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Gentrification talk in Raleigh reveals tensions in a changing city

A city-sponsored talk on gentrification in Raleigh left some residents feeling unheard.

The panel discussion provided an introduction to revitalization and displacement and how it is shaping neighborhoods in Raleigh.

Gentrification means different things to people, but it’s often defined as the redevelopment of an area by wealthier people leading to the displacement of longer-term residents, often people of color.

People at Thursday night’s event were asked to write questions on Post-it Notes for the moderator to ask the panelists. But as the night wound down, just a handful of audience questions were asked.

As Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch began to close out the program, a woman in the crowd rose and said she hoped she wouldn’t be thrown out.

“We are often silenced,” Marisa Grant told Branch. “And the fact that we are not allowed to ask questions is part of the problem.”

Thursday’s conversation, Branch said from the stage, was only a start, and he urged people to meet with him to talk about this problem. He said the program was supposed to be ending but he got more audience questions to ask the panelists, and the event continued a few minutes longer.

‘A seat at the table’

Afterward, Grant said she’s a Raleigh native and has seen the city change for the better and worse. She advocates for “culture heritage and historic preservation.”

“I thought it was really important to have an honest conversation about some of the ugly truths of gentrification and what it does to communities,” Grant said.

But the panel didn’t engage in an “honest conversation,” she said, and was more focused on the basics of gentrification.

“It’s really important to have those marginalized communities who are being gentrified to have a seat at the table for discussion,” Grant said. “It’s my hope that those people’s voices and concerns will be heard.”

Isaac White is a lifelong Southeast Raleigh resident and said he’s seen people move into his neighborhood who don’t want to honor or even be a part of the existing culture and community.

He wished the city had done more to include people affected by the displacement and experiencing the change.

It resonated with him and others when Kia Baker, executive director of Southeast Raleigh Promise and panelist, joked about knowing when a community is being gentrified.

It’s when you see a $1,000 baby stroller, people with three dogs on a leash and someone jogging shirtless on your street, she said.

As Raleigh and other cities grow things will change, Baker said, but the change shouldn’t happen “to” people, but instead with them.

60 people a day

Wake County adds more than 60 people each day, and people in traditionally black neighborhoods just outside downtown and in Southeast Raleigh have found themselves priced out and pushed to the edges of the city.

Panelist Yvette Holmes, vice president for resources development and partnership for DHIC Inc., said she’s heard from the seniors inundated with postcards listing their “home value” and urging them to sell.

The city, nonprofits and other organizations have to create trust within these communities so people like those seniors will use the resources the city and others offer.

Nearly 70% of Raleigh residents polled in the city’s 2018 community survey said affordable housing will be a top issue facing the city in the coming years. Nearly 100,000 households in Wake County spend more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition.

The average renter can only afford a monthly rent of $856, but a two-bedroom apartment cost more than 1,000, according to the coalition.

Octavia Rainey, a longtime activist, said she was frustrated the city didn’t do more to include people Thursday night who are being affected by the changes.

“They had no intention of hearing from the people,” she said. “It wasn’t designed for that. .... And that was wrong.”

After the event, Branch said it had to be a starting point and more conversations were needed.

“Do I believe there is work to be done to right the ship?” he said “Yes. It is just going to take everyone being engaged and involved.”

The city has to be willing to go to the people, he said, adding he spoke to a woman after panel who wants him to speak at their event.

“A lot of the time we ask people to come to us,” Branch said. “And we have to do that to get started, but we need to go to the people where they have their conversations and their meetings. We can’t talk in silos and fix this issue.”

He wouldn’t say if the city has done a good job of doing that.

“We are making progress,” he said.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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