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International Achieving Excellence participant reflects on gentrification and the environment

Laurice Ponting | 6/20/2016 11:22:49 AM

Editor’s note: The first international participant recently joined the NeighborWorks Achieving Excellence Program, which is designed to help organizations achieve transformational change. Laurice Ponting, executive director of the Genesis Housing Association in London, joined the 2014-16 cohort of this 18-month program, for which Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government is the academic partner. Ponting blogged about her experience in the program, now in its 15th year, with seven cohorts of graduates. This is one excerpt, featuring what she learned during a trip to Puerto Rico with her fellow participants.

The Martin Pena Channel was once a navigable waterway running through the middle of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico--connecting a lagoon to the bay. Over the years, however, informal settlements have resulted in more than 5,000 homes along the channel, which now has filled with silt. Every time it rains, there is nowhere for the water to flow and the whole area floods. To make matters worse, there is no formal sewer system. This is a dangerous environment for residents.

One member of my group, Lyvia Rodriguez, runs the government agency (ENLACE) that has developed a comprehensive development plan for the area and is charged with dredging the canal and draining the land to restore the balance of the ecosystem in the San Juan Bay Estuary. After all, tourism is the fastest-growing sector in Puerto Rico. However, if these environmental problems are addressed, this land in a prime city location will soar in value, displacing the original residents.

In response, area residents and ENLACE established a community land trust to make sure families displaced by the project can remain in the area, living in replacement housing that would remain affordable in perpetuity.

This is a project of epic proportions. Few if any of the families (most of whom have lived in the community for at least two generations) have title deeds to the land. If Puerto Rico was a U.S. state it would most likely be filing for bankruptcy; however, its status as a commonwealth makes this impossible (for further insight into the reasons for this situation, read this article in The New York Times). So, there is huge ambition but little money.
The group of eight communities (called the G-8) along the channel, with an estimated population of around 25,000, are home to the poorest residents in Puerto Rico, but they have organized to monitor ENLACE and the trust administrators to assure the plan is followed. There are three requirements:

  1. All residents must secure legal rights to the land they occupy.
  2. Resources must be secured to build adequate infrastructure and dredge the canal.
  3. Land must be acquired by the trust.
The entire project was estimated to cost $600 million—in 2012.
Throughout the Achieving Excellence program, Lyvia had been sharing with us the challenges she has had to overcome as well as the progress being made. Our visit to San Juan brought to life those challenges in a way we couldn’t quite grasp in the Harvard classroom.

The Achieving Excellence group: Ponting is in the green shirt in the middle

 At first glance, many of the existing homes are well cared for and pretty. Soon enough though, we saw the evidence and heard from local residents the impact of the regular flooding on their lives. Flood waters typically reach three to four feet above ground level and the lack of a proper sewage system means residents are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of fecal coliforms. Gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin conditions are common, especially in the young and elderly. 
The resilience and optimism of the residents, community leaders, employees and board members of ENLACE, who are holding onto their dream of decent, affordable housing in the face of considerable adversity, are both humbling and inspiring.
Together ENLACE and the G-8 communities have managed to secure significant support from a number of different sources. This includes money from the Puerto Rican government (although its own resources are so tight some months it has difficulty in paying salaries); pro bono services from around 100 partners and 400 volunteers, including lawyers working on land rights; the commitment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help dredge the canal (a visit to the Pentagon secured the deal!); and the support of local and U.S-based foundations.
The G-8 communities and ENLACE have been awarded the UN World Habitat Award in recognition of the ground breaking nature of the project, including the use of a community land trust to assure affordable housing, secure land ownership and prevent gentrification, as well as the social impact of empowering communities to create a financially sustainable solution to their housing needs.

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