In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the federal government embarked on programs of urban renewal and freeway construction, dramatically reshaping American cities and lifestyles. The political coalitions behind such programs were diverse and often tenuous and imbalanced. Wendell Pritchett at the University of Pennsylvania Law School wrote that “renewal programs were controlled by a small number of real estate interests and politicians …. Several studies have shown how urban elites promoted redevelopment to reorganize urban areas and to protect and enhance their real estate investments.” Similarly, conceived by elite coalitions and lobbied by industrial interests in oil, automobile manufacturing, and road construction consistent with the political economy of car dependence, massive freeway construction projects were carried out across the country.
In Durham, historian Jean Bradley Anderson documented that, with the backing and support of lending and realty companies, construction, architectural, and legal firms, and influential civic groups, the city combined local bond money with federal dollars to embark on large-scale redevelopment projects that demolished homes and businesses. NC 147, the Durham Freeway, tore through the once thriving and distinct Hayti District, displacing over 4,000 residents and 500 businesses, and the culture that went with it. The urban, walkable built pattern of Hayti was replaced with automobile-oriented suburban city design. “Before the highway came through and before urban renewal, we literally used to walk everywhere,” explains Constance Wright, a Durham resident and community organizer who grew up in the Hayti District. “Wherever we wanted to go, we would walk.”
As the South crept out of the Jim Crow era, one institutionalized system of racism was slowly replaced with other more opaque, decentralized, and deceiving but cruel forms of racism and class-based exploitation. The new system included “right to work” state laws and the destruction of labor unions, prohibitions on rent control and minimum wage policies, white flight and inner-city disinvestment, nullification of development impact fees and other progressive forms of public revenue generation, and the defunding and privatization of public housing and public schools.
The role of government changed in this process in ways that “promote, intensify and extend market rule,” as urban researchers Gilles Pinson and Christelle Journel observe. Laissez-faire real estate policy regimes of Durham and other American cities and ill-serving and inadequate regulations—combined with corporate dominance of federal and state policy making—unleash vicious effects of neoliberal capitalism.
We now face a modern-day moral crisis in Durham. Hundreds of residents, especially Black, Latino, and low-wealth residents of all races living near services, transit, and walkable neighborhoods, are once again being uprooted and displaced by profit-motivated forces, replaced by wealthier residents following high-wage jobs and seeking an urban lifestyle—and with the means to attain it. “Most of the areas in Durham that I have lived have either gentrified or they no longer exist at all,” Wright says. “Because I have seen what big development does as far as displacing people from what they know, I just don’t think it’s fair for them to be able to come in here and just keep displacing people.”
This time, instead of government channeling business alliances to build large-scale projects, profit-seeking interests channel themselves through discrete and decentralized means, like opportunity zones, supply-side policy making, and dominance of individual private property rights particularly benefiting the corporate finance, insurance, and real estate industries. Like during urban renewal displacement, residents once living in tight-knit walkable communities with access to services and transit, but also victims of decades of disinvestment, are pushed out when investment finally arrives. Some residents are pushed into the city’s periphery where land is cheaper but transportation more expensive and where each year Durham approves over 1,100 acres of corporate-fueled, automobile-dependent sprawl lacking adequate services and inaccessible to transit. Many residents are pushed out of Durham entirely.
Black populations in some neighborhoods have undergone mass displacement in alarmingly short time periods. In one census block group, where local developer Matt Lee hopes to displace 20 families from their apartment building to construct townhomes, the Black population plummeted from 80.5 percent in 2016 to 43.8 percent in 2020, according to census and ACS data made available by Durham-based nonprofit DataWorks NC. In total numbers, the Black population in that block group alone fell from 930 to 403.
In another census block group, where the Southside neighborhood is located, residents experienced state-sponsored gentrification in the 2010s. Phase three of a $48 million affordable housing project involved demolition and reconstruction of 48 affordable single-family homes. However, only 13 percent (12 of 94) of Black applicants for the program were preapproved for homes, compared with 60 percent of white applicants. The houses were made only temporarily affordable, resulting in the total loss of that stock of affordable housing to the speculative real estate market just years after project completion. The Black population in that block group fell from 77.3 percent in 2016 to 46 percent in 2020.
Other census block groups in desirable locations close to jobs and services have undergone similar patterns.
Not since urban renewal has Durham witnessed such aggressive displacement of residents and culture. While some residents, especially renters, are forced out by unregulated landlords, homeowners face coerced displacement through predatory buying practices as well as unplanned inheritances and the regressive nature of property taxes.
Even if they wanted to use them, local governments in North Carolina have been stripped of key policy tools, not to mention desperately needed financial resources, to be able to stop the current market-fueled displacement and provide stable housing. But they do have tools to dull gentrification’s sharp edges and provide some protections to marginalized residents. For example, Durham should create and implement a housing plan as Wake Forest is in the process of doing and establish a small area planning division that prioritizes areas that are home to vulnerable populations undergoing intense development pressures. The city also needs to end suburban sprawl and ensure all new growth consists of complete communities that incorporate sustainable design and equitable social elements—changes that thus far have been thwarted.
In 2019, Durham residents approved an affordable housing bond, and the city, county, and Durham Housing Authority have used local and federal dollars for affordable housing, including RAD conversions, but ultimately the dollar amounts fall far short of need. Meanwhile, low-income housing tax credits and other local, state, and federal supply-side funding mechanisms often result in only temporary affordability, inevitably exacerbating problems for future generations. Affordable housing is critical infrastructure, just like other types of public infrastructure, and prioritizing the maintenance and growth of permanent affordable housing stock must be a central goal of an equitable city.
Combating displacement will require a broad patchwork of intentional planning policies, especially leveraging the power of zoning and implementing a variety of measures that help allow vulnerable residents to remain in their neighborhoods, even as neighborhoods grow, change, and evolve. “There has to be a better way for developers and communities to be able to connect, work together, put their ideas together,” says Durham resident and community organizer Vanessa Mason-Evans. In Durham, the battle for an equitable city consists of two fronts: One is pushing the city government to make use of the underutilized tools it already has available. The other is building momentum to enact changes needed at the state and federal levels.
Every day, more vulnerable residents are moved out of their homes and neighborhoods, often pushed to the sprawling suburbs Durham enables on its outskirts, areas built for automobiles and without accessible services. Many residents are pushed out of Durham entirely. Businesses and civic spaces, like churches, are also being displaced or demolished. We have an urgent moral obligation to fight against displacement and build a more inclusive city with every policy tool available.
Nate Baker is an urban planner and member of Durham’s Planning Commission.
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