities — combined with an urgent awareness of the ways in which our economic, political, and cultural systems devalue and degrade physical ecosystems along with social ones — undergirds our commitment to a restorative and regenerative model of neighborhood development.
We believe in shared equity, to ensure all residents and enterprises within an ecovillage neighborhood have the means to build wealth, to enjoy the dignity of ownership, and to manage periods of economic instability.
We believe in hybridized renter-ownership for all, because it is not the fleeting purchase and sale of property, but the ongoing use and adaptation of property to meet human needs, that produces real social and economic value.
We believe in cooperative decision-making at a neighborhood level, because this is the scale at which grassroots participants can know, through direct relationship, the people and the built and natural systems with which we share our daily habitat. Through these direct relationships, we can negotiate sustainable plans and policies to meet the community’s needs, without reliance on market and government systems that rest in the hands of socioeconomic elites.
We believe in cooperative accumulation and investment of capital, as a democratic alternative to the system of private banking and realty, and public planning and funding, that generate profit (for a few) from the so-called “creative destruction” of communities, buildings, and habitat.
Ecovillagers Cooperative and Ecovillagers Alliance are grounded in an equitable economy and sustainable ecology, and in grassroots democracy as the means to both. We believe that shared prosperity, stewardship, and care for one another are the only means through which we can achieve health as individuals and as members of our communities and environment.