Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Urban Agriculture As A Tool For Real Estate Sales


Golden Gate Community Park Garden
Hello Everyone:

Today I'd like to spend some time talking about community gardens.  They seem to be sprouting everywhere and used to attract younger potential residents escaping the sky-high housing prices in San Francisco .  One such enterprise is the Golden Gate Community Garden in the East San Francisco Bay Area.  Lauren Markham, in a recent post for New Yorker Magazine titled "Gentrification and the Urban Garden," shares with readers how these gardens are being used to attract potential residents to Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley area (NOBE).  NOBE is a collection of long established neighborhoods that, since the fifties has been home to low- and middle income African-Americans.  The creation of a community garden is part of the rebranding of the area to drum up real estate business in the area and is an example of how something as simple can be used in the name of gentrification.

Phat Beets Produce logo
The Golden Gate Community Garden is a program run by the city of Oakland, involving several community garden programs including one manned by the non-profit organization Phat Beets Produce.  On the surface, a community garden sounds like a great addition to any neighborhood.  A plot of land for growing fresh produce, worked by the residents.  It's a nice way to encourage people to come together and take pride in their neighborhood.  A community garden is a great selling point for any potential homeowner.   In 2012 Bay-Area realtor Linnette Edwards posted a video promoting NOBE, a name devised by developers for the area.  The video touts "The fabulous edible garden movement..."  The video was part of the sales pitch used by Ms. Edwards to attract potential clients.  Max Cadji, a Phat Beets volunteer, doesn't quite it that way. "Our work wasn't the cause of gentrification, but our programs and our aesthetic were being used to sell and help displace people."  In response, the organization produced a parody video, demanding that Ms. Edwards remove Phat Beets from the NOBE website.

Oakmore neighborhood
Oakland, California
Linnette Edwards understands the criticism and empathizes with those who've been displaced from their communities but firmly believes that promoting the community garden and local farmers markets will benefit both newcomers and long-term residents.  "The energy of community gardens helps curb crime," says Ms. Edwards.  "Having a new park in the area creates a hub of community and conversation."  Ms. Edwards continues, "First, there is a community garden.  then what we hope will follow is a cafĂ©, and a little market that might pop up providing organic food.  These all draw people to an area."  They are a draw but not the sole reason.  In terms of dollars and cents, Ms. Edwards explains, "The way that these community gardens translate into home prices is self-evident...It impacts resale value."  However, Ms. Edwards does not know of any real-estate agents who actually fund the gardens but suggest that, perhaps, they should.

Berkeley Hills
Berkeley, California
Prior to the NOBE rebrand, it was difficult to find a grocery store in the area.  There was an abundance of liquor stores and bodegas but finding healthy affordable food was a challenge.  These "food deserts" have been the targets of community organizations such as Phat Beets, which try to provide access to low-cost nutritious food in low-income communities.  Such programs typically have an anti-commercial stance: "we don't need to buy our food from big chain stores at a high markup, or rely on government handouts, because we can grow our own."  Be that as it may, the community gardens have aesthetic appeal, giving the area a certain rustic charm that makes real estate more attractive.  It didn't take a long time for realtors and developers to cash in on that commercial potential.
"It's not uncommon for real-estate agents to stage veggie beds in the back yard," say Ms. Edwards who has often employed this tactic herself.  "It's a life style that buyers buy into," she explained.  "The life style of growing food.  Which they may or may not do, but they're buying into that food culture."

Blighted lot in Oakland, California
 Typically, the most suitable lots for urban agriculture are blighted lots, found in low-income communities such as NOBE and other post-industrial neighborhoods such as West Oakland and West Berkeley.  As it happens, these neighborhoods are also in the sights of developers eager for construction.  One example is the long neglected lot across the street from Jeff DeMartini's commercial property in West Berkeley, previously his grandfather's cabinet factory.  The lot was overgrown with grass, weeds were invading the sidewalk, graffiti depicting male genitalia, and the occasional dead tree came crashing down.  Last year, the community agriculture organization Urban Adamah bought the lot and announced its intention to install a small farm complete with livestock.  At first, Mr. Demartini thought the chickens and goats might further degrade the site but within a matter of weeks, interest in his property increased as renters came calling.

Urban Adamah farm
  According to Gopal Dayaneni, a member of the advocacy group Movement Generation, "One of the signs of a so-called 'quality' neighborhood is open space and green space.  In real estate terms this translates to higher prices.  Often, community farms are started with the intention of supporting low-income communities, says Tiny Gray Garcia an activist and journalist.  Once they go up Ms Garcia adds, "the real-estate companies come in and start to reassess the land and property value to displace poor people of color.  The community-gardening people may be well meaning, but they don't always understand that they're pawns in the game."  Harsh.

 Ideological differences can surface even when the relationship between developers and farming non-profits is strong.  For example, before the recession, the San Francisco based development company Emerald Fund invest in an undeveloped two-acre plot in West Oakland with the intention of building housing units.  The lot ran up against a gentrifying area but was also bordered by run-down Victorians, abandoned industrial buildings, tarp-covered van and buses that were, perhaps, being used as homes.  Enter the recession and the Emerald Fund gave up on its residential development plans.  Marc Babsin, a principal at the firm said that in order to recoup some of the lost costs, the company got in touch with with City Slicker Farms which sought and won a state grant to increase urban green space.  The grant funds allowed the community agricultural organization to purchase much of the land.  "We had to spend a lot of time and resources, when we owned it, keeping the homeless out.  People would set up encampments, people would dump things there.  Instead of that, having this very activated space where people are coming and going and growing vegetables-it's got to be better for the neighborhood and property values," said Mr. Babsin.

The Emerald Fund is still hoping to build on the remaining land and wants to make sure that the farm is still there as a draw for future condominium residents, not replaced by more blight.  "The farm is for the whole community-not just for your condos," says City Slicker Farm executive director, Barbara Finnin.  Ms. Finnin pointed out that poor people have been gardening and raising chicken in low-income urban communities across America for years.  "That it is now fashionable is more a function of whose stories get heard and whose don't," opines Ms. Finnin.  And those stories are part of the broader connection to gentrification-a sometimes painful transformation process and sometimes profitable process for the parties involved.  If young home owner want to raise chickens and goats, real-estate agents love them. Personally speaking, chickens and goats belong on farms with people who know what to do with them not as neighborhood enhancements.

For more information on the community agriculture organization featured here:




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