Gentrification’s Toll on Durham’s Environment

Photo Credit: CBS 17

Holland Bodner

Published October 16, 2023

Durham citizens are facing an affordable housing crisis as companies gentrify Durham neighborhoods.

This year, Durham residents saw a 6.3 percent increase in housing prices with newly developed properties. The Durham community is seeing the detrimental effects of gentrification through environmental destruction from rising temperatures, water pollution, and tree loss. 

Durham is known for its diverse public background and ability to become a place where anyone can create a life for themselves. The vision of what Durham can be is challenged by private investors that have driven out predominantly minority neighborhoods with rising property costs.

Taken from the State of the South event in 2022, minority neighborhoods witnessed displacement rates between 10 percent and 37 percent in the last decade. In Durham, rental listings have risen 35 percent from 2017.

Attorney Robin Barefoot shared her insight as a supporter and expert on the ongoing case of the southeast Conservation Subdivision in Durham. Barefoot currently serves on the board of directors for the Emily Krzysewski Center and has a background in the nonprofit sector spanning 15 years since 2008.

Barefoot discussed the lack of repercussions facing corporations in Durham today and what needs to be done to mitigate environmental damage.

“Developers have no legal requirement to build affordable housing,” said Barefoot.

The affordable housing crisis has created a larger issue where private interests generate revenue that goes back into the companies, rather than the community. 

Barefoot explained how contractors avoid liability when getting rid of historical communities. 

“Working in the nonprofit sector, they leave it to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing,” said Barefoot.

As Barefoot discussed, an overwhelming amount of these housing investments are created for residents who make “around 60 percent of area median income (AMI), not 30 percent,” Barefoot said. 

The AMI of Durham households in 2021 was roughly $81,000. 

“Now they come in front of our elected officials and they say we’re here to solve your affordable housing crisis, but they created the affordable housing crisis,” Barefoot said about these corporations. 

Regarding Durham’s environment, Barefoot acknowledges and emphasizes the connection to the housing crisis. 

“The environmental issue is directly tied to the affordable housing issue,” Barefoot said.

One environmental problem that comes with increased development is deforestation, which contributes to rising temperatures. In Wake County, the Land Cover Analysis and Tree Canopy Assessment shows the need for trees in cities like Durham. Without private investors ensuring uniformity across construction sites, Durhams environment won’t be protected.

Organizations like Preserve Rural Durham serve as a key player in the city that challenge environmental drawbacks and advocate for sustainability. 

 Water sourcing is contributing to how corporations are polluting. At construction sites, standard practices such as using dynamite to excavate the surrounding area is another environmental hazard. 

“Because using dynamite is faster than using bulldozers, these developers use dynamite to blow up our soil,” Barefoot said. 

The impact corporations are having on Durham’s environment from the affordable housing crisis is creating economic issues for residents.

“Private interests of capital have been working steadily through lobbyists both at the federal and local levels to dilute and lessen the scrutiny and public oversight,” said Barefoot. 

Where do Durham citizens go from here?

“That is irreversible damage. That’s damage that will take two generations to repair,” said Barefoot.

Barefoot discusses how it starts with politicians. 

“Voters need to be aware that there is a direct link between environmental degradation and the decisions that happen in those city and county chambers,” said Barefoot.

Barefoot highlighted how Durham can become economically and environmentally better.

“We deal with the repercussions of what has been built,” said Barefoot.

“I know we will continue to grow. We need to continue to grow because we want to attract businesses but, we can’t do that if we don’t keep an eye on preserving the history of Durham.”

Edited by Mia Guthrie & Sophia Fanning