Brian Flagg

Brian Flagg

I have lived and worked right on the border of South Tucson and Tucson for the last 36 years at the Casa Maria Catholic Worker House and soup kitchen.

It has been a blessed existence.

But the barrio around Casa Maria is changing. Yes, it is gentrifying.

That could be a good thing if you have money to invest in real estate and are a developer buying up properties near here.

If you are a low- or middle-income family struggling like almost everyone in our barrio, it is not a good thing. The prospect of being displaced is added to your already precarious existence.

According to recent articles in the Arizona Daily Star, the average monthly rent in the Tucson metro area is now above $800 and near $1,200 in the downtown area. It is now impossible to purchase a downtown home for less than $350,000.

This dynamic pushes gentrification/displacement south from downtown and threatens the very existence of Casa Maria. Many seem to feel the gentrification process is inevitable.

Recently I have read many stories about gentrification happening in cities around the country and the creative action being taken to fight back. I have come to the realization that in virtually all of these cities it is not just opportunistic developers at fault, they are enabled and supported by local governments led by people whom we vote for.

In our region over the last 10 or 20 years, the gentrification/revitalization leader has been the city of Tucson, with the help of Rio Nuevo (whose board members are appointed the governor) and the University of Arizona. The gentrification/revitalization of downtown has become the legacy of local bureaucrats and elected officials.

Some of the policies and programs that have most fueled gentrification and that could be terminated or modified include:

• GPLET (Government Property Lease Excise Tax) is a tax incentive given to downtown developers to built in areas designated a slum or blighted. Downtown is obviously neither.

• Tax increment financing (TIF) is the funding source for Rio Nuevo. In Portland, 25 percent of TIF money is mandated for affordable housing to mitigate gentrification.

• The business improvement district (BID) is funded by local governments to benefit private business interests.

• The streetcar is much more valuable to downtown economic development than it is to transporting large numbers of people.

• Luxury student housing continues to be built downtown to lure out-of-state students who can pay higher tuition and afford the many new downtown bars and restaurants.

The truth is that there is an affordable-housing crisis in Tucson. According to the Star, there are 25 evictions a day, with almost 13,000 evictions action taken a year.

Also, there are more than 16,000 families on a waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers while social-service agencies are trying to deal with a backup of folks who applied three years ago.

Obviously, the priority of the city in recent years is making money off downtown instead of using resources to combat the housing crisis being experienced by families living in poverty.

My feeling is that there truly is hope for changing this.

This year’s elections for Tucson mayor and three City Council seats provides a great opportunity to raise the issue of gentrification.

My experience is that this is a hot topic and will motivate residents to get educated and vote for candidates who will defy monied interests and stand for the housing needs of poor and working families.

The future of Casa Maria and the survival of downtown barrios as we know them hang in the balance.

Brian Flagg has lived and worked at Casa Maria for more than 35 years. Contact him at