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Carmen Cauthen’s “History of Housing in Raleigh” is context for tomorrow night’s “Affordable Housing Bond: The Great Debate”

Great Debate is Thursday at 7. Gotta register!

A heads up if you’re looking for information about the $80 million Affordable Housing Bond Question on this year’s ballot:

Tomorrow night — that’s Thursday, September 24, 7 pm — the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition is hosting a Zoom’d debate on the pros and cons of the bond program. In short: Should you vote for it, despite its shortcomings? Or against it, because it falls too far short?

The Zoom is free, but registration is needed in order to get the Zoom link via email.

Click THIS LINK RIGHT HERE to register.

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The debate is the second in a series of three WCHJC programs related to the bond issue. If you missed the first one, you can watch it now by clicking on THIS OTHER LINK.

Be sure to turn on the volume at the lower right hand edge of the screen.

With the volume up, you’ll hear Carmen Cauthen, the longtime civic leader,  discussing “The History of Housing in Raleigh” from a black perspective. Cauthen is a terrific story-teller, and her narrative puts the current problems of affordable housing in a context that goes back to 1) the founding of Raleigh; 2) Raleigh’s plantations and slavery; 3) the Emancipation of African-Americans following the Civil War; 4) Jim Crow and segregated housing; and 5) today’s issue of the White Gentrification of Black Neighborhoods.

Cauthen draws on her own family’s history to weave a story very much worth listening to. Frankly, if you live in Raleigh and don’t know this history, this is a great start on learning it. If you think you know this history — and I did know some of it — I believe you’ll come away with new information and, hopefully, a desire to dig down further.

Here are a few takeaways from her talk:

      • Raleigh is a hilly place, a city of high ground and low ground. This matters a lot. The high ground — up on the ridges — is where people prefer to live if they can afford it. The low ground — wetlands criss-crossed by streams — is where people live who can’t afford the high ground.
      • Raleigh’s founders created a Capital City bounded within a 1-mile radius of the state Capitol square. That’s more significant to our black-white history than it may seem.
      • Until the Civil War, the entire African-American population of Raleigh, with the exception of a few freedmen and women, were enslaved people living on plantations owned by the Cameron family and others.
      • Whites lived in town.
      • After the Civil War, slaves were emancipated but had little money. The land available to them was outside the city limits to the east and west or, if in the city limits, downhill from the ridges. Think, for example, of Fayetteville Street on the high ground all the way to Memorial Auditorium. Whites lived up there. To the south, the street dives downhill — and that’s where an African-American community called Hungry Neck was established.
      • Altogether, 13 black settlements were established in and around Raleigh, with names like Lincolnville, Brooklyn and Oberlin Village.
      • Freedmen prior to the Civil War acquired land on what is now Oberlin Road, well outside of the city limits. The black settlement of Oberlin Village thrived until the early 1900s. Other black settlements sprung up around Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College, both of which were outside Raleigh’s eastern city limits. Shaw, established in 1865, quickly became the nation’s largest African-American university, featuring professional schools in law, medicine and pharmacy.
      • A black professional class emerged, and blacks gained leadership roles in city and state government.
      • The neighborhoods around Shaw and St. Aug’s were not segregated. Rather, ex-slaves with little money and poor whites lived side by side through the end of the 19th century.
      • 1898 marked the violent overthrow of black political power by white supremacists. Thereafter, Jim Crow laws segregated the races. Restrictive covenants attached to deeds and insurance redlining practices barred blacks from owning or renting in the white neighborhoods of Raleigh, “except as servants.” Whites, poor or not, found their way out of East Raleigh, where neighborhoods became all-black.
      • Raleigh for most of the 20th century was a place of “separate and unequal.” White prosperity resulted, in part, from the rising value of their land and houses. Black incomes lagged, as did housing values. It didn’t help that so much of the black housing was in flood-prone areas.
      • Oberlin Village was an early and textbook case of gentrification. In 1916, almost the entire population on both sides of Oberlin Road was black, extending from Hillsborough Street to Glenwood Avenue. But as white Raleigh expanded to the west, Oberlin Road — land on the high ground — became highly desirable. As Cauthen related, wealthy whites bought out black owners by offering unheard of sums: $50,000 (!) for lots where, previously, no black family was ever offered more than $4,000 or $5,000.
      • “Honestly,” Cauthen said, “I think you could change the date on that to 2016, and it sounds just like the gentrification that’s happening in our city today.” In other words, wealth continues to be concentrated in white hands, and is now pouring into Raleigh’s oldest black neighborhoods, as whites buy up low-priced houses for teardowns.
      • As white buyers build expensive replacement houses and developers build expensive apartments, black residents are displaced — forced to the edges of Raleigh or to other municipalities.

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The crisis of affordable housing is national, and Raleigh is better off in many respects than bigger cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. We still have undeveloped land on the outskirts of our city and in the low-lying areas. Tract houses here cost $300,000 that, in San Francisco, might cost $3 million.

Still, downtown Raleigh is booming, with no room for low-income folks. Since the end of the 2008 Great Recession, downtown has pushed relentlessly into the low-income neighborhoods of East, Southeast and Southwest Raleigh that used to be outside of the city limits but are now within easy driving or bicycling distance of the Capitol.

These communities of African-American owners and tenants, historically disadvantaged by slavery and Jim Crow, don’t have enough money to withstand the pressure of wealthier white buyers. And even if they’re determined to hold on, the rising prices all around are pushing up property taxes, forcing their hands.

That’s the background of the great Affordable Housing Debate. Will the $80 million alleviate the problems, or make them worse?

Tune in tomorrow night!

 

— by Bob Geary

 

 

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