Forum highlights gentrification, affordable housing problems

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Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church hosted a forum on gentrification and affordable housing on Feb. 6. Photo/Will Crooks

A presentation on gentrification and affordable housing turned into a lively discussion in the heart of a small, traditionally black community in Greenville — Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church.

Nicholtown Missionary, which was founded in 1937, has made a name for itself in the small community. One year ago, the church took in residents who were evicted from the Economy Inn on Augusta Road after it was condemned by county inspectors.

In 2016, the church’s pastor — Darian Blue — received attention after writing a short essay titled “One Greenville, Two Realities” on LinkedIn about the contrast between the blossoming economy downtown and nearby predominantly black communities.

“While there is a special ambiance in Downtown Greenville, less than 2 miles down the street, there are families who feel like their lives are irreparable,” Blue wrote. “While there are healthy options for food in Downtown Greenville, less than 2 miles up the road I have to go to a community that is considered a ‘food desert.’”

None of these issues are new to the residents of Nicholtown.

Susan McLarty, coordinator for the Greenville Homeless Alliance, presented statistics on gentrification and affordable housing at Nicholtown Missionary on Feb. 6.

“The 2010 Census data indicated at that time, the African-American population had decreased by 8 percent between 2000 and 2010 in the city of Greenville. Is that news to anyone in here?” McLarty asked the audience, most of whom shook their heads.

Census data show that it isn’t simply an influx of white residents moving into the city and skewing the demographics — there are actually fewer black residents in the city limits than there were 20 years ago, even in the midst of Greenville’s growing population.

In 2000, black residents made up 34 percent of the city of Greenville’s population. In 2010, they dropped to 30 percent, and now, the Census’ American Community Survey estimates black residents make up less than 26 percent of the city’s population.

The actual number of black residents is estimated to have dropped more than 13 percent since 2000, even while Census data estimate the city’s population grew by more than 10,000 as of 2017.

McLarty said Greenville’s affordable housing report showed that residents of the county needed to earn at least $30,000 annually as a household to be able to have housing options.

“In the city, that’s about $60,000,” McLarty said.

McLarty said there was an excess of 800 affordable homes in 2000 — homes that residents earning less than $20,000 annually could afford. Now, the city and county are looking at a shortfall of about 12,000 affordable homes — a gap that McLarty said is growing by about 550 homes annually.

“Just for the city alone, it’s a $250 million challenge, and we’ve put $3.5 million in,” McLarty said. “And our federal dollars — and that’s what most cities have relied upon — those have been decreasing for quite some time.”

Both Greenville city and county officials have recently introduced measures to reduce the shortfall — the city has put $3.5 million in its various affordable housing programs, to include the Greenville Housing Authority. The county committed $1 million every year for five years for affordable housing programs — the money comes from a settlement with Prisma Health in which the county will receive $1 million every year for 20 years.

“It’s a start,” McLarty said. “We would love to see the city and county put annual recurring [affordable housing] funds in the budget.”

One member of the audience, Zelma Kendrick, said her biggest problem is feeling like she’s forced to stagnate at a certain income, because if she tries to move up in pay, she immediately loses any affordable housing benefits she was getting while still being unable to afford rent and utilities.

“The problem that you have when you receive that type of assistance, it makes you want to take a low-paying job because if you take a higher-paying job, they’re going to kick you off of the program, and you’re not going to be able to afford your rent,” Kendrick said.

That phenomenon, called the “cliff effect,” occurs when a person’s income increases enough to make them ineligible for government aid but doesn’t increase enough to make up for the benefits they lose.

“And then also in the housing authority part, there’s a big gap. And people wonder how people become homeless — the gap comes because they will not pay rent for two units at the same time. So it’s virtually impossible to move from one unit over into another unit,” Kendrick said. “I haven’t been able to do it successfully, and I’ve been in the program since I was 17 years old.”

Jalen Elrod, first vice chair of the Greenville County Democratic Party, said they will continue to host presentations and discussions on these issues in Greenville.

“We know that this issue disproportionately and almost exclusively impacts the black community. And as we look at our history as a people, going back to a Reconstruction, we know that the black church has been the focal point of our community and that any change, any progress that we’ve made as a community, has been centered in the black church,” Elrod said. “While it’s great that we express this among each other, I think we’re all in agreement, this is an issue and we’re preaching to the choir.”

Elrod encouraged the audience to attend city and county council meetings and to contact their representatives.

“We need to take this same outrage, this same passion and energy, and we need to go to every City Council meeting and we need to go to every County Council meeting, and we need to be beating down the doors of those who represent us at the state,” Elrod said.

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