PHOENIX, Ariz. — What does it take to lift a community out of poverty? Many times, the answer is bringing in developers to build new housing and businesses, but that usually leads to gentrification.
However, new research that has been decades in the making shows there are communities across the country that have made their communities better and wealthier—all while keeping many families in their homes.
Darren Chapman is part of the effort to achieve this in Phoenix. He lives in a neighborhood called South Mountain, and he started a nonprofit called the Tiger Mountain Foundation that employs people in the neighborhood through a community garden.
“This community means everything to me,” said Chapman. “The norm in our community is lower socioeconomic but very hardworking, prideful people.”
Rodney Smith is one of the community members now working in the garden, and he said it’s made a big impact in his life.
“Growing up in this community, I grew up in a house 10 minutes down the road, and I’ve seen a lot of the social problems, the social issues, the financial woes, the many different things that go on in this community,” said Smith. “It's a multifaceted problem.”
Smith struggled to find his way, and he ended up serving time. Tiger Mountain Foundation picked him back up.
“When I was growing up, I didn't know about a lot of these resources, and it led me to make a lot of wrong decisions in my life that ultimately led me to going to prison," said Smith. "Now that I've seen these resources, I'm actually a catalyst for change. I can be a catalyst for change in this community.”
“We see folks who have come through substance issues,” said Chapman. “We've seen folks come through reentry issue. There's 60% in Arizona, people who recidivate, right, and we're seeing almost 85% of folks who don't recidivate within our organization. So, that would be the big thing is to see people somehow get engaged, get it truly involved in how this could be a better narrative.”
This nonprofit and many others that have moved into the South Mountain area in recent years are just one sign a "better narrative" is possible and is already happening.
“Now, I have a positive outlook. I have a purpose, I have a vision, and I have a future community,” said Smith.
A 2022 report found that between 2000 and 2015, 193 neighborhoods with high levels of poverty decreased their poverty rates by at least 10% without displacing their existing communities.
Researchers Rhett Morris and Rohit Acharya found there were three external factors and five internal factors that contributed to reduced poverty without major gentrification.
The external factors were positive economic growth in the surrounding area, a lower homicide rate, and a lower risk of displacement in the county.
The internal neighborhood factors included higher rates of homeownership, lower levels of residential vacancy, increases in housing density, greater rates of self-employment, and a presence of community-building organizations—like the Tiger Mountain Foundation.
“The most important thing for people to understand is, is that positive change is possible,” said Rhett Morris. “Many of the types of things that people have recognized kind of individually— when we see them working together, really can move the needle.
He adds that displacing residents doesn’t lead to improving a community.
“A lot of the communities where we see the sort of positive change, the indicators are improving because of what people are doing kind of from the bottom up, not the top down. It's local neighbors coming together and forming community organizations. It's small nonprofits that are helping more people become homeowners. It's people working together to support local small businesses. It doesn't take the federal government or some large foundation investing $1 billion. It's more about taking what's already going to be invested in the community and trying to put it to its kind of most valuable use,” said Morris.
South Phoenix is seeing poverty reduction without major gentrification because the community is pouring back into itself.
“Well, it's really about building the kingdom. We're building that with individuals who need assistance with grants or HUD housing, with services that strengthen that family unit,” said Dr. Gaines-Dillard.
She and Chapman are part of a network of nonprofits making this community a statistic—for positive change.
“We want to be a template and best practice example for big city, big cities across the United States of America,” said Chapman.
“I’ve seen the power of a community garden to change a community, and I really want to turn this whole world into a garden,” said Smith.
To read the full report on reducing poverty without displacing residents, click HERE.