Gentrification in Durham (and everywhere)

Disclaimer: This is not a post with answers. I don't have any silver bullet solutions. I don't even have any "just ok" solutions. I have just been bothered by a certain problem and have my own way of framing it.


It's probably the word that I hear most often when talking about the growth of Durham. It's real. People are being displaced. Maybe not so much from downtown, because, as I have heard from multiple people, "up until  recently, downtown was empty. There was nobody there to displace!"

However, people are being displaced from lots of other neighborhoods around Durham. There have been plenty of articles, posts, and media lamenting this fact. I'm not saying anything new here. But there is another component that is discussed less frequently.

For years, people have been working to improve their own lives. For example, imagine a Durhamite in the 1920's. At some point, he decides it is time to own a home and he proceeds to build it himself. It's a modest shack because it is what he can afford to build. A decade later, after saving some money, he might build an addition. Down the road, maybe he re-paints, or renovates. He makes improvements that benefit himself and his family over time. But the improvements that he and his neighbors make, benefit the neighborhood as a whole. Elsewhere in Durham, entrepreneurs are starting local businesses (bakeries, grocery stores, barber shops, and more). Governments are creating infrastructure in an effort to improve neighborhoods (sometimes misguided, admittedly, but sometimes lovely parks and green spaces, sidewalks, etc).

There is something wonderful about these efforts from residents, entrepreneurs, developers, and governments, working to make things a little better. I would argue that this type of activity should be allowed and encouraged. However, today, these actions have a negative side effect: gentrification. It's easiest to blame a big developer from out of state, or "the house flippers" for gentrification. Some greedy bigwig is to blame. It's human nature to want to find a villain and attribute all problems to that group.

But the way our society works, all improvements lead to gentrification. Improvements, large and small, lead to demand for a neighborhood, which drives prices up and displaces residents. So, what are we supposed to do? Do we stop creating local businesses like the former Lakewood Restaurant that was eviscerated by IndyWeek? Should we stop buying houses because we are participating in a booming market and are helping drive prices up through our demand? If you bought a house in the past couple of years, you are part of the market and part of the problem. Even "worse", did you do anything to improve, update, or renovate the house?

These actions do lead to gentrification. Making neighborhoods nicer leads to higher prices and displacement. Even seemingly unimpeachable actions like cleaning up parks, better policing of violent crimes, or improving the public school system lead to gentrification. But halting all efforts to  make a community better doesn't seem like the solution. What about the people that are being displaced? Should they be rallying to put an end to all neighborhood tree planting initiatives? What happens to the goal of Durham's "shared prosperity" if there is no prosperity to share?

So here is how I have framed the problem as it faces Durham (as well as so much of the country):

Letting our Community Languish vs Displacing Vulnerable Residents

Which one do you root for? Clearly, the system is broken when we have to choose between those two options.

I said at the beginning that I don't have any solutions. I am willing to consider all options. Some people, much smarter than I am, have offered a few ideas, but this is a large problem and I am not sure any one of them is the cure: YIMBYism, Universal Basic Income, increased social services like "Medicare for All", Durham's "Expanding Housing Choices" program, reimagining housing as NOT an investment. There is too much to go into in this post, but feel free to explore the links for each of these ideas. All of them have their merits and drawbacks. The ones that are politically feasible probably don't go far enough to fix the problem and the "big ideas" will probably never become a reality.

Still, I support incremental steps towards making the situation better, even if there is no cure-all. And I will keep my ears and mind open for good ideas. I'd love to hear thoughts from other Durhamites, whether you have ideas or just additional thoughts on the problem*. I have a feeling I will be wrestling with this for a while.

*I am opening the comments section up to people who just say "gentrification is bad, you jerk!" I hope people understand that I also think it is a major problem, but we have been pitted against ourselves in terms of making our communities better. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. I am hoping the comments are more constructive, or at least acknowledge that this is a really hard problem.


  1. Displacement happens when there's not enough housing for everyone who wants it. The good news is that there are developers who stand ready to build lots more housing. The bad news is that the city mostly makes new housing illegal.

    1. I agree with you that building more would help, but it wouldn't be a cure-all.

      1. How fast can these developers work? We (as a country) have put ourselves behind the eight-ball with YEARS of restrictive zoning. Development takes time and we have a lot of catching up to do. There will still be decades of displacement ahead of us, even if we got rid of zoning (which has its own problems, of course, but even if we amended zoning laws).

      2. How much land is there? You could say lots, but you have to think spatially. How much available land is there near downtown? In attractive spots? Those developers will come in and rightfully choose the spots where their profits are maximized. That means the creation of gentrified areas while people are displaced to other parts of the city (where access to jobs, healthcare, etc might be worse). The spatial component is critical.

    2. There is plenty of land. Durham is two things, simultaneously: 1) not very dense at all, perhaps 4 homes/acre, and 2) out of land. This paradox is a 100% self inflicted wound, 100% related to large lots size, density standards and suburban zoning. Addressed equitably, 100s of buildable lots could be released in a short period of time. Builders, and homeowners who actually care about affordable housing and community building, would respond. I do not expect they will ever get that chance in Durham.

  2. The number one thing that Durham could do for affordability is automatically upzone the entire city. So, for instance, make it so that any landowner can build duplexes where it's currently zoned for single family house (the vast majority of Durham land). Minneapolis just did this a few months ago. However, that's a long-term solution that will take years of even decades to address the problem. It also doesn't really address the problem for people who are priced out of the market right now.

    1. I agree on all points. The long-term solution point you make is important and it also presupposes that for the next few decades, we will have leadership and citizenry that won't reverse these policies. It's tough!

    2. Minneapolis actually didn't do this. They amended their comp plan, which is nothing more than a statement of intents. Duplexes would address issues right now, not in the future. I talked with an architect this morning that cannot afford housing near downtown for his family, but he could buy/build/add on to create a viable duplex. That's solution is currently banned, so he's stuck in a shitty south Durham neighborhood he doesn't want to be in.


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