Page 54

Tearing down Decatur’s history

As luxurious houses replace small homes, gentrification forces minorities out

R

home forced low-income minorities into the apartments, he argues. Contractors were pressuring elderly residents to sell and leave the neighborhood, replacing their small houses with substantially larger homes, he said, leaving a skyrocketing property tax burden and school overcrowding. “Each teardown and new mansion-ized house lot creates emotional and financial stress that divides families,” he said. “The DHA and all of the urbanization programs are essentially the ones behind this epidemic.” Rotenstein believes the pattern of gentrification began in 1979 when Congress passed the Urban Homesteading Act. Designated cities could sell foreclosed homes – which were generally run-down – to private buyers. Decatur was one of the designated cities, and 113 homes in Oakhurst were sold for a dollar each. Once purchased, these tax-free, low-quality homes would – hypothetically – be renovated and put back on the market. The DHA claims the Urban Homesteading project “helped stabilize” Oakhurst, but Rotenstein said that most of the time, it actually failed. Yet Decatur continued to address gentrification with more lackluster programs, Rotenstein said. That same year, the South Decatur Community Council, a volunteer group that helped revitalize the Oakhurst area, raised concerns about gentrification and displacement. In a 1979 newsletter, the organization wrote that “gentrification, speculation, displacement and investment potential [would] soon become common terms as more and more home buyers discover South Decatur.” Those predictions might just be right. Although 1979

Illutration by John Ellis

eplacing small homes with oversized behemoths is nothing new to Decatur. According to David Rotenstein, a historian with expertise in local preservation, Decatur began experiencing this trend years ago. Rotenstein moved to Oakhurst in 2011. Immediately, he saw homes being torn down “left and right.” He remembers yellow bulldozers lining the streets, leaving nothing but planks of wood and piles of brick where quaint homes once stood. In their place, he said, contractors would build luxurious “McMansions.” Given his background, he started asking questions about what was happening. “I became somewhat suspicious, so I began talking around, first with my neighbors – mostly elderly, African American residents,” Rotenstein said. “I started getting these stories of aggressive builders and unwanted demolition, which started to build even more questions in my mind.” To address his suspicions, Rotenstein began conducting more formal interviews and research. What he found surprised him. “Decatur, as I was quickly learning, had some closely held dark secrets, and its residents and the people in office would go to great lengths to protect them,” he said. “Decatur’s reputation as progressive and sustainable that it prides itself in is wrong. It was all the opposite of that. So, it became abundantly clear that gentrification has been happening in Decatur for literal decades. As it turns out, the Decatur Housing Authority (DHA) has long contributed to displacement of African-Americans, Rotenstein said. Each newly built

54 CARPE DIEM • December 2016

December 2016 Carpe Diem  

The student magazine of Decatur High School's convergence media program

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