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Gentrification is Greenville’s ‘serious flaw’


Policies and priorities set by political leaders and governments have great effect. They impact individuals, communities, nations, and the world. Policies and priorities have consequences that change the trajectories of people and families. Hopefully, most of those consequences are intentional and arise from looking at other communities’ actions, arguing different perspectives on issues, and careful thought. However, there are almost always unintentional consequences. Policies meant to be good can also have negative impacts on people and families.

The Greenville News’ recent groundbreaking articles on the City of Greenville’s actions on affordable housing demonstrate the consequences of the policies and priorities of political leaders and our government. The intentional consequence of a beautiful park for our citizens to enjoy, cleaning up some environmental concerns and spurring economic development, seems to be fulfilled. But there are unintentional consequences that have become apparent. Gentrification of neighborhoods that historically housed families with lower incomes and our Black neighbors; higher housing costs in those neighborhoods; and moving people farther from their jobs has happened in plain sight, but no one in the city appeared to be boring.

Development codes, zoning policies, infrastructure priorities, and a failure to follow neighborhood master development plans have dealt significant harm to low-income neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Funding priorities have allowed those neighborhoods to be neglected and fall into significant disrepair.

It is not that the same policies and priorities did not do any good. Quite the opposite. We have a city that is the envy of the Southeast in many ways. But the unintended consequences have underscored a serious flaw that no community that cares about the lives of its citizens should envy.

A particular concern of mine regarding affordable housing is the lack of prioritizing homeownership in the allocation of funding. The focus of city dollars has been on rental housing.

Affordable rental properties are essential in any community. In Greenville, Homes of Hope and other fine affordable-housing nonprofits have been effective in developing rental housing for years with limited resources. They need more resources because our community needs more of what they provide. But that must be balanced with opportunities for homeownership. Families with low incomes can become successful homeowners. Habitat for Humanity is proof of that. Our mortgages are paid on time at a rate of around 90% each month. Our foreclosure rate has been about 3% during our 38 years.

Affordable homeownership can be transformational for families. It changes a family’s cash flow by having mortgage payments under 30% of their income. It changes their wealth position by allowing them to develop equity in a home. Homeownership builds strength, stability, and self-reliance for financially struggling

families. Homeownership stabilizes neighborhoods, lowers crime rates, and increases civic involvement. Each of those is a goal of our city.

I encourage our policymakers to develop a policy that requires all city monies for affordable housing to have 25-40% used for homeownership and to work with agencies that have a history of building homes and repairing homes. Give us that direct line and we can make positive change quickly.

The biggest hurdle we face when building inside the city is the cost of land. The city has land it is sitting on. The solution is there.

I recall a conversation many years ago with a friend who was running for mayor of his hometown and who later became governor of his state. I asked why he would take on the considerable challenges of political life after a successful business career. He said, 'It’s where I can do the most good for the most people.' The City of Greenville needs to strive for the same.

By Monroe Free, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Greenville County, published in the Greenville News on 01/29/23.