Gentrification Hits Small Cities Too: Unsustainable Policies in Decatur, Georgia

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Southwest Decatur was rebranded Oakhurst in 1979. Photo by author.

Decatur is a hipster haven of a little less than 20,000 residents six miles east of downtown Atlanta, Ga. Its downtown is a revitalization success story: brewpubs and trendy restaurants jockey for space among locally owned boutiques, coffee shops, and frozen yogurt joints. New condos dot the city’s main street, Ponce de Leon Avenue, and there are uspscale residential subdivisions in Decatur’s northern quarters.

Decatur’s school system, funded by 61 percent of the city’s property taxes is one of the best in the state and was recently showcased in a presidential visit touting new early education initiatives. Sustainability, walkability, bike-friendly, and progressive are the buzzwords the city uses to market itself. It’s the place where people are urged to “Keep it IndieCatur.”

This new Prairie Modern was built after a former dollar home was demolished. Photo by author.

The city’s southwestern quadrant hasn’t always been so affluent. In the second decade of the 21st century it is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. And, it’s not the kind of gentrification most people associate with the word. There are no artists moving into historic lofts or struggling young professionals buying up the small older homes to rehab them. Southwest Decatur – rebranded Oakhurst in 1979 – is a place where 1,000-square-foot homes are knocked down in a day and sent to local landfills. They are replaced by homes two or three times larger than the teardowns sporting an array of architectural finishes from oversized Craftsman details to faux Prairie.
In 2011 my wife and I bought a 1925 Craftsman home in Oakhurst. Eleven months later we sold it and moved into neighboring Atlanta after more than thirty homes were torn down within a half-mile radius of our house. I had begun interviewing some of the older residents after I discovered that the neighborhood had been one of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s pilot urban homesteading sites in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Small homes like this one, which still had an attic full of family furniture, china, and other belongings, are demolished by builders. Photo by author.

Urban homesteading was the program created to return vacant and foreclosed homes in HUD’s inventory to private ownership by allowing qualified buyers to purchase homes for a dollar. The new owners could get low-interest rehab loans to bring them back up to code and they were required to remain in the home for a fixed period to help restore neighborhood stability. Decatur was one of the first 23 cities in the U.S. to test the program and the city sold 113 dollar homes.
The dollar home program created Oakhurst’s first wave of gentrification. Young professionals like newly-minted lawyers and teachers bought them alongside former apartment dwellers who wanted to leave Atlanta. Decatur’s urban homesteaders were an even mix of African American and white home buyers who were moving into a neighborhood that within less than a generation had gone from a segregated white area to one dominated by African Americans who had been displaced by 1960s urban renewal and others who were invigorated by new civil rights gains to begin living the American dream in their own suburban homes.
By the time we moved to Oakhurst, the African Americans who had been displaced by urban renewal and who had bought homes in the 1960s and early 1970s were elderly homeowners struggling to maintain their homes – many of which are debt-free – and to pay the city’s high school tax. Average life expectancies for African American men and women were 70.8 and 77.5 in 2012; homeowners must be 80 years old to be excused from the school tax. “The fact is, how many of us live to be eighty?” asked one African American dollar homeowner in a 2012 interview. “Especially black men? We don’t make it that long, you know.”

This former dollar home was torn down to make way for a new home more than twice its size. Photo by author.

Social scientists describe the type of gentrification underway in Oakhurst as super-gentrification: the transformation of already gentrified neighborhoods “into more exclusive and expensive enclaves,” according to geographer Loretta Lees. Oakhurst residents struggling to stay in their homes have deep attachment to the community. Each teardown and new mansionized house lot creates emotional and financial stress that divides families. The question becomes whether to resist the unending offers from builders and find ways to adapt to new social and economic realities or sell and move away. It’s not an easy decision.
For the younger, wealthier new residents, it’s a market issue: the elderly homeowners are “tapping their greatest assets,” as many like to write in local blogs and on neighborhood listservs. “Gentrification in South Decatur – while it may have led to less racial diversity – has been very good for African American families who owned homes in Oakhurst and South Decatur,” wrote one resident using the screen name “Oakhurst Gossip” in a 2011 blog comment. “Should we not allow them to see these profits on their property because we want to keep more white people from moving in so we can feel good about it?”
The affected elderly homeowners vigorously, albeit passively, disagree. Many of the people I interviewed told me of friends and relatives who regretted selling their family homes within a year or two. The money looked good at first, but then the effects of dislocation set in: new financial burdens, separation from familiar places and people, and new routines.

Oakhurst has hip patio dining spots, designer donut shops, and a dog park but no supermarket, pharmacy, or bank. Photo by author.

And what about the rapid rate of change for those who remain in Oakhurst? Familiar buildings disappear weekly and there are the repeated uninvited offers to buy the family home. “They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is,” said one 1960s African American homebuyer who posted signs on her property asking builders to keep out.
There’s little incentive to put the brakes on Oakhurst’s development. Larger new homes mean more tax revenues. Rising property values incentivize more teardowns and attract more young families with children to the neighborhood. But what of the social costs? Each teardown sends about 30 tons of waste to area landfills. Sturdy frame and brick homes are removed from the affordable housing market. Larger homes with shorter expected lifecycles than the earlier homes mean greater energy costs down the road. Age, ethnic, and economic diversity diminishes with each teardown and mansionization.

It’s not a recipe for a sustainable and healthy community. Buzzwords and slogans are great marketing tools but what will Decatur look like 10, 20, or 30 years down the road when all the large new homes reach the end of their useful lives and cannot be recycled into affordable housing? It worked in the earlier urban homesteading program because the homes were well-built and scaled for rehabilitation. The new homes, with less durable materials and inflexible interior spaces, won’t fare as well as the earlier homes.

My wife and I fled Decatur after only 11 months. We joined others who decided to leave the city because of its unsustainable land use policies and the undercurrent of privilege that permeates Oakhurst. Gentrification and its environmental and community costs are global and, as Decatur demonstrated in the 1970s foreclosure crisis, size is no barrier to big city social problems.

Sign announcing one of three teardowns that occurred in one block in the spring of 2012. Photo by author.