- Written by Nell Gibson
On October 14, 2020 Good Morning America aired a story on Race and Real Estate in which a Black female Labor and Employment lawyer who is married to a White male artist sought to sell their home in Jacksonville, Florida. An appraiser came out and then sent them the estimation of $330,000 for their home. They were shocked and reported that even the local bank thought the appraisal was on the low side. The attorney and her husband then sought a second appraisal but before they admitted the new appraiser to the house the couple removed all African American books and all photographs of the wife and the couple’s son. Their photos were replaced with the husband’s pictures and those of his White family. The second appraisal of their home was $465,000 – over $100,000 or 40% more than the first appraisal. The couple said the second appraisal showed just how much homes owned by Blacks are devalued. This is but one example of racial devaluation in the housing market.
This kind of intentional devaluation of Black homes can be seen in cities across the United States. In the 1970s when Whites fled cities that were becoming more integrated and moved to the suburbs it didn’t take long before they found themselves having to drive miles in order to shop for groceries or paying babysitters so they could drive over an hour into the city they had fled in order to enjoy a live show or have a meal in a five star restaurant. That’s when they began to seek the convenience of city life again. Real Estate investors and their cohorts who were buying up abandoned city apartment buildings or formerly owned Black homes, at rock bottom prices called the process urban renewal. When Whites began returning to the conveniences of the cities and paying top dollar for refurbished apartments or newly built homes in the areas they once abandoned, the old form of urban renewal was referred to as gentrification.
This year’s October 9th Episcopal Urban Caucus 2020 Assembly dealt with the topic of housing devaluation and gentrification head on. The theme was the, “Church and the Gentrifying City: Beyond Community Development.” With a stellar group of panelists and a look at the work of the Center for Transforming Communities, speakers shared ways in which the Church and the community in Memphis, Tennessee are stemming the tide of racial gentrification and housing devaluation.
Speakers looked at gentrification versus redevelopment and at the impact and trauma that the dominate culture often imposes on low-income communities and communities of color as the dominate culture takes over these living spaces. Rev. Floridia Jackson, Executive Director of the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, spoke of how under-sourced communities are preyed upon by investors who convince people living in these communities that they are not part of the mainstream. This is the first step in displacing people who are living on the edge, she said. This physical, psychological and racial gentrification affects people of color the most, she went on to note. For example the very area where the Memphis Civil Rights Museum is now located was once a dust bowl. When White people began to move back into the heart of the city and reclaim that land, they put up pastel colored houses and planted trees, initiating the first steps of gentrification of the area.
In another part of Memphis known as Binghampton East which was once a Black, neighborhood people managed to get themselves to city council meetings that were engaged in the development of Binghamton East and Binghampton West which was White. In those meetings local people demanded that all the boundaries of development be inclusive of both communities. They also demanded that the cost of things like coffee and apartment rentals be affordable to everyone. In order for these things to take place community members had to be at the table from the beginning - during the pre-design phase of community development. And because they were at the table the church was in the position to become a lien holder for property so that gentrifiers could not come in and take possession of the land. In one such case the church found itself in the enviable position of owning land that the city needed in order to resolve a sewage problem. In that instance the church was able to force the city to use its land in order to solve their sewage dilemma. One of the things that was pointed out is how much urban planning needs to be understood. Church people working together with community residents began to understand how they were being outbid on offers they were making for land. It turns out they were being outbid for land by robots as far away as China. This knowledge helped all of them see how insidious the gentrification of a city can be and it assisted them in understanding who and what they were up against. Jayanni Webster, National Field Organizer for Right to the City Alliance, said the situation showed how real estate becomes a source of exploitation. When housing is a commodity it creates competition from people who have no stake in the community. Magaly Crus, a neighborhood “connector” for the Center for Transforming Communities, indicated that her purpose is to steward the land and build community, to move the community from the private sector and make it more accessible to neighborhood people – to be a steward versus a profiteer.
To help participants understand what they are up against in Memphis Tina Sullivan, Executive Director of the Overton Park Conservancy, suggested EUC attendees go to articles (especially under Economic Justice) at www.mlk50.com. She spoke of how taxpayer subsidized housing benefits private developers without providing affordable housing to those who need it most. Many panelists spoke of how important it is for investors to engage in redeveloping under-sourced communities in order to earn the right of the people in each community to be heard. Investors need to hear the pain of the people before going in and beginning to build. Engagement must be rooted in the people because there is power in the culture that already exists in a community. It is important to stop people from outside the community from entering and designing what will go into that community without involving the people who already live there because if local people don’t have control over the neighborhood they will lose control in the neighborhood.
Rev. Lisa Anderson, from the organization Room in the Inn, spoke of the movement of the Community Land Trust (CLT) and how important equity is. And Webb Brewster, Esq., a White attorney who works in Public Interest Law (The Law Office of Webb A. Brewster) indicated that the art of organizing allows neighborhood people to come together even if they don’t have an issue around which to gather. He said they all need to understand the system so they can provide their own solutions. The CLT is in the business of purchasing land to build community, to move it from the private sector and make it more accessible to neighborhood people. It was noted that when investors build houses they need to also build community centers, libraries, grocery stores, gardens and services that are needed in order to keep residents living in that community. That is how community is maintained.
Anasa Troutman, Executive Director of Historic Clayborn Temple, reminded everyone that people get wealth through ownership and entrepreneurship; through investing in people connected to the community; through those who are building a financial infrastructure; through land acquisition and a collaboration of race and class.
Attendees at this year’s EUC Assembly had an opportunity to hear from people who are living and working in Memphis and transforming communities. They listened to people who offered personal testimonies as well as tools for transformation that can be applied to a number of cities. They acknowledged however that access to city officials may be more complicated in large urban areas than in a city like Memphis. Nevertheless the information was instructive for anyone working to keep residents in urban areas from being forced from their homes.