Imagine this: A city government takes $65 million in public money and buys up more 1,300 units of aging but affordable housing, which is home mainly to low income and minority residents. It demolishes the housing, and plans to sell the land to private developers for office and retail development.
A pretty cut-and-dried case of gentrification and displacement, wouldn’t you say?
Or maybe it’s a tale from the bad old days of “urban renewal” when cities fought poverty by bull-dozing “blighted” neighborhoods?
Actually this story is unfolding now, in one of the nation’s largest metro areas.
But while it seems that every move in the gentrification battles in Brooklyn and San Francisco is broadcast nationally, this egregious case of direct government displacement is being ignored. Maybe if it happens in the suburbs and doesn’t involve hipsters, it isn’t worthy of media attention.
Here are the details: Last month Mayor Steve Tumlin of Marietta, Georgia sat at the controls of an excavator and took the first swipe at knocking down the Woodlands Park Apartments. The city of Marietta, just outside Atlanta, has acquired – and demolished, or plans to demolish – four apartment complexes on Franklin Road containing more than 1,300 apartments. The demolition is funded by a bond issue approved by city voters in November 2013 by a 2,740 to 2,307 margin. The city has additional bond money and is in the process of acquiring more apartments, with plans to demolish them as well.
(Top: The entrance to Woodlands Park Apartments as it appeared in 2011. Bottom: The shuttered complex in May 2015. Source: Google Maps.)
Marietta officials take a dim view of the apartment complexes on Franklin Road on the city’s southeast side. They describe it as a blighted, high crime area. US Senator Johnny Isaakson said: “I go by Franklin Road as fast as I can every day.”
(If Marietta is a familiar name as a flashpoint for the problems of low income citizens living in suburbs, it should be. You may recall the case of Raquel Nelson, a single mother of three, who was convicted of manslaughter when she and her children were hit by a drunk driver when crossing a suburban highway from a bus-stop to their home.)
One Atlanta commentator described the project as removing ten “ancient” apartment complexes and “ushering” the residents to different locations. Most local citizens echo this view. The mayor sees it as clear cut opportunity to assemble land and develop new business. The city feels that it spends a disproportionate share of its tax revenues providing services to the neighborhood. One “benefit” of the demolitions, then, is lower enrollments at local schools. In just the past year, school officials reported a decline of 250 students from the Franklin Road area.
The project has produced little outcry. One of the few outspoken opponents is a local resident, Marty Heller, who argues that the demolitions are “class warfare”: “The people who voted for it want to eliminate the population on Franklin Road and raze the apartment complexes and replace it with commercial development. They want to eliminate the poor people on Franklin Road, they want to get the Hispanics out of the school system so that their test scores will go up, and it will make it easier for the school system.” The bond measure’s proponents respond that they are helping the poor who are now “trapped in high density crime-ridden slum like apartment complexes.”
What happens to the former residents of these apartments is far from clear. They will have to find housing elsewhere, and their children will have to be educated somewhere else. The demolitions are substantial, amounting to about 10 percent of all the multi-family housing in Marietta. The city says it will help relocate residents, but in press accounts at least, details are scant. Whether residents can continue to afford to live in Marietta, and whether students will end up in some other school district, doesn’t seem to be the city’s chief concern.
The apartments in question date from the 1960s, and when they were constructed were a desirable location for young couples and singles in suburban Atlanta. But as the region has sprawled and the the apartments have aged, they’ve gradually moved downmarket. Apartments.com reports that the Marquis Place complex – which the city plans to acquire and demolish – offers 1 to 3 bedroom apartments for rents of $660 to $940 monthly.
It’s interesting to look back at the history of the neighborhood along Franklin Road. We’ve assembled some data from Brown University’s Longitudinal Tract Database that tracks Census data from 1970 through 2010. We examined data for Census Tracts 304.11, 304.12, and 304.14, which include the apartments in question. In 1970, when the apartments (and most of the housing in the surrounding areas) were still quite new, this was a high income, predominantly white area. The poverty rate was just 4 percent, and the median household income was about 70 percent higher than the national average. In each successive decade, the economic status of the area has slipped. Today, the poverty rate in these tracts has increased to 28 percent – just shy of the 30 percent threshold we use to define neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and median household incomes are about 25 percent below the national average.
Over past four decades, the racial and ethnic composition of this neighborhood has changed even more dramatically. In 1980, the residents of these three Census Tracts were nearly 95 percent white. Today, only 14 percent of the residents are non-Hispanic whites. The area’s population is now four-fifths persons of color: about 52 percent black and about 30 percent Hispanic.
As we’ve pointed out before, public interest in gentrification seems to be highly focused in just a few large – and generally liberal – metropolitan areas. The poster children of gentrification are hipster neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Washington, San Francisco and Portland. The data and scholarly research on the subject show that even in these areas, displacement is far less than imagined, and previous residents are less likely to move away from gentrifying neighborhoods than non- gentrifying ones, and benefit from neighborhood improvement.
Still, the narrative about urban gentrification is full of vitriol and conspiracy theories: city officials, in league with banks and developers, look to exploit poor neighborhoods. Often these theories overlook, or entirely discount, the growing demand for urban living, and the shortage of housing and neighborhoods created by restrictive single-family zoning. So it’s a bit surprising that no one calls it “gentrification” when the demolition of affordable multi-family housing and the displacement of low income residents is the explicit, stated strategy of a local government.
That no one uses the term “gentrification” to describe Marietta’s plan to purposefully de-populate the low income residents of the Franklin Road apartments says a lot about how we think about poverty, class and place in urban areas. It’s apparently acceptable for suburbs to actively discourage – and in this case, actually relocate – low income renters. This is may be a by-product of our obsession with neighborhood change in just a handful of neighborhoods in New York, San Francisco and Chicago: we don’t even notice when the absolute worst-case scenario of low-income displacement for private development takes place in a major metropolitan area, because it doesn’t fit the sexy narrative we’re used to. By pretending this sort of thing only happens in Brooklyn or the Mission, we leave the low income households who used to live in these now-demolished Marietta apartments vulnerable to very real displacement.
What’s next for Franklin Road? Marietta officials are hoping to persuade the Atlanta Falcons to build a new practice facility for their professional soccer team on 50 acres formerly occupied by hundreds of apartments.