Walk into the home of Robert and Bertha Darden, and you are immediately surrounded by memories. Like many African American couples who have reached a certain age, the front room of their house is full of photos – of the Dardens in their youth, of their children and grandchildren.
Many of the moments reflected in the photos were captured during their 28 years spent in their Atlanta home. In the midst of all of these stands a plaque. “I received this when I retired after 29 years of working for the City of Atlanta,” Mr. Darden says.
He’s an Atlanta man. Beaming with pride, he tells me he had started working for Atlanta’s sanitation department in 1969, and later transferred to the department of transportation where he remained until his retirement in 1998.
But now the city is aggressively trying to take their house. “It doesn’t feel good at all”, he says. “It’s not a good feeling to give the city 29 years of my life and then they want to take my home.”
The process the city is attempting to use to take ownership of the house is known as “eminent domain”— the power for governmental entities to take private property for public use. The city claims it needs the house, along with others on the same block in the Peoplestown neighborhood, in order to build a park and pond that will help with street flooding.
Meanwhile, community members suspect the flooding is being used as a pretext to facilitate private development in the neighborhood.
This process is replicated throughout the US. If successful, eminent domain could become the newest tool that local and state governments could use to accelerate the gentrification and displacement that is already impacting low-income Black and Brown communities.
‘The Most Powerful Tool in the Gentrification Arsenal’
Eminent domain has a long history in the United States and can also be found in other countries where it is known by many names including compulsory purchase, compulsory acquisition and, perhaps most appropriately, expropriation.
The US Constitution acknowledges the government’s power of eminent domain and imposes two limitations: the taking of property must be for public use, and it must include just compensation. Determinations of what constitutes public use has traditionally been left to each state, and the US Supreme Court has been increasingly expansive over the years.
In Georgia, land cannot be taken and handed over to private developers to increase revenues. However, land can be taken for a public redevelopment project, such as a facility or park to help deal with flooding issues.
And that is exactly what the city says it intends to do in Peoplestown. According to a press release issued by the city, “Once completed, the neighborhood will have a Japanese garden, gazebos for community gatherings, several detention ponds, and bio-retention areas to treat stormwater.”
Tanya Washington, a professor at Georgia State University, lives on the same street as the Dardens, and like them, she is in a legal battle to keep the city from taking her home.
According to Washington, the city’s rationale is problematic because it uses the symptoms of the neighborhood’s systemic neglect to become a reason for displacing families.
“What I’m concerned about is cities trying to use that crumbling infrastructure as a justification for exercising eminent domain because it provides a basis for arguing public necessity,” she says.
Complicating the battle is the fact that cities are given a presumption of public necessity, placing the burden of proof on the homeowner. As a result, the state court hearing the initial case ruled in favor of Atlanta’s government, but Washington and the Dardens are appealing the decision.
If allowed by the state’s appellate courts, the built-in justification could become the most powerful tool in the gentrification arsenal. It would allow almost any city to use the legacy of institutional racism and systemic neglect to further advance the displacement of low-income Black residents.
In theory, the rationale for using eminent domain could include street flooding, high quantities of lead in city water systems, or even high crime rates in certain neighborhoods. The latter is not unimaginable, considering crime actually was part of the justification for Atlanta demolishing all of its public housing.
Atlanta’s elimination of public housing eventually became a model for other cities. Its use of eminent domain could be next.
When ‘Urban Renewal’ Means Pushing Black Residents Out
In the late 1950s, Atlanta embarked on its first attempt at “urban renewal”, which for many people at the time translated to “Negro removal”. Hundreds of homes were demolished by the city, and thousands of Black families in three neighborhoods (Turner Field—Summerhill, Peoplestown and Mechanicsville) were separated from each other when three interstates were constructed through the heart of their communities.
The problem worsened in the mid-1960s when the city decided to build a new stadium to house a professional baseball team. A significant portion of the Summerhill neighborhood was wiped away. Whatever sense of community and connection had survived was reduced even further as business left and schools closed.
Decades later, in preparation for the 1996 Olympics, an estimated 30,000 low-income Atlanta residents were displaced from their homes in order to make room for the new Olympic Stadium. Landlords in the area sought to raise rents to take advantage of proximity to the Olympic venues meant many had no choice but to leave.
In the process, 1,195 public housing units were gone, and by the year 2000, only 78 of the families from the former public housing were rehoused in the shiny new development – a mere 7% of the pre-Olympics population. Moreover, the project launched a new agenda that ultimately resulted in Atlanta becoming the first US city to completely demolish all of its housing projects, eliminating 17,000 units of public housing.
The Dardens understand these negative side effects all too well. Such projects tend to place extreme demands on the pre-existing infrastructure, whether in the form of increased traffic or other environmental concerns. Mrs. Darden recalls that as the new Olympic Stadium was being constructed, the city had to build a tunnel that could handle water drainage from the stadium.
“The tunnel was supposed to go through Grant Park,” she said, referring to a nearby neighborhood where residents are predominantly white with higher incomes. “But Grant Park residents refused to let them bring the tunnel to that neighborhood, so they stopped it in our backyard.”
As a result, the Dardens and their Peoplestown neighbors say they have had flooding issues ever since Olympic Stadium was built. These issues led to significant flood damage in 2006 and 2012 after heavy rains, and several residents, including the Dardens, eventually sued the city for failing to address the hazard. Some of the homeowners settled the case and agreed to sell their homes to the city. Others, like the Dardens, chose to stay in their homes but could not continue the lawsuit.
Several street drains on their block often become clogged with tree limbs, garbage and other debris. “If the city had just cleaned out the drains the way they should have, the flooding never would have happened.” Instead, ever since 2006 Mr. Darden has taken it upon himself to periodically clear the street drains, especially when heavy rain is expected. One could argue that in spite of his retirement, at the age of 67 he continues to work for the city more than the city works for him.
‘Why Don’t Y’all Just Move Back to the Country?’’
In 2005, the City of Atlanta proposed the Atlanta Beltline Project: a 6,500-acre ring of parks, open space, light rail transit and mixed-use development along a 22-mile industrial rail line that circles the core of the city.
Given the previous experience with major development projects in the city, the nonprofit organization Georgia Stand-Up commissioned a study to explore rising home prices in areas adjoining the proposed Beltline path and to offer recommendations to avoid displacement. Even at this early stage, the 2007 report highlighted troubling increases in property values that did not bode well for low-income renters and owners on the city’s south side.
Unfortunately, not enough was done by the city to address those concerns. The project’s affordable housing effort was underfunded, and many of the affordability requirements were either too weak, too temporary or both.
The trends towards gentrification increased. A more recent Georgia Tech report shows that prices in neighborhoods bordering the south side of the Beltline increased by 40% from 2011 to 2015, while prices further away increased by 18%.
The Dardens have seen the impact first hand. “Some of our friends were renting, and when it came time to renew their lease, the landlords wouldn’t renew and sold their properties to developers instead,” she said. “Some neighbors say the rents went up so much they couldn’t afford it. It doubled or even tripled. We have a lot of senior citizens on fixed incomes who can’t afford that.”
And it’s not just renters. Her aunt used to come by on Sundays to pick up one of the neighbors who attended the same church. The neighbor lost her house because she couldn’t afford to pay the increasing property taxes.
Mr. Darden mentions the house right across the street. “The owner got sick and sold the house. Not sure how much, but a developer bought it, remodeled and just finished it a few months ago. They put it on market for sale, I believe asking $469,000. And that’s just a wood frame house, not even brick-like ours.” A house two blocks away recently sold for $515,000. And just a few houses down the street from the Dardens, a house that recently sold for around $100,000, is now listed for around $300,000 after remodeling.
Mrs. Darden recalled an experience at a town hall meeting last year. “During the public comments, my husband was speaking about some of the issues, and a new white neighbor who had moved here about a year earlier called out, ‘Why don’t y’all just move back to the country?’”
To the Dardens, the translation was clear. “Get out.”
Not all of the new residents share that attitude. Washington, the professor at Georgia State University, is a relatively new resident of Peoplestown, having moved there in 2011. From her perspective, the main reason she moved there was because she appreciated the neighborhood the way it was and valued her neighbors.
“I love to be able to sit on the porch and talk to some of the older neighbors,” she said. “I wasn’t looking to replace, neutralize or change them.” She respected the neighborhood association that was in existence and didn’t feel like she needed to start a new one.
But some new residents, particularly white ones, felt differently. “When folks decide to start their own associations, it sends a message. The imposition of us versus them, new versus old, resident versus buyer perspective is not healthy for a community,” Washington said.
“It has produced harsh feelings on behalf of long-term residents who feel slighted and disrespected. And it impedes building a common platform and demanding representation of the whole community. Part of community invites development because they don’t feel threatened by it. Part of the community is scared to death of it because of decades of past experience.”
Such a split often paves the way for other interested parties such as developers to pursue “divide and conquer” strategies, and as the most recent promise of development began to take shape, the community was vulnerable.
Carla Smith, the city councilperson who represents Peoplestown and Summerhill, argues that the community was able to participate in a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) that resulted in a robust planning document. “No one will argue that the LCI is not a good product; everyone was involved in that,” she said. The owners and developers of the property announced signing an “agreement” which incorporates concepts from the LCI, stating, “We are deeply committed to making the community safer, stronger, healthier and more stable.” However, Washington highlights that none of it is enforceable.
‘We Have to Give a Damn’
As frustrating as the fight has been for Washington, she remains optimistic and she knows that other cities have found ways to resist gentrification.
“But the first thing you have to do is you have to name it and call it what it is. It’s not a question of can we do it… There are lots of policy practices, tax incentives and laws that can be put in place. So there’s no lack of capacity, but there’s a lack of political will. We have to give a damn. We have to give a damn about people staying in their home. We have to give a damn about poor and working-class folks, and about seniors who want to spend their sunset years in the homes that they know and love. We have to care, and our policies will follow our compassion.”
Atlanta voters will soon have an opportunity to influence how much the city government cares about these issues. The current mayor is unable to seek re-election due to term limits, so during November elections, the city will choose a new mayor as well as vote for the entire city council. “Lots of people running are touting their long record of service and how many years they’ve been in public positions,” Washington says. “For some of them, their record is their indictment. Because this [gentrification] happened on your watch, and not only did you not stop it, you facilitated it.”
Mrs. Darden agrees about the current lack of political will and the need for new leadership. “We need new city council people and a new mayor that has a heart for the people.”
As for Mr. Darden, he believes the battle is about faith. “I still trust God, and I won’t doubt him. We’re not gonna bow to the city.”
This story was also published by Guardian US, the U.S. edition of the Guardian.