Thrown out by gentrification

Tim Adams reports on the battle of residents of Bryden House in Columbus, Ohio, against gentrification--and asks what it will take to win affordable housing.

Bryden House apartments in Columbus (Bryan House Evictions)Bryden House apartments in Columbus (Bryan House Evictions)

DOZENS OF low-income, elderly residents of Columbus, Ohio, have been pushed out of their homes in the dead of winter with little warning and no explanation.

The residents had been living in Bryden House, a 152-unit affordable housing development that primarily served senior citizens, many of them disabled and reliant on Section 8 housing subsidies, in the city's predominantly Black and poor Near East Side.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, at least 60 residents of Bryden House received letters just days before Christmas stating that they would be required to leave by January 31. Building owners gave no justification for the evictions and refused to provide residents with assistance finding new housing.

Frank, a retired steelworker who lived in Bryden House for 21 years before receiving the 30-day notification from management, said in an interview:

I wasn't behind on rent...When I first moved in this apartment 20 years ago, it wasn't like it is now. When I moved in here, it was all senior citizens. But they kept on changing it, and since I've been here, I've seen this building here go over to three different managers.

The multiple changes in ownership at Bryden House coincided with worsening neglect and severe deterioration of conditions. Residents reported that roaches, rats and bedbug infestations were common. Management shut down two of the building's four elevators, supposedly due to concerns about drug dealing and prostitution. The elevators still in operation had been inspected only twice in the last five years, despite Ohio law requiring annual inspections.

Another resident, Scott, has not received a letter from management, but is worried that he will soon:

I think it's wrong. Because the time of year, it's cold outside. People have to go out and find a place. A lot of them can't do that, because they're like me: they've got police records, and it's hard. For them to make people go out there, all of a sudden, go find a place--it's not right. I signed a lease. I don't think my lease is up until September...But any day, I expect to hear from that office that I'll have to leave.

Following the evictions, the building owners immediately rebranded Bryden House as a hip destination for student housing, renaming it "West Bexley Apartments." (Bexley is a wealthy suburb of Columbus adjacent to the Near East Side, but with no ties to the neighborhood.) The shamelessness of the building owners drew the ire of many, including the Columbus Dispatch, but this case of gentrification is par for the course in the Near East Side, as it is in thousands of other poor neighborhoods across the country.

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AUSTERITY AT the federal level has resulted in dramatic cuts in funding for municipalities over recent decades. In response, cities have been forced to compete with each other to attract economic investment and increase tax revenue. Gentrification of poor, overwhelmingly Black or Brown neighborhoods has become a central part of this process.

Although it may look different in different cities--and in different neighborhoods within a city--the process driving gentrification remains largely the same. From the demolition of massive housing projects, like Cabrini-Green in Chicago, to the creation of a posh "arts district" in Columbus' impoverished West Side, gentrification creates opportunities for profit by physically destroying communities that stand in the way.

As Ronnie Flores wrote at SocialistWorker.org:

After decades of consigning them to poverty and despair, capital re-enters starved urban communities only when it has become most profitable to do so. When there's a wide enough gap between the current rent in an area and the potential rent that can be made if it were to undergo reinvestment, a project for gentrification is born. This "rent gap" is the mechanism underlying gentrification.

Gentrification illustrates how capitalism depends on racism to produce profits. These "rent gaps" don't develop at random. Rather, they have been built on the backs of poor and working-class people of color through decades of racist policies. The history of Columbus' Near East Side demonstrates this point.

The enforcement of housing segregation through redlining significantly limited available housing for Black residents. Columbus' Near East Side was one of the neighborhoods where Black residents could live, and it became the center of Black culture in the city. At its height, the neighborhood had tens of thousands of residents, numerous theaters, and a vibrant art scene that produced world-renowned artist Aminah Robinson, among others.

However, during the 1960s, the construction of two highways, Interstate 71 and 70, cut off the Near East Side from downtown and important economic resources, while deindustrialization later devastated the livelihoods of many of the poor and working-class residents. Over 50 years, the neighborhood's population declined by over two-thirds. The poverty rate for the neighborhood now stands at 55.7 percent, and unemployment is 28.7 percent--more than double and quadruple the rates for Columbus as a whole, respectively.

Meanwhile, the strategic location of the Near East Side (close to downtown and the new Ohio State University Hospital East) has made the neighborhood incredibly lucrative for gentrification. Indeed, a 2013 study found that the gap in potential retail sales alone amounted to more than $20 million per year.

The most significant gentrification efforts have centered on the demolition and redevelopment of Poindexter Village, a public housing project, into a so-called "mixed-income" community. The demolition displaced over 1,000 residents, despite years of protest.

The region of the Near East Side that includes Bryden House has been rebranded over the last two decades as the "Olde Towne East" neighborhood. This was the subject of the 2003 documentary film Flag Wars. The film illustrates the complicated intersections of class, race and sexuality, as it follows both a significant number of white gays and lesbians who moved to the neighborhood, in the hopes of creating an enclave from the oppression they faced elsewhere, and long-term Black residents.

While shared experiences of oppression could have laid a foundation for solidarity between the two groups, that possibility wasn't realized. Instead, many of the new residents called on police to crack down on the slightest violations of city code committed by Black residents.

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TO BE sure, not everyone who has moved to the neighborhood supports the attacks on the neighborhood's most vulnerable residents.

When word of the evictions at Bryden House spread, both long-term and comparatively new residents were outraged and began organizing. These efforts began with the creation of a Facebook group under the name Bryden House Evictions (BHE) to coordinate outreach to residents.

Connie Gadell-Newton, a Green Party candidate for state representative, and one of the cofounders of BHE, explained the goals of the group: "Our main goals are to find out what is going on and make sure the people involved have their needs met, and so we want to connect the tenants with resources and information, and raise awareness in the community about what's happening at Bryden House."

Sara Matthiesen, another cofounder of BHE, agreed with Gadell-Newton on the importance of organizing tenants and building solidarity among neighborhood residents. She said:

Working with a wonderful group of neighbors and with Bryden House residents, one of the most significant things we learned was that there was no organized tenants' union at Bryden House to broker on behalf of residents. Moving forward, we have been thinking of how renters and low-income homeowners could benefit by working together and organizing to protect their rights and to stay in their homes.

Halting further displacement will require this kind of grassroots organization, which could reach a wider layer of residents and make concrete demands for an end to evictions and the protection of affordable housing. Since the evictions at Bryden House are perfectly legal, on-the-ground resistance through protests and demonstrations should be a top priority.

As Owen Hill recently wrote at SW regarding a similar case of evictions in Portland, Maine:

It is real faces and real stories that shed light on the depravity of housing injustice in our city. That means that when we think about how to move beyond this moment and toward a generalized fight for housing rights in the city, the tenants facing eviction themselves have to be at the center of the fight--if they choose to pursue it...While battles in court, City Hall and the state legislature are important, the fight for a livable city will not ultimately decided in those places. Historically, the most lasting change has been won by the mass mobilization of ordinary working-class people disrupting business as usual through protests, sit-ins, strikes and other actions.

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THIS PROCESS is certainly fraught with difficulties. The sheer power of the institutions driving gentrification often overwhelms any efforts to organize against it, and residents who take leading roles in resistance sometimes put themselves at risk by doing so. (The residents of the Poindexter Village public housing development who organized to stop the demolition were the first to be evicted.)

However, it's possible that the confluence of forces behind gentrification in the Near East Side could create a foundation for solidarity across the city. For example, the decision of Ohio State University (OSU) to invest millions of dollars in gentrifying the area come at the same time that it plans to privatize all of its power plants to "cut costs," creates a clear opening for students fighting austerity on campus to stand in solidarity with residents facing displacement.

This isn't meant to downplay the challenges in building multiracial solidarity across neighborhoods. Decades of racist rhetoric about the supposed "culture of poverty" in poor communities of color have played a part in convincing segments of the working class to support gentrification.

It's critical that we take the time to study how conservative and liberal politicians deployed this "colorblind" racism to justify the gutting of social welfare and the massive expansion of the prison system, and convince others to reject it.

Another challenge is that politicians are often able to get the support of some long-term residents by exploiting their concerns regarding crime and the desperate need for investment in infrastructure and housing. OSU administrators and business representatives have used this tactic successfully to block solidarity across neighborhoods by claiming that non-residents couldn't understand the "complicated" issues at play.

There is some truth to this statement. Only those who have been subjected to the racism at the heart of capitalism can understand what it means to face the false "choice" the system offers: the devastation of disinvestment, or the promise of investment that brings with it the likelihood of displacement. But when used in the interests of capital, this argument only conceals how gentrification worsens the oppression of poor and working class people of color.

We should resist any attempt by elites to segment our struggles by neighborhood. All working-class people share an interest in fighting gentrification, even those who aren't directly affected by it yet.

The experiences of Bryden House residents can point us in the right direction. Reflecting on his experiences as a union steward with the United Steelworkers, Bryden House resident Frank explained:

I've come too far to let my rights slide by me like that...I was on a union contract [at] U.S. Steel. Sometime the union would go in, and you would have to go on strike to get [your] money...I was a union steward. I would bend my back to try to save a man. I wouldn't let the boss kick him out.

Channeled through grassroots organization, that fighting spirit and instinct for collective solidarity is exactly what will stop gentrification in the Near East Side and elsewhere.

Emily Shaw, Haley Swenson, Jeff Watters and Samantha White contributed to this article.