Durham News

Take 5: Durham’s gentrification challenge

“White people have to acknowledge the privileges and the benefits they’re receiving from decades of disinvestment and discrimination,” says Mel Norton.
“White people have to acknowledge the privileges and the benefits they’re receiving from decades of disinvestment and discrimination,” says Mel Norton.

Mel Norton, formerly the government relations director for Downtown Durham Inc., is now on the board of Durham People’s Alliance, a grassroots citizens group that includes a political action committee.

Earlier this year, Norton presented her research about gentrification in Durham. Her analysis of 10 years’ of sales data showed that in six central Durham neighborhoods – Walltown, Cleveland-Holloway, West End, Burch Avenue, Old North Durham and Old East Durham – median home prices have increased from 100 percent to nearly 400 percent since 2005.

Norton lives in East Durham, which, she says, has put her “in the middle of this narrative.”

“White people have to acknowledge the privileges and the benefits they’re receiving from decades of disinvestment and discrimination,” she said. “People are wrestling with this. I’m wrestling with it.”

Q: What is the distinction between gentrification and revitalization of a neighborhood?

Norton: Gentrification, by definition, is displacement. It’s when people move into areas traditionally occupied by lower-income people and displace them. These areas have been places of disinvestment, so property values are very low. Revitalization is a bottom-up concept by which the needs of a community are identified. There is some sort of collective effort to figure out how to meet those needs, be it affordable housing, services, something as simple as infrastructure and drainage issues, safety issues.

To say, “This neighborhood could use a little gentrification” is an incorrect use of the term. I would love to see more revitalization and less gentrification in our central Durham neighborhoods.

Q: You have identified some neighborhoods that are being the most affected by gentrification right now. What are the economic mechanisms behind that?

Norton: I focused on six neighborhoods which share fundamental characteristics. They’re all historically black, except for Cleveland-Holloway, and it has been for the last 40 years. They all have experienced decades of disinvestment, high levels of vacancies, high levels of historic structures. They’re all close to downtown and its amenities.

They didn’t become disinvested overnight. This is direct result of racially discriminatory policies on the federal, state and local level. Urban renewal and its legacy of displacement for people of color in major cities and in Durham. It was a part of a package of housing policies in the Housing Act of 1949 that shaped our urban environment for the next 40 years.

Urban renewal gave large sums of money to local governments with very few strings attached for slum removal. But “slum” was not defined. So local governments had the discretion to decide what was and not a slum and how to use the money. In almost every major city, it was used to tear down and displace traditionally African-American communities. Our local example is Hayti.

The Housing Act of 1949 also made low-interest mortgages available for the first time in American history. It was an opportunity for working-class and middle-class people to become homeowners. But it was largely limited to whites through the process of redlining.

Redlining started in the 1930s. Federal employees went to cities and created securities maps that rated neighborhoods in each city on a scale of four colors. The areas in red were deemed too risky to lend. In Durham those areas were historically black. So you had this huge opportunity for mortgages and blacks were almost completely shut out of that process through redlining. If not in policy then in practice, it persisted through the 1990s. The reality is that whites got low-interest, long-term loans and went to the suburbs. Blacks got public housing. That certainly affects generational wealth, and it changed the nature of our central cities.

Q: What are the ramifications of gentrification on a neighborhood level?

Norton: In a lot of ways, we are for this brief historical moment having levels of racial and economic integration that’s been unprecedented in last century. That’s a beautiful thing but not without some tension. New residents bring a different set of norms about what they desire and find acceptable in their neighborhoods. This is often in tension with indigenous residents. It requires a lot of responsibility by people moving into disinvested neighborhoods.

Q: How is gentrification affecting Durham at-large?

Norton: In the last 10 years, we’re seeing a massive sociological shift where people with means want to live. Durham is doing pretty well in the new economy. We have a lot of tech and entrepreneurial start ups. There are a lot of things happening in the creative economy. The primary players want to be an in an urban environment. They want access to local businesses and food, to fun things to do, to historical homes. This happens to be located in the central city.

A lot of new market pressure is coming to bear on these historic neighborhoods. After years of disinvestment, there’s a ravenous investment. That’s not a bad thing, but there are winners and losers in that dynamic.

Q: What can we do if we move into these neighborhoods?

Norton: I’m very intentional about placing myself in this narrative. These are things I wrestle with as a white person who has benefited from an affordable home in a traditionally disinvested part of town. We need to be very careful about racial profiling on neighborhood listservs and in our neighborhoods. We need to make neighborhood associations reflective of the communities in which they are embedded, such as advertising meetings in different ways, through fliers, having food, creating spaces where people can get to know each other face-to-face.

People moving should take anti-racism training: Dismantling Racism and the Racial Unity Institute are good.

Anybody who cares about this issue, make it a political issue. Affordable housing is a big part of it. We need to let our elected officials know how important this is to the type of Durham we want to see in the future: Where people can afford to live and afford to stay.

Sorg: lisasorg@gmail.com