Gentrify me

I was researching gentrification, when I gentrified, and got gentrified…

Where I moved on Chittenden Ave, on the border of Weinland Park and the University District — I watched the neighborhood go from black to white in months.

It was autumn 2012. The year the world was supposed to end. Well it was the beginning of the end, at least.

I had talked about gentrification plenty. But I had never seen it happen before my very eyes, as I did in those months in Columbus. I was working for the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, as editor of the city’s street paper, Street Speech.

I was researching development on the East side of Columbus, where plans were underway to tear down a historic public housing complex, one of the first ever built under Roosevelt. Public housing has certainly deteriorated since those times. The budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was completely gutted in the 1980s by Reagan, cut by some 80%, and public housing fell into disrepair in the following years. And in the 2000s, cities started to tear it down, calling it “blight”. Blighted as it may have been or may be, public housing represents a stable home for thousands of people. When public housing is torn down, it’s supposed to be replaced with a Section 8 voucher, which allows tenants to rent from a private landlord, but not all public housing tenants get vouchers. And what HUD and the cities collaborating in this redevelopment don’t tell you is that vouchers are just pieces of paper. If I listed all the ways these subsidies could be taken away from a tenant, you’d be reading this all day. Once HUD makes cuts, and tears down housing, think how easy it is to take away pieces of paper. Yet the replacement of public housing units with Section 8 rental subsidies to private landlords has been billed as an overall good, as the public housing and neighborhoods they’re in are considered an overall “bad” due to years of neglect and institutional racism.

Housing projects offer a crucial safety net that the private market can’t: affordable housing, not subject to the fluctuations of the rental market as neighborhoods across the country are seeing gentrification, rental hikes, housing insecurity, and a vast increase in homelessness. This doesn’t just affect “the poor”, but regular working people. Housing in America has become more and more precarious as rents have spiked in cities across the country. Universities and “Business Improvement Districts” seek to make urban areas palatable to wealthier crowds and sell condos, and to do that they have to drive out the poor first. Tearing down public housing is a first step.

Young urbanites and artists seeking cheaper rent help the process of gentrification, continuously moving to urban peripheries and lending a “cool” factor to areas previously viewed as derelict or dangerous, marking the next zones for developers to identify and conquer.

Anyways, back in 2012, I was writing an article about the demolition of Poindexter Village, the public housing complex on the East side of Columbus. I highlighted the involvement of Ohio State University, a veritable city in itself of 50,000 students, which had intentions to expand its medical center on the East side just next to Poindexter and develop housing for medical students there. My employer, the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, was a nonprofit, and board members included a woman who worked for the university, who became my direct supervisor. I don’t think she liked the article. And I lost my job before it was published.

I had also been investigating Business Improvement Districts and their role in passing laws that criminalize homelessness and poverty. Another of our board members happened to work for the Business Improvement District. He didn’t like me, and I’m sure he didn’t like that. I’m pretty sure he bugged my computer. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Reasons not to trust nonprofits.

This was just 2012–six years ago. Imagine what’s happened since then. At the time, as a journalist, I was researching the housing market, and I found that rents had risen in my small big city of Columbus by 10.5% over the past year. The rental market was what HUD defines as “tight” with a vacancy rate of 4%, driving prices up.

I remember being shocked to read this. And then it happened to me.

My landlord kicked me out to raise the rent

The statistics were alarming, but little did I know that I was about to experience it firsthand. That month, July I believe, my landlord raised the rent on my room in a house from $330 to $400. A new roommate moved in in August, and a conversation on our porch revealed that he was paying $500 per month for an even smaller room.

Later that month, I found a notice on my door, a 3-day notice to leave the premises. Among the official reasons to vacate, first was, “harboring pets” — my boyfriend had found a kitten, which I had kept for all of three days while the landlord’s daughter, my roommate, was out of town. Upon returning home, she told me no, she wasn’t okay with having a cat, and it was gone the next day. This was in supposed violation of my “lease”, which I didn’t have. Nevermind the times she had brought her dogs into the house. The bottom line — they wanted to raise my rent to $500. Even without a written lease, a tenant has the right to a 30-day notice to leave. More than that, if there is a problem with a tenant in the property, they should be given written notice to correct it within 30 days. However, knowing the overall power of landlords in the US, and not having the energy to fight the situation, I chose to get out of there. I hopped on Craigslist and found a small studio for $400 a month. It was about the cheapest property I could find. It was right next to a property my friends had bought, in a neighborhood and on a block that was right on the brink of gentrification. I was in a hurry to find a place, and this was the right price. Though I knew I would be contributing to the gentrification process as a young white woman moving into a mostly black block, I rationalized that it was happening anyways, and what difference would one, or two, more people make?

Development here, there, everywhere

Development, gentrification, and increased rents were not only a phenomenon looming on the East side where Poindexter Village was set to be demolished, though this had been made into a site of contention.

It was by no means the only area in which Columbus was seeing redevelopment, rising rents and efforts to rid areas that could be profitable of the poor. On the west side, Riverside Bradley, another public housing complex, was demolished in the fall of 2011. It was just across the river from downtown, and the city had just constructed a bridge connecting the Franklinton area to the downtown. Next door, Sunshine Terrace, another public housing complex, was set for demolition, and developers were buying up nearby properties to turn them into artist studios and hipster lofts.

And it was happening in Weinland Park, as well, a historically black neighborhood adjacent to the university, where I happened to move. It was right on the line, my street, between student housing and the ghetto.

When I moved into Weinland Park, I knew they would rent to me since I fit the demographic they were seeking to boost their property values. I don’t know if the decision was justifiable. I do believe that the gentrification would have occurred with or without me, but I must’ve helped. I didn’t anticipate that my presence would make a big difference, nor how quickly the neighborhood would change, and that the same situation would play over again so quickly.

At the whim of a slumlord

When I moved in, I told my property manager that my reason for moving in was that my previous landlord had raised the rent from $330 to $500 for a room in a house. Her eyes lit up with dollar signs as she asked eagerly, “Really?” The next month, I met a new tenant who would be moving in next door, and was paying $525 as opposed to $400. The landlord then tried to raise the rent on me, too, for having an additional occupant (my boyfriend), though there was nothing regulating this in the lease.

And, for my $400, I had continuous problems. The apartment, it seemed, was not actually in condition to rent. The gas lines to the building had not yet been installed. There was no stove, though my friend next door lent me his electric cooker. Every other day, the electricity in half of the unit would pop off. I would have to wait a day or two to get it turned on again, since I didn’t have access to the fuse box in the basement. In mid-September, the electricity for the entire building went out, and it was off for two weeks. Every other day the property manager would call my next door neighbor and I to say that they were working on it, and it would be back on tomorrow. Tomorrow. My neighbor next door moved out, presumably losing his security deposit. In the meantime, while we waited, we had nowhere to shower. I had nowhere to do work after hours, and spent a lot of time on my laptop in my neighbor’s backyard. When the electricity came back on, it still popped off every other day if I turned on too many lights at once. My new neighbor (who was rehabilitating the houses for her, and had keys to the basement) later told me that the landlord had told him not to turn the electricity back on for me. So my landlord was actually trying to force me out by deliberately leaving me without electricity.

It had been a hectic time at work, as well. I had just finished with an advocacy effort to get more shelter beds in the city, as there had frequently been a nightly waiting list of over 100 people unable to get into homeless shelters, mostly women. On top of my usual responsibilities. I was burnt out. I was just about to take a much needed three day vacation when I received my notice to leave my previous house, and spent those three days moving. Then my coworker went on vacation, and I spent a few days covering for him, which put me further behind. Changing last minute demands from my boss meant a few late nights, against a new policy that prohibited me from working late in the office.

Dealing with housing and utility issues the next month did me in. I couldn’t meet the pressures, new deadlines, and changing and conflicting demands of my employers, a few of whom wanted to get rid of me, while not even having access to electricity or a hot shower in my house. So I lost my job. I didn’t imagine how quickly housing issues could affect my employment situation, and then without employment, how housing becomes so precarious, with my ability to pay rent up in the air.

My boyfriend faced his own issues with development. In addition to the weirdness of my housing issues, he was kicked out of two convenience stores along High St, and received a jaywalking ticket, all within a week or so. The kids are back at school. He took all this as a sign that it was time to leave town.

Meanwhile, our block was being heavily patrolled by cops. A police cruiser could be spotted on our block at any given time, and helicopters were flying over nightly. On one occasion, we heard them circling over our building for over 10 minutes. Lying in bed, I opened the curtain to look out, topless, only to have their spotlight shine right back at me. It all had the feel of a police state.

We got out of town. I needed to drive out to Virginia to visit family, and my boyfriend Jonah came with me, determined to get out to the East Coast and stay in Richmond or Virginia Beach. We felt better as we ventured farther east, and away from the oppressive vibe that had been pervading Columbus. We spent several nights sleeping on Virginia Beach, watching the ocean, the waves, the sunrise. Military boats were continuously coming in and going out of the military port a few miles north, and military jets flew over us at night. Around sunrise people would start wandering out to the beach, locals walking their dogs. Great living room, they said to us.

He didn’t want to go back to Columbus. It was hard leaving him there, I didn’t know when or if I would see him again. I told him I would come find him in a few weeks. When I came back to Columbus after being on the East Coast, I couldn’t believe how much everything had changed. The police were gone, and the demographics on my block had shifted dramatically. A block that had been mainly Black, had turned white, like that. The block changed in two weeks, as though it had been overnight. Fall was in the air. Classes had begun. What had happened?

When I got back the police were gone, and so were the black people

I realized that the over-policing of my neighborhood was part and parcel of the gentrification. If Section 8 holders get arrested — not convicted, just arrested — they can lose their housing voucher. How curious. Not just to make the neighborhood “safe” for college students, but to remove the people with housing subsidies. Very strict rules apply to people with Section 8. The police left with the riff-raff, apparently. And lo and behold, a week after I got back, I learned that the tenants across the street, who rented with a Section 8 voucher, were given a notice to leave for alleged non-payment of a water bill. The property had recently been sold to a small time developer who was buying up all over the neighborhood, cheap properties, and fixing them up to rent to students. The police were arresting Black people, and new landlords were revoking Section 8 vouchers and renting to students.

One night in September, sitting in the neighbor’s backyard, I read the Weinland Park Civic Association newsletter. It read like the gentrification digest. Rents had gone up over $100 around the area. Talk of more street lights, safety patrols. A victorious photo-op showed developers breaking ground on new houses in the neighborhood, built with federal dollars from a Neighborhood Stabilization Grant. It added that the houses would only be available to those at 120% of the median area income — a quickly rising digit. $50k, $60k, $70k per year? Affordable housing for some, but certainly not low-income housing. Which goes back to the fact that, as so many people face housing precarity, funding for low-income housing is diminishing, and most federal housing subsidies go to the middle and upper classes. Homeowner tax credits now make up most federal housing subsidies, and of these, 55% go to those making $100k or more per year.

Before I left for Virginia, I had tried to get some sort of compensation from my landlord for the lack of utilities. Either out of my lease and my money back, or a month of free rent. She offered me those options, and then rescinded and tried to force me out, so that she could rent the apartment for more money. Again! She was trying to force me out of my home. I had so many weird issues already, I had been thinking about moving out, but the fact that she was trying to force me made me resolve to stay. I spent countless hours worrying about it, talking about it, consulting a lawyer. Anyways, that’s neither here nor there. The precarity, the anxiety, of not knowing where to go, or where you’re going to stay, is exhausting. Finding a place to stay because you don’t have heat. From friend’s house to friend’s house. Relying on neighbors for the courtesy of a shower. Or a place to cook food. Eating out all the time because you don’t have a place to cook, and then not having the money to pay rent. Not being able to plan for the future, or to work, to write, to make your resume, because you never have a stable place to be. Relying on generosities, going from coffeeshop to coffeeshop.

I got kicked out of two apartments in five months due to gentrification. The stress of my housing situation, on top of my job, was enormous. And the loss of my housing led to me losing my job. But imagine how they had it. The people who lost their housing vouchers, who may not even have had jobs. They may have ended up in the shelters — or as the shelters were full, on the streets.

Right now, housing is a commodity, and many Americans are desperately trying to hang on, while others slip.

Record numbers of homeless students in Northern Virginia. Record numbers of homeless in NYC. The requirements for entry, even to the shelters, and to stay, are more and more stringent as the money for the safety net (and not even housing! even shelter!) is less and less. Housing is the unspoken/unsung crisis of our time as the Great Recession meets urban redevelopment. Housing in my neighborhood was being rented out to students at twice the cost, and how will they pay for it? Their parents will, or they’ll go into debt. Meanwhile, others, without access to credit or stable employment, face increasing precarity, and homelessness. Forced out of their homes. Flung to the suburbs without access to transportation, or urban peripheries waiting to be gentrified. It’s six years later, and I’m sure that rent has doubled — I’ve heard as much. How are Section 8 tenants finding housing, especially if they don’t have a car to get to work? How are low-income workers paying their rents?

Yet the government continued their talk of austerity, and balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and homeless with budget cuts for housing. Now, Trump cuts taxes and starts wars, further gutting social programs.

When I interviewed one of the executives from CMHA, the public housing authority, he said if I think the demolition of public housing is bad, not to be surprised if we start seeing time limits on housing subsidies a few years from now. I haven’t stayed tune. I skipped town. More than that, I skipped the country. But I’m curious to find out what’s happened…

6 years later….

…To be continued…