Romanticizing Environmental Legal Advocacy

By: Sarena Malsin

Happy Belated Valentine’s Day! Around this time, we are all filled with romantic ideas. One romantic idea I’ve recently been concerned with in particular is the idea that all environmental legal advocacy produces exclusively positive results. I first encountered this phenomenon as a bright-eyed, idealistic environmental legal intern in Washington, D.C. It was there that I learned about the concept of environmental, or “green” gentrification.

Social researchers have assigned the term “environmental gentrification” to situations where environmentally-oriented development projects, such as beautification measures or creation of green spaces, cause the same type of displacement, or “pricing out” of longstanding residents due to an influx of affluent residents able to afford the properties with increased property values.[1] This type of gentrification is especially prevalent in lower income areas subject to residential development projects such as neighborhoods near the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.[2] and neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.[3]

As future environmental lawyers, those who work in the public interest realm often find themselves advocating for environmental development projects either as part of settlement agreements, government subsidized projects, or facets of a city’s land use laws or Comprehensive Development Plans. It is important to note that these projects, while seeming to be solutions, also pose their own socioeconomic problems. This is why we should examine possible legal solutions to environmental gentrification, so we can continue our work while benefiting surrounding communities as possible.

Ongoing legal research suggests that litigation after development projects have already begun is rarely successful. This is because courts are generally very deferential to the zoning boards reviewing legal challenges against development plans.[4] There are also numerous administrative hurdles standing between plaintiffs and a successful challenge to a zoning board’s administrative decision to approve a plan.[5]

On the other hand, preemptive solutions, such as community land trusts, seem to be much more effective. Community land trusts are non-profits that acquire large amounts of land and the buildings on that land.[6] It can lease buildings out to residents at affordable prices and retains control of the land, thereby shielding it from drastic increases in property value and housing prices and allowing existing residents to remain in their original neighborhoods.[7] Community land trusts also create more community agency and involvement in development plans and allow residents to participate in, rather than just be affected by, environmental development projects in their neighborhoods.[8]

Generally, it seems that environmental legal advocates should look to use a community’s existing zoning and property law tools, such as Comprehensive Plans and community land trusts, to create environmental legal solutions that are also equitable.

[1] Sarah Fox, Environmental Gentrification, 90 U. Colo. L. Rev. 803 (2019).

[2] Kashaf Momin, Confronting Environmental Gentrification: The Case of the Anacostia, Environmental Law Institute (June 3, 2019)

[3] Juliana A. Maantay and Andrew R. Maroko, Brownfields to Greenfields: Environmental Justice Versus Environmental Gentrification International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15, 2233, 5 (October 12 2018)

[4] Cole v. D.C. Zoning Comm’n, No. 17-AA-0360, 2019 WL 2637728, at *4 (D.C. June 27, 2019).

[5] Id.

[6] Julie Gilgoff, Local Responses to Today’s Housing Crisis: Permanently Affordable Housing Models, 20 CUNY L. Rev. 587, 591 (2017)

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 592.

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