Warehouse Theatre panel examines the balance between positive growth and gentrification

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Growth is obvious to anybody who has stepped foot in downtown Greenville — giant cranes dot the landscape, mounds of red clay dirt, or ribbons of freshly-poured concrete mark the transition between empty lot and new apartment building, and more people are on the streets at every hour of the day and night.

But as development has crept from the city’s central business district outward into once forgotten neighborhoods on downtown’s edge, the dynamics of those neighborhoods are changing and prompting discussions of gentrification, displacement, and two Greenvilles — one for the haves and the other for the have not’s.

“It doesn’t make somebody a villain to want to live downtown,” said Don Oglesby, CEO of Homes of Hope, a nonprofit that provides safe, affordable, and energy-efficient housing for those of low-to-moderate incomes. “But the real negative comes when a resident wants to stay but can’t because of market forces.”

Oglesby was among the panelists Wednesday night at the Warehouse Theatre’s discussion on gentrification. And while the panelists agreed there would be a cost if Greenville stopped growing, they acknowledged that the influx of capital and rapid development has come at the expense of some of Greenville’s most vulnerable residents.

Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church Senior Pastor Darian Blue, who is also executive director of the Phillis Wheatley Center, said while it’s difficult to define gentrification, he knows it happens, and it usually happens in predominantly communities of color.

“We’ve got to wrestle with that,” he said. “I love the growth of Greenville, but the reality is that while Greenville is growing, it’s not growing for black people,” he said.

Blue said gentrification is “pulling apart” the fabric of African-American neighborhoods. Yet, he said, when he asked some African-American transplants to the Upstate who could afford $250,000 houses why they didn’t built in Nicholtown, a historically black neighborhood, they told him the word gentrification scared them.“They didn’t want to be looked at as the gentrifiers,” he said. “The African-Americans who do come here and have economic success, they don’t want to be seen as part of the problem.”

“The African-Americans who do come here and have economic success,
they don’t want to be seen as part of the problem.”

Developer Russ Davis said there was little doubt that Greenville will continue to develop. “We’re smack-dab in the center of an area which ultimately will be the third largest population center in the country. On top of that, there’s a shift from big cities to cities that have a sense of place, and that’s us,” he said. In addition, there’s a migration of people from the suburbs to the urban core, he said.

“As a developer, what we can’t do is develop something, displace people. and leave it at the door. We have to take responsibility for those people,” said Davis, who developed McBee Station, the first apartment complex built in downtown Greenville during its renaissance.

Davis said during the development of McBee Station, 150 households were relocated. He hired a company to interview residents and determine where they needed to be, and wrote checks so the rent where they were going wouldn’t be more than the rent when they left.

Ivory Mathews, executive director of the Greenville Housing Authority, said the city needs to address the problem.

“If Greenville wants to market itself as a city with 100 restaurants downtown, it needs to be intentional in making sure workers in those restaurants have some place in the city they can afford to live,” she said. If Greenville wants the Chamber of Commerce to bring in more jobs that pay $15 an hour, Mathews said, it has to make sure there’s housing they can pay for on that $15 an hour.

“We’re struggling with workforce. We’re struggling with housing. After a while, Greenville will be a place where people will say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to expand my headquarters in Greenville because my folks can’t find a place to live,’” she said. “We have to decide what kind of community we want, and we all have a say in that. It’s public policy and being intentional about becoming the city we really want.”

Matthews said in some growing cities, property taxes are frozen to protect current property owners.

However, under state law the value on which property is assessed is allowed to go up only 15 percent every five years, Davis noted. “The guys who are really getting hurt are renters,” he said.

Davis said he’d like to see inclusionary zoning under which a percentage of units would be reserved for households that make under 80 percent of the area’s median income so that market rate housing builders are subsidizing some portion of affordable housing.

Oglesby said mixed income is the way to go instead of concentrating low-income households together and creating pockets of poverty as had been done in the past. “HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) got it wrong,” he said, adding that development is about balance and having a diversity of incomes.

Contrary to popular opinion, Oglesby said there’s profit to be made in the affordable housing business, although not as high as market-price housing. There’s incentive to build affordable housing because there’s a high demand, he said.

“But at the end of the day,” Oglesby says, “it’s something you have to want to do.”

 

 

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