Gentrification in Durham and Its Disproportionate Impact

Durham’s American Tobacco District in 2016 ( source )

Durham’s American Tobacco District in 2016 (source)


In the past five years, Durham’s median home value has increased by 38.1 percent, a steep rise driven by rapid development in the city’s downtown and central business district. Just four of the largest development projects in Durham are alone worth more than 2.6 million dollars and are projected to create over 1.2 million square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail space, and 1,500 residential units. Several other projects are already undergoing construction or are in planning stages. Without a doubt, these ventures will attract an influx of new residents. Business and services crafted specifically for this new demographic will follow, displacing Durham community members and businesses.

Gentrification is a loaded term. It is difficult to identify immediate issues with naturally-occurring trends in housing markets. The presence of luxury buildings, businesses, and services are sometimes presented as an indication of economic growth in an area. After all, Durham is in fact growing quickly and flourishing economically, and that does not seem particularly problematic. But as the city expands, its history of systemic racism continues to pervade and manifest itself, guiding Durham’s transformation in the process.

A Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map superimposed on a map of Durham, with the red areas designating those graded as most hazardous ( source )

A Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map superimposed on a map of Durham, with the red areas designating those graded as most hazardous (source)

In the 1930s, the newly created Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) produced residential maps that illustrated lending risk in order to refinance and stabilize home mortgages. On these maps, HOLC assigned letter grades to each neighborhood judging the quality of real estate. Neighborhoods “with an undesirable population or an infiltration of it,” such as Black and lower-class communities, received the lowest possible grade, indicating them as most hazardous for lending. These labels, which portrayed pre-existing neighborhood disparities, institutionalized racial bias and paved the way for future and consistent disinvestment and neglect.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Durham urban renewal programs targeted and caused devastation to “slums” such as Hayti, a thriving Black neighborhood and the largest redlined locale in the city. These programs displaced more than 4,000 households and 500 businesses, prompting a slow, difficult recovery process. Urban renewal became coded language; it was forcible displacement in the name of economic growth. In a 2018 Herald Sun interview, Durham resident John Abram recalled his experience: “I knew we were being forced to do something we didn’t want to do...Hayti was all right. It was like our own city. [Urban renewal] bulldozers just tore up everything. They wanted to get these Black people out of the community.” At the time of the interview, which took place fifty years after Abram saw the process happening firsthand, the lifelong Durham resident was in the process of being evicted from his own home.

The impacts of redlining and urban renewal continue to be felt today, disproportionately so by intersecting poor, Black, and Latinx communities. In the past five years, not only has median home value sharply increased, but mean rent has also increased by 28 percent, impacting the 51.3 percent of Durham households that are renter-occupied. This increase and the consequential prevalence of housing insecurity especially affects Black and Latinx communities. Black and Latinx renting rates are 54.2 percent and 57.1 percent respectively, which are twice the White renting rates of 27.3 percent.

Hayti’s Fayetteville Street in the 1940s ( source )

Hayti’s Fayetteville Street in the 1940s (source)

The majority of renters are unable to so suddenly adjust to such a steep rent increase, resulting in evictions so that unscrupulous landlords can rent to individuals with higher incomes. Durham has a current rate of 900 eviction filings per month, with many more going unreported. These evictions largely burden Black and Latinx renters who are displaced from the neighborhoods where they have spent the majority of their lives. A 2018 North Carolina Poverty Research Fund study described the phenomenon: “Court observations confirm that the overwhelming majority of evicted renters are African American. In one six-day period studied, 85 [percent] of tenants in summary ejectment (eviction) cases were Black.” Gentrification and housing displacement create a ripple effect; the following new businesses and services will displace already struggling small local businesses.

Gentrification in Durham will almost inevitably change the city’s character and identity. Historically poor Black neighborhoods will shift towards becoming increasingly white and wealthy. History repeats itself. This modern wave of urban development will reinforce Durham’s legacy of systemic racism, despite attempts to obscure what it truly is. Intervention is necessary: it might be government-based, but, even better, it would be community-based.

Local, PopularKalley HuangComment