“How Do We Get More Power?”
By Will Doig
Faced with an existential threat from the forces of gentrification, residents of Buffalo’s historic African American Fruit Belt neighborhood organized, joined together, and took control of their destiny.
India Walton signed the lease: $1,200 a month for a modest, gut-renovated one-bedroom, $200 less than the listed price because she had her own appliances. Still, says Walton, “in this neighborhood? $1,200 was unheard of.”
At least it used to be. After decades of disinvestment and neglect, the Fruit Belt was beginning to boom.
The catalyst was right next door: a rapidly expanding medical complex, staffed by a growing number of doctors, nurses, and technicians looking for a nearby place to live.
In many ways, it was a familiar story: an African American neighborhood, long neglected by the city, suddenly deemed “desirable” and, in turn, overrun by new, more expensive development. But the story of the Fruit Belt, so named for the orchards planted there in the 1800s [PDF], went in an unexpected direction. As the medical campus grew, the small, sloping neighborhood sitting in its shadow—whose black population boomed following World War II—decided that its fate had not yet been sealed.
“The residents of the Fruit Belt knew that at any moment, developers are going to come in and snap up everything they’ve known,” says Walton. “We started to think, how can we make sure our community doesn’t get swept aside? How do we get more power?”
Power, as it does for many disenfranchised communities, came through organizing. The Fruit Belt decided to beat the developers at their own game and buy up the neighborhood’s vacant lots themselves—not to resell them for a profit, but to hold them in a land trust that would lease them out one by one at predetermined rates existing residents could afford. The lessee would own the house that was built on the structure, but the trust would own the land, allowing the neighborhood a degree of control over what got developed and how much it cost.
The Fruit Belt Community Land Trust is, in essence, a line in the sand. It asserts that development—used as a proxy for prosperity by city leaders everywhere—is, in fact, a voracious force. Left unchecked, it can consume communities whole. The residents of the Fruit Belt see this clearly, in the flyers that appear on windshields and sprout in the grass near intersections (“Ready to Sell? We Pay Cash!”) The neighborhood has become a target for speculators, some from as far away as the Middle East and Asia, who, according to residents, show up at city auctions aiming to buy up the Fruit Belt’s vacant lots.
Ironically, Walton is the type of newcomer the speculators hope to attract. A registered nurse, she signed the $1,200 lease on her Fruit Belt apartment in 2015 because she wanted to live near her job at Children’s Hospital on the medical campus. But by August 2018, she, too, had been pushed out. “My lease expired, and my landlord was like, I can get more for this place,” she says. She packed up her appliances and left. “And that was the end of my time in the Fruit Belt.”
Walton arrived in the Fruit Belt a gentrifier, and three years later, departed displaced. Now she’s an activist, and though she hasn’t managed to move back to the neighborhood yet, she’s the executive director of the land trust. Barely five feet tall, she is described by many as its pivotal force. “She’s fearless in the face of challenge,” says Steve Peraza, a professor at SUNY Buffalo State College who helped craft the policy initiatives that underpin the land trust. “She’s willing to stand tall on her principles.”
“You’re talking about people who have never been vocal, never spoken up, taking a risk. That’s huge. That’s how we change things.”
— Dennice Barr, Fruit Belt Resident
But others who helped build the land trust are less likely activists. The Fruit Belt’s population skews older; many residents are in their 60s and 70s and have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. Many are on a fixed income, making them particularly vulnerable to a rise in property taxes. But they’re not too old to fight—and over the last few years, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“I have been in spaces with little old ladies who have never raised their voices in their whole life, for the first time, standing out in public, holding up a sign,” says Dennice Barr, a Fruit Belt resident who lives in the house her family has owned there for 70 years. “You’re talking about people who have never been vocal, never spoken up, and there she is out there holding this sign. Taking a risk. That’s huge. That’s how we change things.”
Pushed Out, Priced Out, and Left Behind
Back when Barr’s family moved to the Fruit Belt, most of its inhabitants were of German descent. They didn’t exactly embrace the families of color arriving in the neighborhood. A friend of Barr’s, Annette Lott, has lived in the Fruit Belt all her life, too. Her family moved there when she was seven. “I believe we were the only black family that lived there when we arrived,” she says. “It was a nice neighborhood, supermarkets, drug stores—a nice, small, clean little neighborhood.”
The Lotts’ white neighbors shunned them, however, so Annette’s father, a chef by trade, learned to make beer and sauerkraut. “The Germans loved it,” says Lott. But though that gesture helped mend fences, the broader demographic shift underway was unstoppable — the more blacks moved into the Fruit Belt, the more whites moved out. This exodus reflected a citywide trend: between 1940 and 1970, 90,000 African Americans settled in the Buffalo, 9,000 of them in the Fruit Belt, according to Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.
At the same time, the city’s manufacturing base was disintegrating. In response, Buffalo’s leaders sought to lure new industries, such as technology and science, particularly medical science. “These were the critical years in the development of the ‘knowledge metropolis,’” says Taylor. “That’s the vision they see.”
In 1972, as part of this push, a section of the Fruit Belt was designated a medical corridor, which would ultimately become today’s sprawling Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “At that moment, they [city officials] engage in this massive, massive demolition of housing in this margin,” says Taylor, running a finger along the neighborhood’s western edge on a map, where the street grid gives way to massive city blocks of cavernous medical facilities. “Close to three or four hundred housing units, stimulating a loss of almost five to six thousand residents. They completely wiped that shit out.”
The razing of part of the Fruit Belt for the medical campus—combined with the building of Route 33, the expressway to the airport, which split the Fruit Belt in two in the early 1960s—accelerated the neighborhood’s decline. To this day, Fruit Belt streets abruptly dead-end at the highway’s edge. The houses on the blocks that border it are mostly abandoned, their windows smashed or boarded up.
A generation of disinvestment ensued, with few of the benefits generated by the hospitals, the highway or the so-called “knowledge metropolis” trickling down to the neighborhood that made way for them. Today, homes in the Fruit Belt run the gamut from well-kept to derelict. Many of the worst are owned by speculators, who buy them dirt cheap at city auctions and rent them out. But the defining feature of the Fruit Belt is its vacant lots. The neighborhood has over 200 of them, some overgrown and strewn with garbage, others kept tidy by adjacent property owners. Some blocks have so many empty lots that there are only a couple of houses remaining, surrounded on all sides by fields of grass and weeds.
“When the drug epidemic hit the east side, all these houses left vacant by the exodus became drug houses,” says Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo, an Open Society Foundations grantee that has lent support to the land trust. “The mayor ran on tearing them down, and that’s what he did, especially in the Fruit Belt.”
After decades of deterioration, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2012 State of the State Address announced a plan that many in the Fruit Belt believed could deliver a fatal blow to their community as they know it. The Buffalo Billion, Cuomo declared, would shower grants and investments over the city, and “offer national and global industries up to $1 billion in multiyear economic development incentives to come to Buffalo.”
The list of companies to be courted was heavy with medical science heavyweights, and residents of the Fruit Belt, stung by previous economic initiatives, didn’t share the governor’s enthusiasm. “There’s a larger narrative that’s written by people who have never been pushed out, about Buffalo coming back, the Buffalo Renaissance, the Buffalo Billion, the marketing of it, the politics of it, the branding of it as a success story,” says Max Anderson, director of public policy for Open Buffalo. “But what’s being swept under the rug are the stories of the people pushed out, priced out, and left behind.”
The Buffalo Billion announcement was a turning point. “The medical campus became the city’s focus in terms of subsidies, investment, and development,” says Anderson. “And it’s in such stark contrast with the Fruit Belt, so it just seemed like a natural starting point”—a sign that it was time to fight. But fight for what, exactly?
The battleground turned out to be parking spaces.
From Ice to Flowing Water
In a twist of fate, before the land trust campaign even began, it was workers from the medical campus who showed residents of the Fruit Belt why rallying together was so important. At issue was parking. The employee parking garages at the medical campus charged a fee, so many of its workers parked on the streets of the Fruit Belt instead, leaving nowhere for the neighborhood’s residents to put their cars.
“The first issue the community told us needed to be solved was the parking,” says Parker. “And we were like, parking? That’s not a major issue. But it was an issue. It was a huge quality-of-life issue.” It was the kind of prosaic, everyday urban problem that’s easy for people to get behind. “We had elders that had to walk 10 blocks to bring their groceries in when there’s eight feet of snow outside.”
“Having a win when you’re used to your community losing, that had an effect.”
— Max Anderson, Director of Public Policy, Open Buffalo
To this day, virtually any resident of the Fruit Belt will bring up the parking issue when talking about the struggles with the medical campus—including how they won. Unlike a community land trust, permit parking for neighborhood residents was something that a bureaucratic system was already in place to deal with in Buffalo. The Fruit Belt’s residents leveraged this system by getting together and voicing their concerns to their local leaders—making calls, visiting their offices—until the city agreed to put in place a residential parking permit zone. Not only did this improve the parking situation, but it also established a relationship between the neighborhood’s activists and the local government.
For skeptical residents, it also crystallized the power of organizing to lead to real-life change. “Having a win when you’re used to your community losing, that had an effect,” says Anderson.
The parking fight showed the neighborhood what it could do when everyone pulled in the same direction. But it didn’t magically smooth out generations of sometimes fractious dynamics. The Fruit Belt is a neighborhood where roots run deep, and alliances and rivalries have evolved over time. The organizing force governing these tumultuous dynamics is the array of neighborhood block clubs. With no official political capacity, the Fruit Belt’s block clubs nevertheless wield outsized influence, galvanizing support or opposition among their members in local decision-making.
The proposal to gather the Fruit Belt’s empty lots under a community land trust required a herculean lift to get the block clubs on board. “There were turf wars,” says Parker, “issues of the medical campus favoring one block club over another, a lot of tensions and hurt feelings that needed to be mediated to get us to a place where we could all sit around a table and hash out complex development strategies.”
Advocates for the land trust got the help of community-building organizations like Back to Basics Outreach Ministries and Buffalo Peacemakers—local groups with experience bringing people together to achieve a common goal. Usually, those goals revolved around gang violence, substance abuse or at-risk youth. In the case of the land trust, weeks and months of meetings and summits were held, persuading and explaining, listening and empathizing. “We probably held two dozen teach-ins, and they were standing room only,” says Open Buffalo’s Parker. “There was a lot of miseducation, like: Does that mean I’ll never own my house? If I want to sell my house do you guys take it and I don’t get a profit?”
“It’s a complicated idea and a hard sell,” says Buffalo State’s Steve Peraza. “Most folks buy a home and think, I’m going to live here for 10 or 15 years, I’m going to upgrade it, and I’m going to sell it and profit $30,000 to $50,000. It’s the way to be upwardly mobile in the U.S. We were asking folks to consider not profiting that much for the good of the whole community. So, a lot of education went into this. A lot of trying to explain the benefits of community power, community ownership, why resale restriction isn’t a bad thing, why the public good matters.”
Once the block clubs were on board, the activists turned their efforts toward the city’s leadership, which would turn out to be at least as difficult to convince of the land trust’s value. For one thing, the city was already pursuing another model of development: a land bank that acquires tax-defunct properties, wipes the slate clean, rehabs them and puts them back on the market. These were the very same types of properties the land trust wanted to acquire—not to sell on the market, but to hold and lease to community members at affordable prices. (The key difference is that a land bank is simply a mechanism to acquire property and resell it, thereby solving the problem of vacant, dilapidated, or otherwise problematic properties. A land trust, on the other hand, acquires these same properties and then holds onto them—rather than offloading them back onto the market, it functions somewhat like a long-term landlord, leasing its properties out to the occupants.)
Though the fundamental concepts were worlds apart, many land trust proponents believe city leaders deliberately obfuscated the difference between the two approaches. “Elected leaders would talk about them interchangeably and confuse residents,” says Peraza. “We spent months trying to keep folks unified on the land trust. The elected officials were talking to our community leaders, saying the land bank is already in place, so we had to say, ‘Hey, these are two different things. [The land bank] does not allow you community power.’”
One of the toughest—and most important—people the land trust proponents had to persuade was Council President Darius Pridgen. A pastor who grew up in Buffalo’s crumbling Perry Projects, Pridgen has led Buffalo’s city council since 2014, placing him second only to the mayor in the city’s political power structure. Though he was initially reluctant to support a development model that could overlap with the land bank, months of what Peraza calls “tenacious lobbying” by the activists eventually brought Pridgen around to embracing the land trust.
“It took a lot to get [Pridgen] to even acknowledge us,” confirms Peraza. “He was one of the folks who helped obfuscate the land trust and land bank. They were the ones saying ‘land bank’ one minute, ‘land trust’ the next, and getting folks confused. To turn the page there took a lot.”
“At a certain point, it became clear the Fruit Belt was mobilizing.”
— Franchelle Parker
Parker confirms this. “It didn’t start out as the best relationship,” she says of Pridgen. “It was the residents who convinced him that gentrification is a real thing. The message really started to resonate with him.” It helped that the Fruit Belt is squarely in the district Pridgen represents. “At a certain point, it became clear the Fruit Belt was mobilizing. There were calls every day. When we got Darius Pridgen on board, that thaw came really quickly,” says Peraza. “We went from ice to flowing water very quickly after that.”
Pridgen broke the ice during an episode of his local radio show in January 2018. “Basically,” he explained to his listeners, “land trust means those lots would stay in the hands of working-class and low-income people. So, whatever the community land trust builds there, as far as housing, for 99 years it cannot be transferred to wealthy people.” (Pridgen could not be reached for comment for this article.)
According to organizers, Pridgen’s support was a turning point. To give the land trust time to pull its resources together, he pushed through a moratorium temporarily halting sales of the neighborhood’s vacant lots. “This let us organize without the pressure of knowing that while we were trying to incorporate and do our research, the land would be sold,” says India Walton. For three years, the Fruit Belt’s lots were kept off the open market, during which time, the activists marshaled money and resources. They even traveled to Boston and Pittsburgh to learn about land trusts already in place in those cities.
That three-year moratorium on the sale of lots was a huge advantage. It gave us the opportunity to build a strong infrastructure,” says Parker. Now, it is being lifted incrementally. In late 2018, the first four of the neighborhood’s city-owned lots were sold to the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. “We’re not saying we’re against development,” Parker adds. “We’re saying development can be done without displacement.”
Community land trusts are becoming an increasingly popular tool for affordable housing advocates in cities across the country. New York formed its first citywide trust in 2017, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has supported making them an integral part of the city’s affordability strategy. Housing advocates in major cities like Miami and Oakland, as well as rural areas like northern Vermont, have all pursued community land trusts, though most point out that they work best as part of a larger affordability model.
That ideal continues past the point of purchase. The sale is just one step in a long-term process designed not only to help people secure housing, but to keep them in those homes. Part of the lease fees—roughly $35 a month—that the buyers pay to the land trust go to a community repair fund that can be used to maintain the houses. To people who buy property through the land trust, the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust offers what Walton calls “post-purchase stewardship,” including homeownership coaching and financial literacy training. And because the trust is run by the trust from top to bottom, it’s relatively easy for the organization to recognize when one of their homeowners is in financial trouble.
“We know that when a person is late continuously on their lease fee, it’s a good time to reach out and say, ‘Hey, is everything okay?’” says Walton. “We don’t want anyone to suffer in silence. We view our homeowners as part of our family.”
A Model for Hope
The moratorium gave the Fruit Belt’s community activists a window of opportunity, but now that it’s being lifted, Taylor has his doubts about whether the land trust will be enough to save the neighborhood from speculative development.
“The community land trust piece, I think it’s hugely important because they were the first to put the model in, and to me in that model lies the greatest possible hope,” says Taylor. But, he adds, “I have deep concerns about its design and structure. From my assessment of land in the Fruit Belt, they have been given the least strategic and important lands. They only have a handful of lots and those lots are not strategically located.”
Specifically, Taylor is concerned that the lots controlled by the land trust are noncontiguous and far from the medical campus. He’s also worried that once the moratorium is lifted, the neighborhood will quickly be gobbled up by developers, even with the land trust in place.
“I think once the moratorium is completely lifted, you’re going to see a tsunami of development roll through that neighborhood,” he says, “and I would predict, in 20 or 25 years, it will be a predominantly white space. I don’t think it can be stopped at this point.”
Parker of Open Buffalo acknowledges these challenges. “There are still some naysayers for the land trust,” she says. “We won’t say that everyone’s on board. At the same time, there are other communities in the city now asking themselves, ‘Do we need a land trust, too?’ To which I would say, do you have over 200 vacant lots?”
“But there’s an inspiring story that’s been created from the work happening in the Fruit Belt that gives communities a little bit of hope and that makes our work a little easier,” Parker continues. “Here it happened at an accelerated rate because of the medical campus, but these same issues are coming to Broadway-Fillmore, they’re coming to this area on Jefferson. Community dynamics are shifting, and you need to make sure you can stay in your home. Thanks to the work in the Fruit Belt, it makes it much more real. Because if you work your nine-to-five, pick up your kids, cook dinner, go to bed, and do it all over again, you rarely engage with civic life. But because the Fruit Belt has been such a visible fight it has inspired other communities to come into the fight.”
Will Doig is co-editor of Reasons to Be Cheerful, a digital solutions-journalism publication. Previously he was international editor at Next City, an online magazine about urban issues, and has written about cities and transportation for the Guardian and Foreign Policy. He is the author of High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia.
Photography and drone footage: © Douglas Levere for the Open Society Foundations