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A Bodega Cat in the Cat Cafe: How Local Market-Based Legislation Can Supplement Housing Codes to Preemptively Address Inequitable Gentrification

A Bodega Cat in the Cat Cafe: How Local Market-Based Legislation Can Supplement Housing Codes to Preemptively Address Inequitable Gentrification

Cydnee Bence

Ownership is a tricky thing, especially when ownership causes displacement. The law is full of legal fictions imperfectly strung together to try and balance competing ownership interests.[1]Gentrification weaves together  legal ownership,[2]personal ownership,[3]and historical ownership[4]—making the problems associated with gentrification tangled, tightly wound, and tricky. Often home ownership, specifically whoowns the homes in a neighborhood, is where the gentrification debate takes place.[5]However, the gentrification knot cannot be untangled by only looking at one thread. Gentrification law and policy must consider the economic factors beyond home ownership to achieve fair, just, and equitable community revitalization.

For example, Whole Foods—the fourth and final horseman of gentrification—is often blamed for harnessing the characteristic demographic shift of gentrification.[6]From Englewood, Chicago,[7]to Detroit, Michigan,[8]to Harlem, New York,[9]Whole Foods has been an omen of rising property values,[10]displacement,[11]and erasure.[12]  Nothing in the housing code could have prevented a Whole Foods from moving into any of these areas; the situs of a Whole Foods is a market demand phenomenon.[13] Consequently, the housing code is caught in a reactionary position of responding to increasing property values.[14]Rather than trying to build a better housing code around a Whole Foods, municipalities should build stronger labor protections and stable market initiatives that prevent places like Whole Foods from displacing community members.

In considering displacement and ownership, the discussion is superficially about who owns the homes in the community.[15]Deeper though, the discussion is about who owns the sense of place, and whether that ownership should have legal protection.[16]Angela Helm, a lifelong resident of Harlem recently discussed Whole Foods’ push into Harlem stating, “[i]t’s really about my sense of place and belonging in a community I have called my home for nearly 20 years. It’s about something you knew and loved intimately being snatched away. It’s about erasure and helplessness. It’s about anger and loss.”[17]Ms. Helm saw how business ownership displaced community members; white-havens moved in like Starbucks, Whole Foods, and trendy bars.[18]According to Ms. Helm, “[g]entrification did not begin with Whole Foods, but deep in my heart, I know that this new development does not bode well for those who are not wealthy.”[19]

Current legal efforts to solve the displacement crisis caused by gentrification too often focus on housing codes and home ownership incentives.[20]This Note will discuss how business owners and community planners can create a better legal framework to avoid the displacement of families put at risk by unequitable gentrification.  Part I will explain that it is essential to identify places most likely facing gentrification in the near future. Moreover, consultation, consideration, and active participation from community members who are at risk of displacement must be central to community revitalization. Part II of this Note will analyze why the law must demand more of corporate in-movers, rather than simply assume their presence is inevitable or beneficial.[21]Following this analysis, in Part III this Note takes an alternative approach by arguing that people feel the pain of displacement in the home, but the fragile market in future gentrified areas is the catalyst.

[1]See, e.g.,W.L. Summers, Property in Oil and Gas, 29 Yale L.J. 174, 176 (1919) (explaining the legal fiction that oil ownership rights are most akin to the pursuit and capture of wild animals).

[2]See Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis 72–73 (Basic Books 2017) (explaining the effects of gentrification displacement on renters verses homeowners).

[3]See id. at 58 (demonstrating the hypocrisy of urbanists failing to recognize their part in gentrification).

[4]Jackelyn Hwang, The Social Construction of a Gentrifying Neighborhood: Reifying and Redefining Identity and Boundaries in Inequality, 52 Urb. Aff. Rev.98 (2015).

[5]Florida, supra note 2, at 72–73.

[6]Zain Khalid, The Four Horsemen of Gentrification, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency(Dec. 25, 2015),

[7]Blair Walker, Is Gentrification on Whole Foods’ Shopping List?, Atlanta Black Star (Aug. 16, 2017), (giving the locals’ opinions on one Chicago-based and new Detroit Whole Foods).


[9]Angela Helm, On Whole Foods, Gentrification and the Erasure of Black Harlem, The Root (Aug. 3, 2017), the connection between gentrification in Harlem and Whole Foods in Harlem).

[10]Walker, supra note 7.


[12]Helm, supra note 9.

[13]See Heather Haddon & Shibani Mahtani, Whole Foods Sets Up Shop in Low-Income Neighborhoods, Wall St. J.(Oct. 9, 2016), (quoting Whole Foods co-chief Executive Walter Robb’s assertion that Whole Food’s is not a non-profit, but is instead a for-profit business in Englewood, Chicago).

[14]See Richard H. Sander, Yana A. Kucheva, & Jonathan M. Zasloff, Moving Toward Integration 85 (Harvard University Press 2018) (justifying the economic motivations of early housing boards).

[15]Florida, supra note 2, at 72.

[16]See, e.g.,Richard H. Sander, Yana A. Kucheva, & Jonathan M. Zasloff, supra note 14, at 375 (depicting how civil rights protections have changed potential home owner’s perceptions of place).

[17]Helm, supra note 9.



[20]See, e.g., Eric M. Wilk et al., Intergovernmental Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act: The Fair Housing Assistance Program in 33 Fair and Affordable Housing in the U.S. Trends, Outcomes, Future Directions 1, 3–4 (Robert Mark Silverman, Kelly L. Patterson eds. 2011) (explaining the history and enforcement failures of the Fair Housing Act); see also, Robert Mark Silverman et. al., Making Housing Policy Fairer and More Affordable in the U.S. in 33 Fair and Affordable Housing in the U.S. Trends, Outcomes, Future Directions1, 5 (Robert Mark Silverman, Kelly L. Patterson eds. 2011) (hypothesizing new housing mechanisms to create equitable housing policy); see also, David Varady, What Should Housing Vouchers Accomplish? in 33 Fair and Affordable Housing in the U.S. Trends, Outcomes, Future Directions1, 125 (Robert Mark Silverman, Kelly L. Patterson eds. 2011) (criticizing the current housing voucher system and posing possible solutions).

[21]See, e.g.The Urban Neighborhood Wal-Mart: A Blessing Or A Curse?, NPR Morning Edition (Apr. 1, 2015), (debating the benefits and challenges communities face when welcoming big-box stores).



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