Ben Pate ‘22
It can be easy to think that the Town of Davidson is safely nestled away in its own bubble, free from many of the problems of the outside world. However, certain broader patterns will inevitably arrive in every community. Recently, gentrification has become a hot topic in the town of Davidson, with increasing property values bringing deeper-set problems.
Dr. Shelley Rigger, who recently wrote about her experience with gentrification in Davidson, defines gentrification as “upgrading the physical quality, the infrastructure of a place, through displacement” of people who lived there. While this phenomenon is happening in cities across the United States, to understand gentrification in Davidson, it is important to first understand the historical background of the town and its first neighborhoods.
Dr. Rigger draws Davidson into four distinct areas that originated when the town was centrally a mill town; the present location of Brick House Tavern and the Hurt Hub were each cotton mills at the town’s conception. First, Davidson College sits in one corner of town; north of Griffith Street and west of the railroad is the historically white working class neighborhood; west of the railroad and south of Griffith Street is the historically African-American working class neighborhood; and west of the tracks but south of Concord Road are the historically white-collar neighborhoods.
Each of these neighborhoods experiences gentrification in its own way, but ultimately, prices in each area are only rising: for the latest available quarter, home values in Davidson increased nearly five percent, equivalent to more than a 20 percent valuation increase in one year. While this value increase is a bit of an outlier, overall, appreciation rates in Davidson are some of the highest in the country at nearly eight percent per year.
In each neighborhood, teardowns seem to be constant. A teardown, according to Dr. Rigger, is when a developer tears down an older, often smaller, house in order to build either one very large house or multiple smaller houses on the same piece of property. However, since the majority of Davidson has already been developed, this process has to happen on a house-by-house basis. Teardowns affect communities in many ways. Dr. Fred Smith, a specialist in urban economics, notes the increased property values that come with teardowns and their effects on businesses: “gentrification opens up opportunities for new businesses to cater to new clientele. The difficulty is that those are not always the same people [who lived there before].”
While new houses are being built in place of smaller ones, not only can some people not afford the new houses but they also become unable to afford their own homes due to rising property values and taxes. Dr. Smith describes the effects of gentrification on long-term residents, for whom owning their home “can get difficult … they bought at a much lower price, and as a community reassesses property values over time, that means the property tax bill will start to rise dramatically.” This is largely because as property values have skyrocketed, the average annual pay in Mecklenburg County only increased around three percent in 2017. Simply, pay is falling far behind increasing home prices and property taxes.
Ultimately, this property tax increase often forces residents out of their homes, which are then torn down to allow for newer, more expensive houses to be built. This process “cuts the middle out of the market,” according to Dr. Rigger. By slowly removing relatively affordable housing in Davidson, it becomes more difficult for less affluent families to move into town, which creates a never-ending cycle of increasing property values. In April of 2012, the median home value in Davidson was $262,000, but by 2019, it climbed to $409,000. Accompanying this dramatic price hike is a demographic shift in the town, rising from 79 percent white in 2013 to just over 90 percent in 2018. In the same time frame, the African-American population in Davidson dropped from 11 percent to merely five and a half.
Dr. Smith describes the way to slow increasing prices, saying, “you have to increase the supply; you have to build at a higher density, build more apartments, as well as more condominiums and townhouses.”
In an effort to preserve some affordable housing, the Davidson Housing Coalition has done just that. The Housing Coalition built its bungalows, which are relatively inexpensive, multi-family apartments that match the architectural style of the rest of the town, in 2000 on the west side of Davidson in an effort to preserve some affordable housing.
Noticing this trend in her own neighborhood, Dr. Rigger proposes a new strategy to combat gentrification in Davidson: instead of tearing down homes to replace them with more expensive ones, Dr. Rigger feels that there should be “some attempt to replace some of those structures with something that would serve a community purpose: affordable housing.”
Google Street View provides an interesting look into the trend of gentrification. Pick a street in Davidson and go to Street View, then select the same location in an earlier year; the differences are very noticeable.
More money flowing into Davidson will likely change many facets of life for Davidson residents, with housing as the driving force behind price increases that keep Davidson well above the national average cost of living.