Amir and Jada Brown want to sell their family home of more than 60 years in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and to resettle in an apartment in quieter central New Jersey. The Browns are both in their 80’s; Jada Brown’s heart condition is worsening; and they’d like to live more simply. But they’ve been holding out, in hopes of selling to another Black homeowner.
As Crown Heights has gentrified, the value of their home has soared, and no Black prospective buyers they know seem able to afford to buy their home, which they believe is worth about $3 million.
“I know selling this house is the best thing I can do for my wife, but I want to leave something behind for my grandchildren,” said Amir Brown. “Maybe one day they can share the life that Jada and I had.”
Their house, left to them by Amir’s father, and where they married and raised their family, is filled with mementos and memories. Amir had hoped to leave it to his eldest son, who is living in California. But his son has no interest in moving back East. And though Amir had been prepared to sell to a cousin at a concessional rate, the cousin couldn’t afford even the lower price.
“He unfortunately wasn’t qualified for a mortgage,” Amir Brown said.
The Browns fear that, if they put their house on the market, that’ll just exacerbate the rising rate of Black displacement in the neighborhood. Amir Brown pointed out that the history of inequality and racial exclusion in real estate has made it difficult for Black people to hold on to decent living spaces.
“Being a Black homeowner comes with its pros and cons,” he said. “I can take pride as a Black person that I get to own this beautiful house. But when I think of how people in the Black community have been denied the chance to build wealth, it breaks my heart.”
So the Browns hold on, delaying their move.
“When it comes to us Black people, saving our house is important to us, because we don’t want to ever see our kids or grandkids go through what we saw so many Black people go through in our lives,” said Jada Brown. “This isn’t just some financial investment. This is our chance to invest in our family. Amir’s father passed this house down to us, and I believe that it is now our duty to pass it down to our family.”
“I know that once this house is on the market, I can’t pick based on race,” Amir Brown added. “And, as much as it makes my heart feel heavy, I know selling the house to whoever loves it the most is the right thing to do.”
Nationally, the rate of Black homeownership had been generally declining for the past 20 years, but now has leveled out at about 42 to 45 percent, while home ownership among white families has climbed, to about 73 percent , according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
How neighborhoods gentrify
British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in 1964, to describe the displacement of poorer Londoners, as members of the upper-class began to move into renovated houses in formerly working-class areas. Gentrification has been a powerful driver of economic change in cities, and for residents. As gentrification increases, the value of property in towns that have suffered disinvestment increases, too, leading to a rise in rent and property values. Rising rent and property value consequently decreases the ability of existing residents to afford housing. In America, the victims of this dynamic are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, experts on gentrification say. The increase in property values robs poorer residents of the chance to benefit from the growing availability of services and economic growth that comes with increased investment.
Gentrification is a persistent challenge for the communities that strive for economic revitalization. In 2019, more than one third of low-income households were at risk, or had already experienced pressures from gentrification and displacement, according to University of California at Berkeley Urban Displacement Project researcher Cheng Ren.
“It only makes sense for developers to look towards poor neighborhoods,” said Ren, who is working on a Ph.D. in social welfare and data science. “It gives them the chance to get more profit.”
Ren researches ideas for a more inclusive future for cities, as the leaders of his project aim to understand the nature of displacement, exclusion and gentrification.
“We try to discover new interventions and find investments, so we can aim for a more fair development among cities,” Ren said.
Racial covenants and redlining have historically prevented minority families from taking out mortgages and renting homes in some neighborhoods, gentrification experts say. This resulted in condensed populations of poor communities of color throughout the United States.
Kennnith Martin, 62, also feels the stresses of living in a gentrifying neighborhood. Martin, who is Black, bought his East Harlem home from his father at a below-market price, since that was the only way he could afford it at the time.
“I am a lucky man — such a lucky man,” he said. “I just want to be able to one day pass on the good deed my father has done for me to someone who doesn’t have this benefit.”
Martin’s home has been passed down in his family for three generations. For a long time he didn’t mind that the neighborhood was gentrifying. But he was troubled by a recent incident. Greeting a new next-door neighbor, he was startled when the neighbor mistook him for a panhandler.
“I have lived here my entire life. I have lived here longer than most people on this block,” he pointed out indignantly. “I had to say goodbye to so many families I have connected with, because gentrification just completely takes them out of the equation — and now I have to be mistreated for saying ‘hello’ to my neighbor?”
Martin hopes to one day sell his home to another Black family, or to have it serve the community.
Keeping neighborhoods Black
Formerly low-income American neighborhoods have been resettled by families with a median household income of $140,000 – adjusted for inflation, a 200 percent increase from the 1990s, according to Hannah Moore, another researcher at the Urban Displacement Project.
And when poorer families are forced out of neighborhoods, they sometimes are pushed into downward mobility: into more disadvantaged areas, even as people in gentrified cities tend to move up, into wealthier neighborhoods, in both the suburbs and the cities, Moore said.
“Poor residents are moving to poorer neighborhoods, and individuals from gentrified cities are moving to wealthier neighborhoods, in both the suburbs and city,” she said.
Moore believes that investing in non-gentrifying neighborhoods would not only create more opportunities for residents, but would give disadvantaged movers a chance to take up residence in areas with decent schools, and low crime rates.
“There are absolutely unique ways that the Black homeownership experience is different from other experiences,” Jacob William Faber, a professor of sociology and public service at New York University, told The New York Times. “Black people and Black communities have been excluded from the opportunity to build wealth, and that’s why passing their homes along to a family feels so important.”