Written By Desiree Helm
There is a shortage of housing, and it has created a crisis within not just the population of the most vulnerable of Charlotte’s citizens, but to regular Charlotteans fighting to stay afloat. Gentrification has hit Charlotte in a major way and its constant momentum combined with an unprecedented low supply of available homes has everyone scrambling to find a place to stay.
To understand how gentrification has created an affordable housing crisis in Charlotte you must first understand the discriminatory practices that created segregated areas in the first place and how the system of colonization & social class works.
A social class is a way of ranking or grouping people according to their financial worth, standing or power they have. People be ranked on how much money they make, the jobs they have, or whether they own land. When American first began, Colonial America consisted of 3 main social classes. They were the gentry (wealthy), the middle class, and the poor. The highest class was the gentry. The gentry could vote and owned land. Below the gentry was the middle class. They also owned property, but they were not as rich as the gentry. The middle class consisted mostly of skilled laborers and traders. The lowest class was the poor. The poor were unskilled laborers, indentured servants, or slaves that did not own property. As growth continued in America, and more and more of the wealthy gentry moved here from England, the need to acquire land grew to meet the need (keeping in mind that owning land equated to wealth). Unfortunately, since the land that needed to be acquired to meet the needs of gentry migration belonged to the people native to the continent the process of colonization begun. Colonization is the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area. The residents are often met with promises for new land and new opportunity which never officially manifest. Residents are rarely able to return to the land that is essentially stolen from them. This system has played out repeatedly within America, as the country develops to meet the needs of the wealthy in our current society.
After World War II, in 1933 America was facing a housing shortage. To combat the deficiency in housing, the government began programs designed to increase home ownership and America’s housing stock. In 1934 The Federal Housing Authority, FHA, was established as a way for the government to support and increase lending by insuring mortgages. However, the FHA refused to insure homes in subdivisions near African American communities creating a process known as “red-lining”. Further segregation was created at the hands of FHA when FHA began subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans. This forced African Americans and other minorities to live in over crowded urban areas while White Americans established sprawling suburbs. Due to red-lining, the exact same home in a black neighborhood was valued dramatically less than the same home in white neighborhoods simply because it was owned by blacks. This decrease in value prevented our communities from growing equity and establishing long term wealth. The devaluation of our homes, and the inequality in our ability to obtain home ownership gave birth to what is now known as the “wealth gap” in America. Thru home ownership White Americans were able to create financial legacies for their families and African American families were denied the opportunity to grow the same financial assets. Almost 100 years later our communities have not been able to make up for the wealth gap that was created by our own government during this time.
The wealth gap plays into our affordable housing crisis in many ways. The disparity creates a dearth of resources to pay for education within our community and higher education is what helps minorities create economic mobility. A 2018 study placed Charlotte as #50, dead last on a list of the 50th largest American cities. If you are low income and live in Charlotte, you are 50% more likely to remain in poverty than in other cities across America. This is largely in part to not having the financial ability to provide the education or job skills training that leads to higher wages. The inadequacies given way thru redlining also created a lack of financial stability amongst minority families. When a family does not have a savings to fall back on in times of needs, they become more likely to rely on public resources for support. If their priorities are solely focused on meeting basic needs to survive, it removes the ability to establish savings or invest towards their future. The inability to repair homes or make upgrades to existing properties to increase its’ value is magnified when there are not resources within a community to make considerable changes. This lack of available resources reinforces the idea that our communities are devalued and under privileged.
When multiple properties fall into disrepair because of a community wide inability to financially maintain the properties, investors hungry to make a dollar, begin to pray on the homeowners in that area. They pressure them to sell their homes for an often below market value promising quick cash solutions to their financial needs. Businesses and investors, under the guise of revitalization then rehab the homes and resell or rent them for prices that the average Charlottean cannot afford. Residents are often promised that once a community has been rejuvenated, they will be offered the opportunity to return thru affordable housing options. However, in most cases, the number of available units offered at affordable or moderate prices does not meet the need of the population that was pushed out to create the new living spaces. In most cases, it becomes unfulfilled promises without any real plan in place to make the promises possible.
In 2010 the rent for a 4-bedroom home in a middle-class subdivision in South Charlotte was around $960 a month. The same home in that same neighborhood now rents for close to $1900 a month. While the cost of rental housing has substantially increased, the state minimum wage is still only $7.25 an hour. The median income in Charlotte is slightly above $63,000 while the average median for a home is $313,419. How can a family of 4 making $63,000 a year afford to live in an area where the average home price is above $300,000? Breaking it down even further, Us Census data shows that 35% of Charlotte is black and out of that 35%, 15% of those live below the poverty line. That equates to almost 41,000 people that cannot afford to live in the city they call home within one Ethnicity group.
On a larger scale this cost increase in housing cost is magnified when you take into consideration that there has been a 47% drop in available housing inventory over the last two years. It’s the law of supply and demand. In 2019 over 43,000 people relocated to Charlotte. As a result of the scarcity in housing, as more people with job positions that pay at or above the average median income move to Charlotte, they begin to move into areas otherwise occupied by lower income families. Our city is constantly growing and expanding at the costs of its most vulnerable citizens because as a society we have been unprepared to help them. This is how colonization begins the process of gentrification in low income communities. If housing needs are unable to be met within the areas of a city that the higher gentry or middle-income social classes traditionally occupy, those social classes begin to colonize the low-income areas. Housing prices within the low-income neighborhoods rise to reflect the influx of upper social classes preventing lower income residents from buying homes within areas they once called home.
Redlining created gaps in wealth amongst American citizens. That gap in wealth has produced inequality in affordability in our communities. Lower income communities are “revitalized” and become trendy when members of other social classes buy out existing homeowners to move into those areas because housing is no longer available in their preferred area. Gentrification occurs when members of the original social structure of that neighborhood can no longer afford to remain in those communities once they have been revitalized. It is essentially a system of supply and demand where low- and middle-income families are forced to fight for a small supply of low to median price homes because affluent members of society have forced them out of theirs. West side becomes South End, and Sugar Creek becomes North End. As this change sweeps into Thomasboro and Smallwood, people in once thriving minority communities are now being displaced because they are unable to afford the new living costs.
There is a large portion of our community that was not prepared for the exponential growth that has occurred in Charlotte and it has led to a problem never experienced here. There are a few questions as a society that we must ask ourselves. What happens when a large portion of the city can no longer afford to live there? Is it possible for areas to experience revitalization without pushing out its’ current residences, and how does a city responsibly grow?
Join us next issue as we discuss the increase of homelessness in Charlotte, the birth of the Tent City, and what local lenders and realtors are doing to fight affordable housing on the front lines.
A Personal Journey of Understanding
No Gentrification Here
The first time I traveled to Charlotte was in the winter of 1998. I was a few months pregnant and battling both a cold and a toddler while stuffed in a van with my family. We were making our way, not so merrily to the Queen City for my aunt’s nuptials. My mood was testy at best. Generations before, both sets of my grandparents had left the south for a better opportunity for their families. Without knowing, I had been preconditioned to equate the south with hardship, racism, and despair because that was the experience it had been for my family and the reasons they moved up north seeking the American Dream. I had started this journey with preconceived notions and it was this attitude against the south that soured my trip even before we arrived. After having driven all night from Maryland in my God-fathers 1980s Astro-van, we had finally arrived on a cold gloomy day in what was then downtown Charlotte. We checked into our hotel long enough to throw our bags in the room and we set off for my aunt’s place. Traveling through North Carolina, with the spoiledness that only the age of 22 can produce, I sat pressed up against the passenger window watching the city of Charlotte go by very unimpressed with what I saw. It was so dissimilar to what I was used to. It’s strange now, looking back, just how much I couldn’t see the beauty that this city was. Coming from a very urban area, the idea that you could have country farmland next to row upon row of smaller urban houses seemed unusual and far-fetched to me.
We made several trips around the city the short time we were in Charlotte, and no matter what direction we drove the sight was all the same. Most of the area immediately around uptown was majority minority, and that surprised me. It was something that I wasn’t used to seeing. Back home, except for a few areas, the closer you got to downtown DC (or uptown which ever your fancy), the more affluent the citizens were. In my brainwashed eye, I looked upon the surplus of African American subdivisions as a negative instead of seeing it as the beauty it was because I had been trained to think White was right. I was a classist. (and yes, that’s a bit scary to say outloud)
The process of gentrification was already alive and in bloom in DC, but I had no idea how to recognize what I was experiencing as the symptoms of gentrification because it was normal life for me. We were not what you consider poor, but where we lived was a far cry from the large inviting homes that lined Rock Creek Park or Georgetown. In DC, living close to the center of downtown was a luxury that meant you had money and were of a different social class. In order to be considered successful in life, the goal was to go to college, get a great job and then change social classes so I could move out of hood. I had been indoctrinated to accept the notion that in-order to obtain prosperity or growth I had to move out of the area I grew up in. When I was a teen, my family further confirmed this imbue belief system when we moved out of DC into the middle-income suburbs of Maryland. Basically, (and being very un-politically correct) they had achieved the “American Dream” by making it out of the black neighborhood and into a white one. This was a belief system that I felt many people in my parent’s generation were taught and later passed onto to us.
Now, do not judge me for that statement. Please. Growing up in that time I understood less about my black culture and wanted what my parents wanted, to get out of it. They wanted me to live in what they deemed a safer neighborhood with better schools. My parent’s idea of success was achieving the same dream as George Jefferson. To move on up.
I give you this back story so you will understand that when I looked out the window riding through Charlotte all I saw was poverty. I made a silent vow that I would never move my family to the south because I wanted better for them. Too ignorant then to understand how I was myself being classist within my own ethnicity because I had no idea how my parents ideal of success was a detrimental narrative that impacted my thought process. I was a part of the circle that perpetuates gentrification because I had been raised to devalue my own culture.
When you don’t understand the beauty and pride within your own culture, when you are raised to think that what others have is always better, it is hard to place or keep value within. Taking it one step further, when other cultures teach that our culture has no value and keeps our value down thru unhealthy and discriminatory economic policies we never want what we have. It creates the idea within our race that to achieve success I must move out of my minority community instead of investing in it. To utterly understand gentrification which later leads to an affordable housing crisis, we must first understand the mentality that exist within lower income communities that “out is better”. We must address and acknowledge our role in the gentrification process and educate ourselves to create changes within our municipals.
Only I didn’t until recently understand that.
Although I had vowed never to move here, in in 2009 after the death of my mom and chasing experiencing some financial setbacks I moved to Charlotte because I was looking for a place where I could afford to raise my family in a diverse community. Now in the long run, moving to Charlotte has been one of the best decisions I ever made. However, being totally transparent, at that time I moved to the Queen City because I could not afford to live anywhere in Maryland or DC that was not majority minority. Again, I believed that placing my children in diverse schools and neighborhoods created a better opportunity for their lives. When instead I should have been taking stock in how I could use my life to improve the community around me. I should have reinvested in the areas I fought so hard to leave. So now I ask the question back to you. How do we stop the false narrative taught to us from previous generations that success equals moving out of the neighborhoods? How do we fight against societal norms and show the next generation that black and brown areas are worthy of staying in?