I was researching gentrification, when gentrification happened to me

And it just keeps going…

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 Fall 2012. The year the world was supposed to end, or something. Well it was the end, for me. The end of this place. I left Columbus in November, we fled to the East Coast and then to Cleveland where we awaited the world’s end, and I left the US the following September.

I’ve talked about gentrification plenty. But I had never seen it before my very eyes, as I did in those months. 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 bulldoze one of the first ever public housing complexes, as so many cities have done in the past several years to pave the way for redevelopment, and because of perpetual under funding. Public housing complexes, after years of being underfunded, earned negative reputations as bastions of crime and blight, concentrations of poor, mostly black families. The replacement of these with Section 8 rental subsidies to private landlords has been billed as an overall good, as these communities lacked jobs and investment. Now, the communities are broken apart, residents flung in different directions.

Housing projects offer a crucial safety net that the private market can’t: stable affordable housing, not subject to the fluctuations of the rental market as neighborhoods across the country become vulnerable to gentrification and the rental spikes that create housing insecurity — not just for the poor, but for students and regular working people. Housing in America has become more and more precarious as rents have gone up, families and homeowners have faced foreclosure and been flung into the rental market. And young urbanites and artists seeking cheaper rent continuously move outward to urban peripheries, marking the next zones for developers to identify and conquer.

Researching rental increases, 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.

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, 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 a smaller room, no less.

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 said 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. The real reason, in part, was my new boyfriend, who had been staying over, was transient. And the bottom line — they wanted to raise my rent to $500. I looked up landlord-tenant law — 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. Anyways, knowing the overall power of landlords, and the time and energy it would take to fight the situation, I chose to get out of there. I wanted my own place anyways, with more space, a place where my boyfriend and I would be good to stay the winter in peace. I hopped on Craigslist and found a small studio for $400 a month. 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. In 2009 I joined the group Columbus Housing Justice, and we canvassed Poindexter surveying residents about their feelings regarding its scheduled demolition and redevelopment of the neighborhood. Most were happy to leave, as it was infested with pests — yet perhaps they didn’t realize they wouldn’t all receive housing vouchers. Later, some neighborhood activists came out of the woodwork and some friends from the group organized a Poindexter History Festival, celebrating the rich history of the community, raising the consciousness and solidarity of its residents. It’s history in itself became something of value, a reason for preserving the neighborhood and its housing, which even the conservative mainstream newspaper acknowledged, and further, a way to maintain it, by contesting its demolition as a site for historical preservation.

Though Poindexter and the black near east side neighborhood has become a point of contention, it was by no means the only area in which Columbus was seeing redevelopment, and rising rents and efforts to rid these areas of public housing and people with housing subsidies. 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, is set for demolition. Across the street from Riverside Bradley, a developer from LA purchased a warehouse and turned it into artist studios, a playground for young hipsters. More young and white people began to move into the neighborhood. Another warehouse down the block was converted into a party space. In search of cheap rents, a cool new space to party, to dress in costumes, to live a fantasy life, where we could create a new world with urban gardens, at a distance and at the expense of poor urban black folk who were cleared away to make room for it.

And it was happening in Weinland Park, as well, a historically black neighborhood adjacent to the university.

We’re all in search of cheap space, urban space, where it’s possible for us to afford to escape the 9 to 5 daily realities of work, family, the suburbs, to create something new. We claim we want diversity, but we’re not really willing to put forth the time and effort it takes to build bonds with the poor, minorities, the homeless, and fight for their rights to stay, to be, to exist. We’re too exhausted trying to make our own life, to pay our bills, to create something new, and to keep our housing. And once it’s developed, will we even be able to stay there anymore? 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 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. I could see her eyes light up with dollar signs as she gave me an eager, “Really?” The next month, I met a new tenant who would be moving in next door, and paying $525 as opposed to $400. She then tried to raise the rent on me, too, for having an additional occupant, though there was nothing regulating this in the lease.

And, for my $400, I had continuous problems. The gas lines on the building had not yet been installed. There was no stove, but 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. My neighbor (who had keys to the basement) later told me that the landlord had told him not to turn the electricity back on for me. In mid-September, the electricity for the entire building went out. It was off for two weeks while my next door neighbor and I got phone calls from the property manager every other day that they were working on it, and it would be back on tomorrow. Tomorrow. 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.

It had been a hectic time at work, as well. I had just finished with an advocacy effort to get more shelter beds, as there had frequently been a nightly waiting list of over 100 for shelter — mostly women — who couldn’t get in. 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. 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 police. A cruiser could be spotted within a 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 shining 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 he came with me, determined to get out to the East Coast and stay in Richmond or VA 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. Around sunrise people would start wandering out to the beach, tourists and locals walking their dogs. Great living room, they said to us.

It was hard leaving him on the beach, 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, I couldn’t believe how much everything had changed in a couple of weeks. The police were gone, and the demographics on my block had shifted noticeably. White people were in houses they weren’t before. Fall was in the air. Everything was calm. What had happened?

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. The new tenant next door was paying $525, not $400. I freaked out — she was trying to force me out of my home! I had so many weird issues already, I was 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. She agreed to let me stay, and then I decided to leave again, and then to stay. Anyways, that’s neither here nor there. The precarity, the anxiety, of not knowing where to go, or where you’re going to stay. 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.

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, which just opened 10 new shelters. The requirements for entry, even to the shelters, and to stay, are more and more stringent as the money for the safety net is less and less. Housing is the unspoken/unsung crisis of our time as the Great Recession meets urban redevelopment. Housing in my neighborhood is 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. Forced out of their homes. Flug to the suburbs without access to transportation, or the urban peripheries waiting to be gentrified.

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 users 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 housing subsidies — even an arrest, or charge, not even a conviction, can cause you to lose it. 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.

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 they would only be available to those at 120% of the median area income — a quickly rising digit. $50, $60, $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 make up most federal housing subsidies, and of these, 55% go to those making $100k or more per year.

And the government continues to talk about austerity, and balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and homeless with budget cuts for housing. Even after losing the election, the Romney candidacy was a victory for the Republican Party which took the opportunity to focus the narrative on the national debt as the source of our economic problems, and to continue to push for cuts to our already tattered safety net.

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.

5 years later….

…To be continued…