How Mesa, Ariz. Is combating displacement with community conversations


Mesa, a city just east of Phoenix, Arizona, is part of the state’s fastest growing metropolitan area and one of the most populous cities in the country. But alongside its rapid growth and development, new divides between people and places are emerging, especially in the city center, where an approved development estimated at $ 1.27 billion is expected over the next five years. .[i]

For the predominantly Latino and low-income residents of downtown Southside neighborhoods, the question has become: how can residents leverage the growth and development of the inner city to benefit longtime residents of color. that have been neglected and deprioritized for much of the city’s history?

The community organization we represent, RAIL Community Development Corporation, believes that a good place to start is to Pláticas—Community conversations that meet residents where they already are, identify informal leaders who are already working on behalf of their community, and provide neighbors with the tools necessary to initiate their own ‘maintenance’ projects to shape their development. district.

Changing development forces in a diverse suburban city

Historically, most development in Mesa was concentrated in the eastern sections of the city, where farmland has been converted into housing. But just as these shiny new developments represented progress for some, the inner-city neighborhoods of Southside de Mesa have become more Latino, more impoverished, more neglected and more economically precarious. Today, Southside neighborhoods are 71% Latin American and 37% foreign-born, with 63% of households speaking Spanish as their primary language and a median household income of less than $ 32,500. .[ii]

These development models began to change in the early 2000s and have since accelerated as more dollars pour into the downtown area. Today, of the billion and more projects approved for development in the region are for the state of Arizona, approximately 1,100 units of luxury apartment buildings under construction and 2,500 additional units at various pre-development stages.

While this development brought new growth to the previously neglected core of Mesa, it also raised new concerns of displacement and exclusion among Latino residents of Southside.

Mural photo that says "Mesa"

Photo credit: Rail CDC

How an informal community group became a permanent civic infrastructure

In 2013, an informal group of community members, including ourselves, began to organize under the name RAIL Mesa to prevent displacement during the construction of an extension of the light rail to connect the center- city ​​of Mesa to other metropolitan transit corridors in Phoenix.

For six years, we worked as an informal community collective in the inner-city neighborhoods of Mesa and Southside to implement various community initiatives including a Heat Action Plan, a Mesa Prototyping Project, and a small business technical assistance program for underserved business owners. During the early stages of this work, we saw the urgent need for a formal organization to take the lead in bringing residents and businesses together to advance local initiatives.

To address this need, and with the support of LISC Phoenix, we launched RAIL Community Development Corporation as a formal organization in 2019. Our mission is to support a more resilient community and economy with access to jobs, public transport, housing and quality education for all. , working with neighbors, small businesses, artists, nonprofits and more. A key step towards these ends was to help Southside residents identify and implement anti-displacement strategies.

Pláticas: Community conversations to build community power

The first goal of our anti-displacement program was to understand the layers within Southside communities, listen to a wide range of perspectives and identify community engagement strategies to support neighborhood priorities.

We have implemented a series of Pláticas—Or community conversations — in the neighborhoods of Southside. The purpose and format of the Pláticas is simple: bring people from their neighborhood together in places where they already meet and discuss the opportunities and challenges they face. These gatherings provide an opportunity to build relationships and identify existing leaders in each of these neighborhoods, who can then help build membership and engage their neighbors in anti-displacement strategies.

To get a better idea of ​​where to hold the Pláticas, we started an observation phase by walking, cycling and driving around neighborhoods to see where residents congregate at different times of the day. This allowed us to see the informal networks that already exist in order to be able to set up Pláticas in areas where people are already comfortable going.

Photo of a community event.

Photo credit: Rail CDC

One of the first places we identified was a pop-up taco shop (Ricky’s Tacos) that a family set up in their backyard over the weekend. The family agreed to let RAIL CDC have a Plática during opening hours. RAIL CDC would pay for the food, and to spread the word, we paid neighborhood youth to distribute flyers, which drew about 40 people from the neighborhood. Seventy-four neighborhood residents participated in the second Plática, hosted in the neighborhood adjacent to another taco pop-up, Southside Tacos. These conversations are ongoing and part of a community engagement strategy to build and build trust with those who have typically been left out of the planning.

The week after each Plática, RAIL CDC is organizing a “walking audit” in this neighborhood. We invite all who attend the Plática and other residents to walk with us around their neighborhood and identify the physical aspects of the neighborhood that they love and the challenges that can be improved. Throughout the walk, people take pictures of these opportunities and challenges so that we can record them and put them into a report. The report is then presented to neighborhood participants, as well as other residents who were unable to attend previous engagements, so that they can discuss and decide on small projects that can be prototyped in the neighborhood.

Of Pláticas to the holding of place

To move from Pláticas At community-led place conservation projects, we are offering a series of workshops for residents to learn the process of prototyping small-scale place conservation projects in their neighborhood and along the commercial corridor. These projects are run by residents, and RAIL CDC is currently fundraising and leveraging the partnership with LISC Phoenix and State Farm, which have provided seed funding for creative site conservation projects.

This is just the beginning. The next phase of this work will be to launch the long and exciting process of community economic inclusion, with a strong emphasis on anti-displacement strategies. While displacement is a widespread challenge in hot-market towns across the country, we believe Mesa may be well prepared to combat it. Our efforts to date have helped us strengthen relationships, build trust, and find the small victories that will inspire residents to step up to this difficult and complex challenge.


[i] Approved developments and estimated value compiled by the authors from publicly available information from various sources including the city of Mesa. [ii] Information compiled by the author on the basis of census data from several census tracts of which the Southside neighborhoods fall MSA-State-County-Tract: 38060-04-013-4220.01 and 38060-04-013-4219.02):;