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


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.


0 thoughts on “Gentrification Hits Small Cities Too: Unsustainable Policies in Decatur, Georgia

  1. Anyone who’s been following this story knows that Rotenstein holds a very personal grudge against Decatur residents. Conveniently, he leaves out the fact that he moved to a MORE expensive and LESS diverse neighborhood when he left Decatur.

  2. Hmm. A grudge against Decatur residents doesn’t seem “very personal” or even “personal” by definition. On the other hand, a Twitter handle aimed at a specific individual does seem “very personal”. Does anyone actually care where this guy lives? Is there more to the gentrification argument than just individual choices?It sounds to me like both parties are wrapped up in a lot of vitriol. If you’re comfortable with your housing choices and the effects, great–why would you care what this fellow says or where he lives? If you don’t agree with the argument(s) in substance, then refute them. Or just sling mud.

  3. This is a complete over dramatization of the situation in Oakhurst. Its true that a wealthier demographic is moving into the neighborhood, but it really doesnt have anything to do with race. This article implies that there arent african americans in the same demographic buying homes in the neighborhood, which isnt true.
    Also, for every new home being built there are three older homes being remodeled. Its not like the entire neighborhood is being bulldozed. Having said that, I agree that some of the large homes being built are ugly and dont fit with the fabric of the neighborhood, but I wouldnt say that its “unsustainable”. In fact, most of the larger homes are being built on the same small lots, which many times means that more people are living in the same space as before.
    The same thing is happening all over the east side of Atlanta and I would imagine is happening in the neighborhood where the author has chosen to live in now.

  4. The elderly homeowners who can’t afford to maintain their homes are choosing to sell their homes to developers for an average of $200K. Not a bad ROI when you only paid a buck.

  5. Steve,
    Did we read the same article? This is about community and roots. You’ve reduced it to dollars and cents. No $200K isn’t a bad return on one’s investment, but relocation brings with it a price tag that can’t be measured in $ and ¢. In my neighborhood in rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, we witnessed a brick house, ca. 1770, first burned, then bulldozed without a hint of planning/zoning or Historic Preservation raising its voice. So what was lost? The place where a member of the pre-Revolutionary War Committee of Correspondence home. These demo’d homes in Decatur weren’t that old but each owner of a so-called dollar house who caved in to the developers, can’t go home again. Their descendants can’t point to grandpa’s place where birthdays were celebrated and Santa came down the chimney. I agree that the building materials of the mansionized new homes won’t withstand the test of time. So let’s call the Prairie house, Prairie Revival, not faux. Good luck to Dave in finding his bliss in Atlanta.

    • Kate things change and land in the end is a commodity. That has not changed..It’s a shame about the 1770, but I am wondering if it was beyond repair.
      Going back to grandpas house? Well, that is kind of hard for most of us and who really feels that sentimental? And yes, a a home owner wants a return on his investment.

    • To Sammy, I can drive (7 hours) by and even knock on the door of my grandparents’ home where they lived during their 50+ year marriage. It is a modest late 19th C. 2 story with Mansard roof in Waynesburg, Greene Co., PA. The current owners (29 years and counting) even let me buy the wood mantel from the room my dad was born in (they needed the wall space). I’d hate to be so cynical, as you apparently are, that I discounted the nostalgia factor. We aren’t short of land in this country so the ‘land as commodity’ argument doesn’t fly. Just look at all the fertile, prime farm land around Middletown, DE that has been developed in the last 15 years with godawful not-so-little boxes. The mid-19th C. heart of Middletown is largely intact but the ring around it features those non-nostalgic big boxes called WalMart and Kohls, Lowes and Home Despot (sic on my part). As for the 1770 house, an uphill fight to EVEN get Kent County, Md., est. 1641, to have a HP ordinance meant it was weak with a provision for requiring a demo permit and no penalty if one was not obtained. Was the house beyond repair? It was brick, 2 1/2 stories, and houses larger than that can be jacked up and moved, if that’s what it takes to save it. The new owner’s of the acreage got an ag conservation easement ($$$$) and then demo’d the house! In it’s place, sits a French Revival hipped roof house that has no architectural ties with what was once there.
      To Steve, you make some good points and I hope the money offset the removal and loss of community. Are you assuming that IF they hadn’t sold, they’d have starved or frozen to death, and being elderly wouldn’t they have Medicare? Do you have data to back that up? The dispersal of a community implies that there were no younger family members in a position to aid their elders. Some of your reasoning may be specious if all factors are not demonstrated.
      The Greenest building practice is the preservation/rehabilitation of an existing structure, according to Preservation Magazine. Or as some of my co-commentators would have it: send the old house to a landfill.

  6. Relocation does brings with it a price tag that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, but I think it foolish to ignore the fact that in choosing to sell these financially strapped elderly residents are able to bring an ease to their final years that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
    Nostalgia doesn’t pay doctor bills or put food on the table. What we’re seeing in Oakhurst is the free market economy at work, and both sides stand both to benefit and to lose. Rather than blaming the residents and government of one small town, let’s look at the much larger societal factors in play.

  7. While this article may slightly over-dramatize the pace and scope of what is occurring in Decatur (given that there are remodeling projects concurrent with the teardowns), it presents an accurate picture of the overall dynamic.
    To argue otherwise is to ignore the perspective of those elderly residents (and/or their children) who have lived in Decatur for decades, and who feel the pressure to sell on a monthly basis.

  8. Whatever the merits of other responders’ comments, the issue of preserving affordable housing alternatives for a community is an important one, which can be addressed with zoning using such tools as maximum lot coverage.
    Another point made in the article that deserves more attention in the preservation community is the probable lifespan of most new housing using today’s materials. This argument has been made for preserving old windows over new replacements. Now, how about the new house vs. the old?

  9. I live on the Mexico border. Thanks God there are no hipsters or high end rents or boutiques. The low prices in Mexico depress the market and keep prices down. A lot of people don’t want to deal with the problems of border culture. As a closet artist I find this refreshing. When I say closet I mean I paint in secret. I don’t want to create an artist community or start one. This feeds gentrification. The most useless people are the so called hipsters they wouldn’t last long around this area. there are a lot of nice places to live abroad where you can be creative without being bothered by hipsters

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