Buy Back the Block

Art by Sumartist (Toronto), photo by Bernard Spragg on Flickr

The FWD #180 • 425 Words

Did Nipsey Hussle bring us a tool to counter gentrification?

For hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle, “Buy Back the Block” wasn’t just another verse.  It was part of a real strategy to buy back properties in Hyde Park, the gentrifying south Los Angeles neighborhood he called home, to combat displacement and remedy a history of disinvestment. 

Before Nipsey Hussle’s shocking and untimely death in March 2019, he was working with neighbors, nonprofits, and lawmakers to develop an investment fund to buy back homes and commercial space and transfer ownership to existing residents. The artist had already bought a strip mall with the intention of developing a grocery store and at least 80 housing units. 

In a time when many cities are dealing with gentrification amid soaring property values, the buy back the block model is an equitable way for long-time residents to not only remain in their communities, but also have community control of development within their neighborhoods.

Hussle was also planning to take advantage of Opportunity Zone tax incentives to help spur further investment in the neighborhood. Created by the The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, they’re economic development tools meant to encourage investment in low-income neighborhoods or districts.

Of course, this idea hinges on the generosity of a local philanthropist giving back. But what about other communities who might not have an “angel investor”? How could they buy back the block? 

One possibility could be for locals to establish a community land trust (CLT) to promote collective ownership and control of land. Even though CLTs are not new concepts—there are over 225 community land trusts in the United States—creating them usually takes a great deal of grassroots organizing. 

Gentrification is a complex web of forces that requires active and intentional coordination between local, state, and federal levels to mitigate. Decision-makers have to balance reinvesting in urban neighborhoods  with systemically lowering housing costs to allow  low-income residents to keep living  in city centers.

But buying back the block can make this equation easier. It can help revitalize vacant lots and encourage locals to buy brick and mortar shops to service their communities. A neighborhood that is less cost-burdened is a safer, stronger, and more livable neighborhood.

Slowing gentrification means sharing ownership with existing residents. What made Nipsey Hussle’s “buy back the block” strategy so powerful was the reinvestment and transformation of the material conditions of his fellow neighbors toward a thriving, self-realized community. In the words of Nipsey Hussle, “What was once gray skies is now white clouds.”

The marathon continues.

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