John Little and Other Developers Are Gentrifying Durham’s East End. They’re Not About to Apologize. | News Feature | Indy Week

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John Little and Other Developers Are Gentrifying Durham’s East End. They’re Not About to Apologize.

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A year ago, the house at the corner of Dowd and Hanover* streets was a squat, green cinderblock building. A simple duplex with a gable roof on a block lined with humble homes, one unit was boarded up while the other was in barely habitable condition.

Today, the structure is almost unrecognizable. It's now a single-family home capped by a metal Dutch hip roof; the cinderblock is clad in stucco atop a fieldstone base, and the backyard is gated and fenced in.

That transformation took exactly seventy-two days; builder John Little purchased the house for just under $100,000 in September and rapidly set about renovating it. The house sold long before construction finished.

"Someone came by and was interested," says Little. "He didn't even blink at the price."

That price: $350,000.

The newly flipped house stands out, but only somewhat. Across the street is a brand-new, two-story craftsman that's still on the market; a block over is another house that Little built earlier in 2017. And all throughout this community are homes in the process of being demolished, renovated, or built, often several per block. It's a stunning metamorphosis for a neighborhood that only a couple of years ago was largely home to poor people.

This is East End, that subset of northeast central Durham framed by North Roxboro Street, East Geer Street, Alston Avenue, and Canal Street. Lying just north of Cleveland-Holloway, it's always been a lower- and working-class African-American neighborhood. But it's also just twenty minutes by foot from downtown, which makes it desirable in the current housing market. Little is far from alone these days; at least a dozen developers are doing exactly the same thing.

And this neighborhood isn't the only one experiencing such a rapid shift. Some of those builders are also working in Southside, the neighborhood across the Durham Freeway from the American Tobacco Campus. But that's a smaller community, one that's almost reached capacity. East End is much bigger, with block after block of small houses that could still be renovated or demolished.

The human toll is real. The people who lived in the house at Dowd and Hanover streets are gone; they moved a few blocks east, to the other side of Alston Avenue. Little by little, many other low-income residents who used to fill the community are disappearing, going, say remaining neighbors, "wherever they can." Naturally occurring affordable housing in neighborhoods like East End is vanishing under the seemingly unstoppable force of gentrification.

It's easy to fault the developers and investors who had an early understanding of Durham's dynamics and are taking advantage of them for a profit. But they see themselves as providing a needed service and helping to clean things up along the way. In fact, they say, most of the houses that have been demolished were in such abominable condition that they were barely livable.

"I know people think I'm the gentrificator," says Little. "But we're all part of the same hypocrisy."

Only a few years ago, the city was desperate to improve neighborhoods like East End. The situation that led to the changes here and in other Durham neighborhoods is complicated. No one—and everyone—is to blame.

According to the 1980 Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory, East End was built in the early twentieth century in response to waves of African Americans moving to Durham to work in the mills. It was a working-class neighborhood, and the houses were built with simple materials. Dowd Street, the spine of the community, was soon lined with thriving businesses: restaurants, barbershops, grocery stores, laundromats.

Through the 1950s, the neighborhood was populated by teachers and factory workers who owned their homes.

"But the next generation, their children didn't stay," says Michael Jones Jr., owner of Ellis D. Jones & Sons funeral home, which has sat at the corner of Dowd and Elizabeth streets since 1935. "Then it became a neighborhood of rentals."

Some houses stayed in the families, but often the owners lived far away and became absentee landlords; others sold their properties, allowing some local landlords to amass dozens of properties. What that meant in practice was that many of the houses weren't maintained.

"Some landlords did let their properties run down, where if they'd had regular maintenance in place, it wouldn't have gotten to that point," says Constance Stancil, director of Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services.

As the neighborhood became poorer, crime crept in and flourished.

"This was the wild, wild west—a jungle," says Dotti Malone, who lives on Gray Street and grew up in the community.

Her neighbor across the street, David Downey, agrees. "It was pure hell. A lot of shooting," he says. "People would be setting out right there on the curb selling drugs."

NIS wasn't created until 2006; by that time, the housing stock was in terrible condition. Even just four or five years ago, Stancil remembers, "there were over five hundred vacant or boarded-up properties in downtown neighborhoods."

But then things finally began to change. The city launched an initiative in Southside, helping to fund new housing there, and the investment lured market-rate builders to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, downtown Durham was blossoming, and developers began eyeing the nearby East End.

"It's kind of an investor's dream," says Selina Mack, director of the Durham Community Land Trustees. "It still has a great deal of housing stock available at a reasonable price. Or at least it did until recently."

Indeed, landlords have woken up to the neighborhood's potential, sensing that this might finally be their chance to cash out. John Little bought three properties—including the house with the purple door—from a Durham native who owned roughly forty units. He's been offered properties by several other landlords in the area, and prices are starting to climb.

It's all happened so fast that the city has barely had a chance to swivel away from its prior focus of bettering the area.

"There's been all kinds of interventions to improve the neighborhood over the years," says Peter Skillern, director of Durham's Reinvestment Partners, a nonprofit that advocates for economic justice and prosperity. "Now it's the exact opposite."

The city now has to figure out how to help the low-income residents who are suddenly being displaced.

In East End, longtime residents have a range of reactions.

Homeowners seem keenly aware of the changes. "Everyone who grew up here is gone," says Lateef Stokes, who lives on Elizabeth Street in a house his grandfather bought decades ago. "A lot of people didn't own [their homes]. Or the bank took their house, or they got bought out. If you live here on a fixed income, how can you afford it when the taxes increase? And they are increasing."

The property taxes on his own house jumped by almost 25 percent between 2015 and 2016, from $1,600 to almost $2,000; other properties in the area have seen increases of close to 50 percent during that time. Those amounts are based on the homes' rising appraised values, which are likely to continue to go up in the coming years as the neighborhood changes.

A few blocks north, on Dowd Street, Coy Saunders has been using materials he finds at demolition sites to improve his own house. Still, he's upset about the area's rebuilding and says others are as well.

"You know they're angry. The houses they tear down, many were duplexes—somewhat affordable. Now they're putting back single-family homes," Saunders says. The city could've done more to help. "They could've improved the housing. Gave out grants. Helped older people refinance."

But many renters—arguably the hardest hit by the neighborhood's changes—seem unconcerned.

"I'm not worried," says Ricardo Morales, who lives at the corner of Gray and Gurley streets with his wife and four kids. "There are other places." He admits, though, that it might be tough to find a house as cheap as this one, a four-bedroom that goes for $650 a month.

And Walter Parker and Lisa Miles, who rent a gray and turquoise cinderblock house on Dowd Street, say they're not anxious, either. "Our rent man said he won't sell," says Miles.

Actually, their landlord sold the house two years ago—to an investor for $175,000. Miles and Parker's days in that home are likely numbered.

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