Does Jesus Care About Gentrification?

by Ben Hein
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My first job out of college in 2008 was at the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), or Freddie Mac for short. As a young college graduate, I was completely naïve as to what it truly meant to own a home in this country. I certainly had no clue of the kinds of injustices that afflicted many communities and their chances of home ownership, but Freddie Mac’s mission was to “Make Home Possible,” and that sounded like as good of a mission as any. I took the job thinking that I would be making a positive contribution to our society.

I can still remember when the subprime mortgage crisis exploded that summer. Here I was just trying to get my career started, and all of my colleagues would talk as if the whole company would be closed down the next day. I did my best to make sense of the news, but my ignorance often got in the way. I had little understanding then of the drastic and longstanding impacts the crisis would have. Looking back now, I can see why there was so much anger directed toward my former employer. Their stated mission was in direct opposition to the role they played in an economic disaster that caused immeasurable harm to so many people.

I’ve thought often of my experience at Freddie Mac in recent months. In some strange act of Divine providence, it seems that this mission – to “Make Home Possible” – was implanted deeper on my heart than I had realized.

When our family moved to Indianapolis last year to plant a church, I knew early on that we would need to pay close attention to the kinds of housing and economic injustices that are inevitably at play in the city. Our family has long desired to plant a just Christian community which seeks the good and flourishing of its immediate neighbors. Having learned more about the legacy of redlining and other unjust practices, as well as the mechanics of gentrification, I was particularly interested in how such a just Christian community might be able to help “Make Home Possible” in a rapidly gentrifying city like Indianapolis.

All of these efforts have pressed me again and again into wrestling with one simple question: Does Jesus care about gentrification?

The Trouble of Gentrification

Gentrification is an interesting word, in that it is likely to be explained differently depending on the perspective with which one looks at how it works. Some will speak of gentrification as an apparently neutral process of neighborhood change. Others will highlight the mechanics of how gentrification takes place. In one famous scene from the 1991 film Boys N the Hood, Furious Styles (played by Laurence Fisburne) educates his son and several members of the community on these mechanics. He describes the ways in which outside forces will intentionally drive down the economic value of homes in a community in order to drive residents out, then subsequently buy those same homes in order to resell them at a much higher price.

Still others will highlight the often catastophic impact gentrification can have on a community. In their book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, P.E. Moskowitz describes gentrification as

“…a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In that way, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake…

Gentrification is not about individual acts; it’s about systemic violence based on decades of racist housing policy in the United States that has denied people of color, especially black people, access to the same kinds of housing, and therefore the same levels of wealth as white Americans. Gentrification cannot happen without this deeply rooted inequality; if we were all equal, there could be no gentrifier and no gentrified, no perpetrator or victim.”

Regardles of how one chooses to explain gentrification, all are agreed that this process involves not just the replacement of the old for the new; it is the displacement of what has been for what will be.

A Present Legacy of Injustice

I’ve been learning as much as I can since moving to Indianapolis about how gentrification and various forms of housing injustice have impacted this city, particularly its predominantly Black communities. As in nearly every other major city across the country, historic injustices and systemic racism in Indianapolis have not been dealt with. In fact, Black homeownership is actually lower now than it was in 1968. The values of homes in historically Black and redlined communities continue to go down as their neighborhoods are zoned for the city’s sewage plants and morgues, while the city turns a blind eye to decades of needs and requests these communities have had. The rapid, acute impact of gentrification is felt in neighborhoods across the city, as home values continue to skyrocket and long-time residents are no longer able to afford to live there. Black renters are disproprotionaly impacted by “weak” tenant laws. As it turns out, Indiana has the highest rate of evictions in the country. Indianapolis has the seventh-most number of evictions of any city in the country. The six higher-ranking cities all have much larger populations than Indianapolis.

Welcome to Haughville

I recently met a couple for lunch at an excellent little Mexican restaurant in the West Side neighborhood of Haughville. This neighborhood has, to say it plainly, been long forgotten and ignored by the rest of Indianapolis. As a result, it is a neighborhood filled with much poverty, pain, despair.

It also happens to be the neighborhood we feel Jesus calling us to plant a church.

This couple has ties to Haughville that date all the way back to 1924. Their love for Haughville was evident, even as they described the hurting state of the neighborhood and what that means for the people they love. I listened as they described Haughville as “the last frontier” of gentrification in Indianapolis; every other side of downtown has been seeing the impact of gentrification for years. They spoke of how Haughville has long been a community where things are done “to” it but not much appears to be done “for” it – at least not for its existing residents. With new street development and walking trails being put in (paving the way for gentrified housing communities), traffic has been pushed to one main street near an elementary school, becoming incredibly dangerous for these young children who must cross it to get to and from school. In a neighborhood that already has more liquor stores than nearly any other in the city, it’s two pharmacies recently closed, and a new liquor store popped up in their place. The needs of residents have long gone unanswered by city government.

The Intersection of Old and New

At the corner of Michigan and Belmont sits the Haughville public library. Inside it’s doors you will find a lovely little library, with a beautifully decorated children’s section. Homeless neighbors are sleeping inside, enjoying the shelter and amentities the library provides.

From outside it’s doors, you are able to survey ground zero for the beginning stages of gentrification in Haughville. Positively, a boutique hotel is opening up just north of the library. There, in the middle of several run down and abandoned buildings, this new hotel (which is catering to the convention center traffic from downtown) is being built by a Black-owned and female-led company whose leadership has roots on the West Side of Indianapolis.

Just a few doors down sits the old building for Judge’s Barbecue, which is now closed. One investor, a Black man who is also a former resident of Haughville, has recently purchased the property to have it turned into a shared kitchen event space. In these early stages of gentrification, it is wonderful to see these former residents investing in their community.

In this intersection, the investment of Old Haughville clashes with the development of New Haughville. Immediately to the library’s west sits a large, unused plot of land. I understand that there are competing interests over whether to turn it into a high school or a shopping plaza of some kind.

To the north east you will see a row of several new homes being built, all of which will likely sell for over $350k. To the south east you will see a monster of a new home that was recently built on a lot where an older home had burned down. In its place, this massive home was built, well over twice the size of anything nearby. It is currently listed for $450k. The average value for existing homes in the area is around $100k or less.

Will the present community of Haughville, together with its people and their history, be able to weather the rapid and massive changes?

Does Jesus care?

Many churches incorporate into their mission statement some kind of “for the city” language. That is, they hope to communicate their desire to love and serve the people and neighborhoods around them. However, like my former employer, many of these same churches and church plants contradict their stated mission by participating in the very injustices that afflict the neighbors they claim to serve. I believe this is often unintentional, sometimes even unavoidable. Nevertheless, when Christians benefit from and ignore the unjust systems which cause our neighbors to suffer, how can we continue to say that we exist to love and serve our neighbors?

I still have more questions than answers. How does gentrification really work in Indianapolis? Is it possible to steward the energy of gentrification toward positive ends? What does it look like for our family to consciously make decisions which cause the least harm and give the most life to our neighbors? How could a new church actively seek the good of the community by seeking just housing laws and practices for all? Is it possible to disciple incoming gentrifiers to be agents of repair?

One question, however, has become absolutely settled in my mind.

Does Jesus care about gentrification?

Yes.

In the beginning of John’s gospel, we are told that the Word, that is Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:6). I love how the Message translation words this verse:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

Indeed, in Christ’s fleshliness there was also residency; he belonged to a particular place and community. Jesus was not only born of woman (as we confess in the Apostle’s Creed), but he was also of Nazareth (John 1:45-46). Jesus cares not just about the flesh we embody but the places we inhabit. The eternal Second Person of the Trinity cares so much about place that he dwelt among a community long enough to take on its identity and all of the labels and associations which came with it.

In so doing, he shows us that loving our neighbor may mean more than just the people in our immediate neighborhoods, but it certainly cannot mean anything less.

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