ULI San Francisco Blog

Housing the Bay Speakers Series: Dr. Antwi Akom on Equity, Place, Race, and Data

At the heart of the urban housing crisis are the topics of equity, inclusion, and place. ULI San Francisco sat down with Dr. Antwi Akom, Director of the Social Innovation and Urban Opportunity Lab—a joint research lab between UCSF and SFSU, for the final installment of the Housing the Bay Summit Meet the Speakers Interview Series. In the interview, Dr. Akom talks about how to define equity, how to measure it, the connection between race and place, and the ways in which data scientists and social researchers are working to address historical inequity in the built environment. Dr. Akom will speak to these and other topics at the upcoming Housing the Bay Summit on March 23rd. 



What is equity? How do you define it?

For me, it’s important to start with the idea that equity is different from equality. Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks have described equality as giving everyone the same thing.  For example, the right to ride on a bus. During the Civil Rights Movement, attaining this right was considered progress.  However, as Dr. King got older, wiser, and more self-determined, he began to describe the importance of achieving equity rather than equality as the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement—precisely because equity is different from equality. Equity, in contrast, means that disproportionate resources are allocated to address specific needs that have emerged from historical inequalities.

For instance, let’s go back to our bus example.  In this case, equity means ensuring there are bus lines available where our nation’s most vulnerable populations need them so that they can get to school, the doctor, or go to work and navigate public and private space. It means policies and investments that grow good jobs and expand entrepreneurship opportunities where our nation’s most vulnerable live, learn, work, pray, and play.  It means policies that dismantle destructive barriers to economic inclusion racial, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other intersections of social justice and economic opportunity.  And it means building healthy communities and opportunity-rich communities for all not just for the chosen few.

What’s the best way to measure equity?

There is a whole body of emerging research that suggests the best way to systematically measure equity is through Equity Impact Assessments. Racial Equity Impact Assessments (REIA) are an important part of the next wave of tools and platforms that can help us measure equity in our cities and neighborhoods.  These are systematic assessments of how racial and economic groups would be adversely impacted by a given decision at a neighborhood level. The goal is to discern what are the unintended consequences of a development decision and its impact on vulnerable populations. For example, there is affordable housing being built in Oakland, but how much of this housing is available to people with disabilities? Do we have this data?  How many low and middle-income people of color and other vulnerable populations actually have access to the affordable housing that is being built in Oakland?

My point is the way that we currently measure gentrification is flawed, in part, because we currently use census data, secondary data, or Block level data that is not accurate at the street-level.  The good news is that there is very important work being done by Dr. Lisa Bates at Portland State University and others on developing Equitable Inclusive Development Strategies (EIDS) in the context of gentrification.  What is innovative about her work is that it’s based on a theory of change that recognizes that neighborhoods progress through different stages of gentrification and have distinct needs and characteristics along the way.  By employing a methodology that uses demographic, socioeconomic, and property data to quantify how much gentrification-related change has occurred at the census tract level over a specified period of time — and to categorize census tracts into neighborhood types that correlate to different stages in the process of gentrification — allows policies to be targeted strategically and tailored to meet local needs.

However, as ground-breaking as Dr. Bates’ work is—and it is—it is currently reliant on a model that relies on Census data and or secondary datasets which are often not accurate data at the street level. To improve upon her ground-breaking model, we need to make invisible data more visible.  We need data that tells the story of the lived experience of gentrification and displacement in our cities and neighborhoods from the bottom up — not only the top down.  Streetwyze is poised to revolutionize conversations around gentrification and displacement by collecting, combining, and integrating community-generated data with Big Data and predictive analytics.   We don’t need “smart gentrification,” rather, we need an early warning system and community-driven data integrated with Big Data that can help us create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community development with the 100% instead of for the 1%.  We also need increased transparency, accountability, and collaboration between developers, financers, and everyday people in the participatory planning process.

You often speak about the connection between race and place. How would you describe the relationship between the two for someone who hasn’t read your work or heard you give a talk?

Our work focuses on human-centered design, participatory planning, culturally and community responsive participatory technology, democratizing data and democratizing decision-making processes. This includes working with artists, activists, planners, developers, engineers, designers, banks, and other financial institutions to figure out what equitable development really looks like from the ground up and to determine how we can put community voice in heart of urban planning process.  The way that I would describe the relationship between race and space for someone who hasn’t read my work is to underscore that we believe that the people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution.

With respect to the issue of gentrification and displacement, what this means is that, as Cornell West would say, race matters. You can’t talk about place-making without talking about race-making and its impact on spaces and places. You can’t ignore the real racialized history of urban planning in the United States and ever hope to achieve equitable economic development and equitable community development.

Can you speak to gentrification? Does it always lead to displacement? 

Good question. Is gentrification always bad? From a lived experience perspective, the short answer is yes, it’s bad. It’s horrible. I’ve been evicted. I know how it feels. Gentrification is always bad—particularly if you are the person or the people that are being displaced. However, from an academic, research perspective, the findings are mixed.  So, the answer to the question depends on the credibility that you give to the research findings, as well as your personal experiences with gentrification and displacement.

For example, if you are a low-to-moderate income person of color, usually gentrification and displacement are terrible and cause negative health and well-being impacts.  Just Cause/Causa Justa has a report called “Development without Displacement” that powerfully documents the negative impacts of gentrification and displacement. The report also offers next-generation policy solutions that will lead us towards more equitable and inclusive forms and of economic development. I strongly encourage ULI members to check it out.

However, if you are a wealthier person that is part of the “gentry,” there is a whole body of research, increasing called “smart gentrification” (which I think is a dumb word), that wrestles with the question of whether or not gentrification actually helps residents of poor neighborhoods.   This research – put forward by groups like the Brookings Institute and others – suggest that when professionals (i.e., gentrifiers) move to an area, “they know how to get things done.” They put pressure on schools, the police, and the city to improve. As property prices increase, rents go up—but that also generates more property-tax revenue, helping to improve local services. In many cities, zoning laws force developers to build subsidized housing for the poor as well as pricey pads for well-off newcomers, which means that rising house prices can help to create more subsidized housing, not less.

The flaws of this research are: 1) It puts forward an individual definition of gentrification and displacement rather than an institutional definition of gentrification and displacement; 2) It privileges a class analysis over structural racialization analysis as key drivers of process of gentrification and displacement; and finally, 3) The Brooking research on “smart gentrification” is often ahistorical.  In other words, it ignores the role that race has played no in shaping our cities and neighborhoods past, present, and ignores the role that race has played in terms of access to institutional resources, privileges, and access to capital creation for our nation’s most vulnerable populations.

What’s the single most important step we can take to ensure that we’re designing for more equitable communities? 

There is no silver bullet, but will I offer several guiding principles. For example, the preservation and production of affordable housing, baseline protections of the most vulnerable populations, like tenants’ rights, equity impact assessments, and non-market-based approaches to housing and community development, including cooperative housing models, technology and the ability to produce tiny homes that could help to address the explosion of homelessness in our communities, are all important steps in the right direction.

Where do you see stakeholders taking the right approach to empower communities and foster innovation, particularly across income levels and community demographics? 

In terms of places that we could lift up, there is the work in the Tenderloin, where activists and non-profit partners have maintained control over 25% of the housing stock. Right down the street from Twitter in the Tenderloin. There is immense pressure for it to transform, but it will transform differently because of who actually owns the land.

In Boston, we can look at the Dudley Street Initiative.  There, the community organized and convinced the City to sell 60 acres of land (which had been slated for redevelopment using eminent domain) to the community.  They then put it into a community land trust, and now the community can lead the development 225 units of affordable housing and urban farms.

In Oakland, it is important to note that we’re in conversations with developers about a model called Engineering Equity being led by Alan Dones and Regina Davis. The power of this model is that it starts with community ownership and wealth generation and is leveraging new tools like Obama’s 2012 JOBS Act to jumpstart investment in small businesses. These are the types of principles and values we need to be adopted by the real estate community to catalyze the next generation equitable community development and reverse displacement and gentrification.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Nate Hanson

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