The crowd gathered featured a diverse group of Milwaukee residents. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

What does gentrification really mean? This was the first question posed to a group of panelists during the discussion, The Truth About Gentrification, on Wednesday, Oct. 23.

A quick Google search defines gentrification as the following, “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” While that may be the definition, gentrification can be interpreted many ways, and as the panelists pointed out it has both negative and positive connotations.

The panel discussion, which was put on by the Haywood Group and moderated by Kalan Haywood Sr., featured the following individuals: Rocky Marcoux, department of city development commissioner, Steven Miner, assessor’s office commissioner, Ray Hill, regional manager of Commonbond Communities and Keith Stanley, director of Near West Side Partners.

Haywood, who has been a long-time developer in Milwaukee, said that when people hear the term gentrification, they often associate it with displacement. The Haywood Group often receives phone calls or emails from people worried about being displaced.

“The fear of gentrification is real no matter who you are,” Haywood said. “No matter what you say, people are concerned about displacement.”

Kalan Haywood Sr. (far left) moderated the panel on the Truth About Gentrification.
(Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

Hill said that for many, gentrification automatically equates to displacement, especially for low-income individuals. Really, the term should be closer associated with revitalization, she said.

Hill noted that only seven percent of African Americans own their home in Milwaukee. So, when gentrification occurs in their neighborhoods and increases the value of their properties, many find themselves displaced due to the increased rent prices.

When it comes to assessing the property value of a house, Miner said there’s certain rules in the state of Wisconsin that assessors can’t bend or break. For example, Wisconsin doesn’t have exemptions. That is to say, in certain states the property taxes for an elderly or disabled person have a maximum tax limit.

The policy could be changed, Miner said, but it’s important to understand that those taxes won’t go away, instead they’ll be moved somewhere else.

Marcoux who said that gentrification is not a bad thing, but it becomes bad when it leads to displacement, added that the City of Milwaukee is working on a type of anti-tax fund.

The idea, which is based off Atlanta’s model, is to ask those in the private sector to put money towards a fund to cover increased property taxes. So, if a person is accustomed to paying $500 a year, and the next year they’re expected to pay $600 a year, the fund would cover the difference and pay the $100 extra dollars.

For that to function, Marcoux said that it would take about $3 million. He added that suppressing the values wouldn’t work because then there’s limited room to accumulate wealth.

While that’s one solution, Haywood asked the group what else could be done to generate a better understanding of gentrification and its benefits. The panelists all agreed that more affordable housing and more homeownership would be helpful.

Stanley said that more people need to get involved, especially leaders and individuals in communities of color.

“I’m bothered by the narrative that the African American is a helpless group,” he said.

People shouldn’t wait to get involved, Stanley said.

If they have an idea or a problem, they should say something, “don’t wait,” he said. He said so often people have a vision, but they don’t believe in it, it’s an issue that needs to change.

For example, if an individual thinks a community needs a coffee shop, then build one. Don’t just talk about it, be a hustler.

Hill also emphasized the importance of being an advocate and connecting with other who share the same vision.

Although the panel touched on several topics, Haywood said the conversation is far from over. He hopes to have more panels on the topic in the year to come. In the final question, he asked the panelists to leave the group with some advice.

Hill said to be an advocate. Miner said that communication is key. Stanley said transparency and connecting with elected officials. And Marcoux said to be intentional.

“If you really want change, you have to work for it,” Marcoux said.