The Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association is hosting its first-ever home tour this weekend, scheduled to start Saturday at 1pm at 406 Oakwood Ave. Fifteen homes are scheduled to be on the tour, which provides a good view into the renewal and revitalization happening in this historic neighborhood. The tour is free, though a $5 donation is appreciated.
Among the houses available for viewing are homes in various stages of renovation, along with a look at properties currently available for sale. Learn more at the home tour web site.
The tour comes on the heels of an interesting and thoughtful cover story in the latest issue of the Independent Weekly, the provocative cover of which asks "Rubble to Revival: Do the poor have to leave?"
Mosi Secret's feature -- which is absolutely worth a deep read -- is, to my mind, at its best when sharing anecdotes and on-the-ground reporting, be it about the efforts to block the demolition of 407 Ottawa Ave., or a neighborhood cleanup effort that drew mixed local reviews, or the ACORN-led protests over rental housing conditions.
As much as I appreciate the individual threads that Secret draws with his usual evocative language, there is a core theme underlying the article, one that undergirds -- almost as an assumption -- discussions that touch on matters of neighborhood revitalization and renovation.
That theme? The idea that gentrification's displacement of poverty is, by definition, a solely negative social cost and a purely problematic outcome.
First, let's connect the threads that run through the piece:
Cleveland-Holloway's revival embodies a tension between new and old. The dozen or so new homeowners, mostly white young professionals, artists, musicians—and some real estate agents—have formed a strong and unified voice, advocating for much-needed neighborhood revitalization and historic preservation. But longtime renters, many of whom are low-income and have few housing options, occupy most of the crumbling homes.
According to 2000 Census data, two-thirds of the population in this area is black; nearly half the households earn less than $15,000 each year, and more than 40 percent have annual incomes of less than $10,000. There are social implications; it is unclear if the poor residents will benefit or be displaced.
The emphasis above is mine. The dichotomy is clear, as is the thesis of the piece: displacement of the poor is antithetical with any benefit to renters. It's a theme that continues throughout the article.
Yet public and private investment downtown all but assures the neighborhood will change. Greenfire Development, Scientific Properties and Blue Devil Ventures have begun projects that could bring thousands of residents, workers and shoppers downtown.... The face of the neighborhood is transforming, with or without the poorer renters....
Most of the new homeowners express a sense of responsibility to the renters, but have not determined how to work with them....
Few people in Cleveland-Holloway can move around the corner when their homes fail to meet housing code. On March 27, the newly reorganized Durham branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, staged a protest to draw attention to living conditions in Cleveland-Holloway. Organizers had been canvassing the neighborhood, talking to residents about their concerns. "A lot of people are coming forward saying 'We are being victimized by our landlords,'" said Gloria Harris, ACORN's lead Durham organizer....
"The reason people do not call and complain [about substandard housing conditions] is because if you do not find an affordable to place to live, you don't want to be put out on the street," says Muna Mujahid, an activist who lives on Holloway Street and is active in ACORN and the Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association. Her home on Holloway Street has also been condemned, but housing inspectors have allowed her to remain long enough to find another place to live.
In the fight to preserve historic homes and to revive the neighborhood, the renters' needs also need to be considered. "I know the [Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association] has been dealing with some other stuff," Mujahid adds. "I just think ACORN can be a little more effective. We're fighting different battles on different fronts."
It would be easy to read this article and draw a straightforward conclusion:
- Neighborhood is inhabitated by largely-poor residents who face substandard housing conditions.
- New buyers, mostly middle-class or middle-class strivers, move in and start fixing up residences, but don't reach out to help the renters.
- Renters continue to struggle in squalor, and will eventually be displaced to make way for a gentrified neighborhood as landlords sell.
To wit: will renters "benefit or be displaced?"
Problem is, I just don't think it's that simple.
Let's take a moment to face a cruel, hard reality about life in Durham. Rental property often flat-out stinks, particularly that which rents to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The "slumlord" term has been bandied about after more famous Durhamites than I could name -- make that "should name," in light of libel laws.
Soon after I moved here, I heard a tale from a longtime and
prominent Bull City resident about how as a child, he rode around
through impoverished neighborhoods of Durham with his parents as they
collected rents in low-income districts where they owned and managed
rental property. It is, I suspect, a background that's frequently found
among many Durham families of some means.
Obviously, the new residents moving into Cleveland-Holloway aren't responsible for the historic disinvestment in the neighborhood -- it's a responsibility that lies with those who've owned these properties for decades or generations, eking out a rental income from each unit that nets out to a decent side income, but nowhere near enough to incent them to invest enough to properlymaintain the structures.
It's part of the reason I and many others have argued for the need for mandatory rental unit inspections, a program that would take tenants out of the sometimes eviction-inducing process of reporting violations themselves. Not surprisingly, that proposal has meekly morphed into a voluntary compliance program. I don't have exact data on how many landlords agreed to participate, though I once heard the number bandied about that out of 300 invited, less than 100 opted to participate. (I'll try to firm that number up and see what the actual level is, be it more or less.)
Heck, we have the legislature pushing to forbid cities from instituting such rental inspection programs in the first place.
So I ask: Is the dichotomy really as simple as whether renters renters "benefit or be displaced" by gentrification?
I don't think they're benefitting now, that's for certain. In the absence of any power to compel property improvements, low-rent housing ambles along in declining condition. And neighborhoods become filled with such properties, concentrating poverty into socioeconomically isolated warrens.
As we talked about before when looking the "Two Durhams" theme a few
months back, the concentration of poverty is a recipe for social
turmoil. Crime and educational performance are at their heart, I would
argue, functions of concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty; the
latter remains a situation that must be addressed, as a city and a
nation, if we're to restore economic opportunity and break the cycle of
Creating economic diversity, to my mind, means creating affordable housing across the geography of a city, yes. But it also means inducing the return of a middle class back to underinvested neighborhoods.
I spoke with Ken Gasch, who's quoted in the article, about what this kind of economic integration means. As someone who sees neighborhood successes and failures at an intimate level through the INC, I think Ken speaks to this better than I can:
I don't agree that we need a neighborhood of dilapidated, falling down, 90% rental housing, either.... We need rental property in our community. People come to our community, they're not ready to buy a house, maybe they're just going to be here a little while. We need rental housing. But we don't need a community with 90% rental housing.
What I encourage [landlords] to do is, hey, say you've got an owner that's got four of five of them in there. Talk to your owner and say, hey, let's let one or two fo these go. Let's get one or two of them in the hands of owner-occupants up in there, so that we can bring that stability up. I believe very much that a neighborhood with lots of owners is a much stabler neighborhood....
You have a neighborhood where there's no opportunity. There's no opportunity. Everybody is poor. And I'll walk with you sometime. There are folks selling dope in the middle of the day in these neighborhoods... And I don't think that this should be transformed into Trinity Park, where everything's $150 a square foot. But damn it, we do need to mix it up a little bit. And by mix it up, I don't mean racially, I mean socioeconomically. I mean, if a kid's growing up in a neighborhood, and he's got a lawyer on one side, maybe he's got a plumber, a retired person [on the other side].
And now it's just like, everybody's poor. And what does that kid see? And he starts to sell dope. That's what I think about gentrification, is it's not necessarily a bad thing....
I got criticized because we sold a property short of foreclosure, and the gentleman who lived there was upset that he had to move. And we worked to help him relocate. The buyer even helped him to pay the deposit at the next place that he moved to.
We took him from a place where raw sewage was running into the back yard. It didn't have any sort of a heater other than resistive heating. The bathroom, the commode when he would flush would run water out all over the floor. And we put him in a place... that everything worked. I'm not the most sensitive person on the planet, but when confronted with a situation like that, I like to think that I do the compassionate thing that I was taught to do growing up.
Gentrification is, of course, a buzzword, and a code word of sorts.
I've talked here at length of the risk of gentrification -- by which
I'm literally talking about a wholescale transformation of central
Durham, a scenario which rising oil prices and the increasing economic
marginality of exurban cities and towns may not be as far off as some
would think it might be a decade ago.
There's no question in my mind that Durham needs to take steps to maintain economic diversity in neighborhoods and avoid such economic transformation of the city. But a situation where you have entire neighborhoods economically disconnected from Durham's success, populated only by the poorest among us, creates a social fabric where those citizens, particularly youth, are almost destined to fail.
Which is by way of saying, we need to stop thinking of
gentrification as a situation where displacement equals a lack of
There is, as Ken pointed out, a social connectivity, a network that comes from having a diverse, mixed-income neighborhood. Job opportunities, civic connections, religious life, help when you need it: you can't get these elements from a neighborhood that's entirely impoverished. It's like getting blood from a stone.
That can't happen in today's toughest neighborhoods, those where 90%+ of residents live in poverty.
Which is not to say that exit is the only solution. Neighborhoods in southwest-central Durham have been successful through the Quality of Life initiative in building affordable, owner-occupied housing in partnership with the Durham Community Land Trust, Habitat for Humanity, and other non-profits. And they've managed to increase home ownership rates.
It'd be great to see groups like these, or Rebuild Durham, stepping in and helping to rehabilitate housing in neighborhoods like Cleveland-Holloway.
And for those situations where renters exit the neighborhoods, it's worth noting that they're likely to have access to higher-quality housing stock than their current digs. Durham deserves credit for supporting programs like Eastway Village and Hope VI, which are intended to bring economic diversity and a mix of rental and ownership opportunities in neighborhoods and public housing projects that were perceived to have failed.
The most frequently-cited reason for that failure? An overconcentration of poverty.
Also worth noting: Mayor Bell's point, repeated I believe during the
mayoral campaign and at City Council meetings, that the availability of
higher quality public housing stock in recent years has improved the
quality of life of its residents, and that some of the abandoned
housing issues we're dealing with are the result of underinvested
properties no longer drawing tenants who now have more choice in where
Do residents "benefit" from the influx of new residents if their
landlord sells their home and they have to move? I'd ask, how much are
they benefitting today?
If it takes a property sale to remove one more substandard housing unit from the local stock, then -- presuming and assuming thatthere is, in fact, a housing unit for them to go to elsewhere -- then perhaps the net result is positive.
Certainly, without the efforts of Cleveland-Holloway, we'd have seen a greater concentration of group homes and social services facilities in the neighborhood. Exactly what a neighborhood with entrenched poverty doesn't need, of course, and the kind of services that ought to be fairly distributed throughout the city.
Ironically, the C-H folks managed to "displace" such facilities
before they were built -- probably "benefitting" local residents. From
that perspective, despite the conceit in the Indy piece that somehow
C-H's newest homeowners haven't done anything to really help long-time
renters, I'd argue that by raising the community's profile and bringing
resources and attention, they've done a lot already.
I don't mean to harp on this one point of displace/benefit over and over. But I am concerned that it's too easy to make gentrification the third rail of local politics. This particular thread comes up from time to time in the Bull City, and it's a natural reaction to an issue that many of us care instinctively about.
But the reality is too tricky to wrap up in an either/or statement.