North Carolina

'Story of My Street': Gentrification and neighborhood change in Durham

About this project: The Herald-Sun examines how Durham is changing as talk turns from revitalization to gentrification. In stories, commentary and a new Facebook group, "The Story of My Street: Gentrification in Durham," learn how rising home prices are changing neighborhoods, and how you can be part of the conversation.

DURHAM — Vanessa Safie has been living in an apartment in southwest Durham for five months since she moved here from her hometown of Miami.

Now she wants to buy a house where she, her husband and 3-year-old son can live permanently — something that scores of newcomers to the Bull City have done in recent years. Safie said she was able to persuade her husband to move to the Triangle because of the growing technology industry here.

But that’s created a dilemma, she said.

She realizes demand from people like her is pushing home prices higher across Durham. She worries that buying a house might contribute to rising property values, causing a spike in her future neighbors' rents or corresponding tax bills.

“I am hyper-aware that moving near downtown into a recently renovated, adorable home probably means I’d be [replacing] someone else living there and they were probably a renter,” Safie, 34, said.

So, she is purposely removing some neighborhoods around downtown from consideration.

"I know how displacement worked from Miami and how much of a burden it is that [former residents] have to move far away from transit and the job centers," Safie said. "I want to avoid that."

What is gentrification?

Ten years ago, the buzz word to describe downtown Durham was "revitalization." The city went after new business, new restaurants, new entertainment venues and new people, spending millions on parking and infrastructure to attract private investment.

It worked. The Bull City is now on national lists of places to live and visit. But as people keep coming, now at 20 new residents a day, city leaders say Durham is struggling to keep up with housing supply. And neighborhoods are changing.

The buzz word has changed too.

“Gentrification in Durham is a huge issue,” N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former judge, said at a recent town hall.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gentrification as the "process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents."

Camryn Smith moved into Old East Durham in 2010. She wanted to live in a mostly African-American neighborhood near downtown. Old East Durham is next to another historically African-American neighborhood, Albright, as well as Cleveland-Holloway, one of the neighborhoods that has seen the steepest increase in property values.

You can see the changes across the city:

  • According to methodology used by trade magazine Governing Magazine, which we applied to Durham, five of Durham County’s 60 census tracts have gentrified. All around downtown, they include parts of Cleveland-Holloway, West End, Walltown and Old West Durham. Another 13 tracts have gentrification potential.
  • The racial makeup of neighborhoods has also fluctuated. Four of the five census tracts that have had the greatest increase in white residents are around downtown Durham since 2010. The tract that includes part of the Northgate Park neighborhood has had a 27 percentage point increase in white residents.
  • Some census tracts’ median income levels have also surged in recent years. Since 2010, six census tracts have seen their median household income levels rise by more than 40 percent. The county’s median household income increased 8.4 percent over the same period.

  • The same is true of median house value, where five census tracts saw median house value rise by more than 25 percent from 2010-2016. The county’s median home value only increased 6.1 percent over the same period.

Smith has become an activist and community organizer. In her neighborhood, she sees African-American and Latino working-class families moving out and young, white, upper-middle-class couples moving in.

"Who can compete with market forces? It's just huge, and it's unfair, but that's the reality we're facing," she said.

Join the conversation

As The Herald-Sun looks at how Durham is changing, we have started a Facebook group called “Story of My Street: Gentrification in Durham.” In three weeks, nearly 300 people joined, adding their thoughts and perspectives. Click here to join or search for the group by name on Facebook.

Here’s what some people in the group are saying:

Joseph Margolis, who grew up in Durham, describes gentrification generally as "the innocuous-seeming revitalization, improvement of a neighborhood or district. But in practice it is a violent ... tool that feigns color blindness and ‘the invisible hand’ as it removes and excludes poor people, mainly of color, from their community spaces they’d previously held for generations."

Michael De Los Santos, who lives in Durham, describes gentrification as "changing a development and/or community to meet the needs and desires of the more affluent. Achieved through pricing out people who currently reside or shop in the area."

Philip Azar, who lives in Durham, posted that “especially in the context of Durham, I think race is integral to gentrification and should be reflected in the definition we use.”

There are 311,000 people who live in Durham County, according to the U.S. Census. That’s a 15 percent population increase from 2010 to 2017. In 2016, Durham County’s population was 42 percent white, 38 African-American, 13 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian, and fewer than 4 percent multiple races, American Indian and Pacific Islander.

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Is gentrification inevitable?

Gentrification is “something on our mind all the time,” said Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield. “We hear about it all the time." He's seen it in other cities and said it is a consequence of being a place of success.

Nowhere has Durham "succeeded" more than downtown, which has undergone a fast-paced evolution from empty factory buildings to a skyline dotted with cranes.

As construction began on the 27-story One City Center, which will become downtown's tallest building, so too did a parody Twitter account calling it "Pit of Gentrification." The skyscraper is being built on what was once an empty lot next to a burned-out building.

So can a place be successful but not have gentrification?

"No one's figured it out yet," Bonfield said.

When he became city manager 10 years ago, Durham had 1,000 boarded-up houses, Bonfield said. Now there are fewer than 25.

He doesn't see downtown as being gentrified because when he came to Durham in 2008, there wasn't significant investment in all of downtown.

If gentrification is direct displacement, there were few residents and businesses to displace.

Over the 16 years of Mayor Bill Bell's time in office, more than $1.7 billion in public and private money was injected into downtown, according to Downtown Durham Inc. He left office in late 2017.

Bonfield acknowledges the recent success of downtown has contributed to gentrification in neighborhoods.

Urban planner John Killeen of DataWorks NC, which tracks Durham demographic data, and others say decades of disinvestment, both business and residential, set the stage for gentrification. In Durham it dates back to at least the urban renewal era of the 1960s, which led to the Durham Freeway, then called the East-West Expressway, being built through the historic African-American area of Hayti. Houses and churches were demolished. Streets now dead end at the freeway.

Tia Wilson of Bull City 150, a social-justice project based at Duke University, said the African-American community never rebounded after urban renewal. "It's been a series of unmitigated losses," she said. "The community has not had an opportunity to rebuild wealth."

What has rebounded, especially in recent years, however, is Durham’s housing market, most dramatically in the neighborhoods around downtown.

Vanessa Safie
Vanessa Safie, her husband, Tom Wilfong, and the couple's three-year-old son Jackson recently moved to Durham from Miami. They are in the process of buying a home in Durham's competitive housing market. Contributed

A hot housing market

Safie, the Miami transplant, knows few people like her would voluntarily remove desirable neighborhoods from consideration because of fears of causing gentrification.

“Someone told me the other day, 'It’s either you or the five people behind you who are putting the offer in,'" she said.

In fact, Safie said she and her husband did recently lose a bidding war with five contenders vying for a home in south Durham.

"If I were to end up in a 'cool neighborhood' I would want to be the good gentrifier," she added. "If that is even possible."

Local home builders say they are struggling to keep up with demand. New home starts in the region still haven’t returned to the pre-recession levels of 2007, a fact that could be said for most places across the country, as builders struggle with increased land costs and a labor shortage.

“I have been 25 years in the business, and I have never seen such demand (for new homes),” said Gian Hasbrock, president of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties, earlier this year.

A house being built on Dowd Street near downtown Durham. The neighborhood surrounding downtown Durham have seen home values rise sharply in recent years. Bernard Thomas The Herald-Sun

In Durham, it would take just a little over a month for the current supply of houses on the market to sell, given the current rate of sales, according to Triangle Multiple Listing Services.

Nationally, it would take more than five times longer to bring existing inventory to zero.

The lack of new housing coupled with the demand from new residents is fueling home values. The median sale price in Durham in January was $233,000 — 16.3 percent higher than the previous year. Compare that to the 10.9 percent increase — to a $250,000 median price — for the Triangle region, according to data compiled by Triangle MLS.

The increase in housing values is the result of regional job gains, said Jacob Rogers, CEO of Triangle Community Coalition. “What [people] don’t understand is that developers are not creating demand, they are just responding to it,” he said.

Since February 2010, the number of jobs in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area has grown by 16.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has outpaced the country as a whole, which grew by 14.2 percent over the same period. The Raleigh-Cary metro area added jobs at an even faster rate during that time period, growing at a rate of 27.4 percent since February 2010.

No one knows that better than real estate investors, who have increasingly targeted the neighborhoods that surround downtown.

Targeting downtown neighborhoods

House flippers flocked to Durham last year where they could find some of the best value in the Triangle, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, a real estate data company. The ZIP codes around downtown Durham offered the highest returns on investment for house flippers of any area in the Triangle.

“There is not a lot of — relative to historic norms — new homes, so flippers can come in and provide a product that is like a new home,” said Daren Blomquist, ATTOM Data Solutions senior vice president of communications. “It's the next best thing if someone wants a new home, they can get a home that is flipped.”

Eric Hedden, who runs the Durham Building Co., is one of the many builders following demand. Durham Building Co., which mainly works in the Old East Durham neighborhood, started working in Durham in 2013, building nine homes, a number he expected to grow to 30 by the end of 2017.

“It’s definitely changed [here] more and more re-modelers and home builders are coming in,” Hedden said in an interview last year. “More people want to live in the urban parts of Durham, so that demand is pretty great.”

A sign posted at a street corner on Driver Street offers to buy homes. A house across the street is under renovation. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

But even for builders land is getting expensive now.

"Three years ago what could cost $15,000 to buy a lot to build a house on is now $100,000," Hedden said. "Some of these little pocket areas — Cleveland-Holloway and even Southside — now it is getting to a point that is too high.”

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel talked about gentrification in his first “State of the City” address in February.

“People want to move here because we have a wonderful quality of life, something we should all be very proud of,” Schewel said.

“What’s more, Durham is unusual because we are among the top 10 cities in the nation in attracting whites, blacks and Asians alike. That’s an incredible tribute to our embrace of all people. But all that in-migration is driving gentrification with tremendous speed and power. I want to say clearly that we cannot stop those market forces,” he said.

A strong affordable housing program for low-income people will make a difference in fighting gentrification, the mayor said. The city has a dedicated housing fund, paid for with two cents per $100 of assessed value on the property tax, that supports affordable housing projects.

It's not just the city grappling with these questions. Durham Public Schools is considering building affordable housing for its teachers and Downtown Durham Inc., which manages the downtown business district, has made maintaining diversity in downtown one of its goals.

The cost of gentrification

To be affordable, experts say, housing should not exceed 30 percent of a household's gross income. In Durham in 2012, there were 19,500 low-income renters paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That’s 42 percent of all Durham renters.

That same year, 7,800 low-income owners in Durham were paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That’s 15 percent of all owners.

Peter Gilbert of Legal Aid of North Carolina is part of Durham’s pilot eviction diversion program.

“If we’re concerned about gentrification and affordable housing, it’s cheaper and better policy to keep people in place rather than rehouse them after evictions,” he told city and county leaders recently. “Rents go up; that’s when gentrification happens.”

Should local and state government be doing more? Less? What about nonprofits and businesses? Employers? In coming months, we'll look at these and other questions.

Smith, the Old East Durham resident, is worried about how gentrification is changing Durham.

"This city was created by, for the benefit and vibrance of, black people," Smith said. "People are coming in and creating a narrative that whitewashes it, and that's a huge arrogance to me. It's white arrogance, white supremacy."

Old East Durham community activist and resident Camryn Smith is worried about her neighborhood being gentrified. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

Smith said that if the area around N.C. Central University, a historically black university, becomes white, "that's it."

As for Safie, the home searcher, the competitiveness of finding a home inside of Durham has made her question whether she will be able to end up in Durham at all.

"Our current search is really broad," she said. "We've seen houses in north Durham and south Durham, but there is a Wake Forest open house that I am begrudgingly going to."

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
Follow more of our reporting on Gentrification and neighborhood change in Durham

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