By Maryum Elnasseh
One of Shekinah Mitchell’s favorite memories in Richmond is walking out of her favorite corner store 10 years ago and serendipitously meeting the man who would become her husband.
Today, that corner store no longer exists.
Mitchell’s story is part of a larger pattern that policy experts said is becoming increasingly common in Richmond and around the nation: gentrification.
“Gentrification is not just physical displacement; it’s cultural displacement,” Mitchell said during a panel Friday afternoon. “In the same way we have to be vigilant in preserving housing that is affordable for all people in our community, we have to do the same with culture.”
Two seats away from her, Arthur Burton, the executive director of Kinfolk Community Empowerment Center, said gentrification is often discussed in a way to keep white people comfortable.
“We tend not to talk about the elephant in the room, and that’s the elephant of race,” Burton said.
According to an analysis by panel member Jonathan Knopf, with Housing Virginia, about 90 percent of households in the Church Hill area were black in 2000, including renters. By 2015, that number fell to about 70 percent.
While the number of black homeowners in Church Hill decreased by almost 25 percent in that same period, the number of white homeowners increased by nearly 160 percent.
Duron Chavis, the community engagement manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, said the trend is not new.
“The narrative of Virginia is one where some were given privilege over land and its use, while others were marginalized from its use,” Chavis said. He said displacement “is engrained in the very fabric of this country.”
When a wealthier person moves into a neighborhood and purchases a home at a higher price than its assessed value, Chavis explained, people already living in that area must now pay higher taxes on their homes.
For some families, Mitchell noted, the increasing home value is a wonderful thing, as having more equity can mean building wealth. But that’s not the case for everyone.
“In some cases, it can go from $200 to, maybe, $1,600 in taxes a year,” Chavis said. “If you as a homeowner become delinquent on your taxes, then you’re at threat of losing your home.”
For renters, as home values in an area increase, so does their monthly rent – until, sometimes, they can no longer afford to live there.
It’s a process that some people link to eviction.
According to a report published in April, Richmond has one of the highest eviction rates in the nation. Research by VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis shows that eviction rates are higher in areas with a higher population of black residents. In fact, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney just introduced a pilot program to help combat high eviction rates. In a 2010 report, the Center for Responsible Lending found that black families also disproportionately lose their homes to foreclosures.
“It’s a modern-day land grab,” said Brian Koziol, the director of research and policy at Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The result is the same: It took wealth and land from brown and black families.”
For Mitchell, a word that comes to mind when discussing gentrification is colonization. She read in a newspaper article years ago that a local housing official saw a need for urban pioneers – people who will move into areas considered distressed and pioneer to live there.
“A pioneer is someone who goes to an undiscovered place where nothing exists. But our communities are places that already have people and culture,” Mitchell said. “That mentality of coming in and not acknowledging what already exists, not acknowledging the culture in a community – it feels like colonization again.”