Racial displacement in Greenville, SC: historic and current population shifts in the city of Greenville and surrounding Greenville county

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If you’ve lived in Greenville, SC for even a short period of time, you know that it is changing. Beautiful amenities such as Unity Park and continued development of Main Street have only enhanced Greenville’s appeal to visitors and new residents who are moving into new apartments, condominiums, and single family homes within the city and throughout the county.

There is one group that is leaving the city, though – Black residents. Recently released data compiled by the Shi Institute at Furman University document the decrease in Black households in the city – especially in historically Black neighborhoods. The Furman study explores these population changes in detail and goes back in history to map deeds that explicitly prohibited Black families from certain neighborhoods and homes, which is part of the foundation that makes their displacement and departure a feature of today.

Today’s episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County provides a look into this data. Meliah Bowers Jefferson, Executive Director of the Jolley Foundation interviews the lead researchers from Furman University: Ken Kolb and Mike Winiski.

On today’s episode page, you can find a link to the current Furman research, which is at communitygvl.org. There you’ll find a variety of interactive data tools and maps, including a place where you can see if your neighborhood includes one of the 12000 deeds in Greenville County that expressly prohibited Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities from living in your home. You can also find a Furman study that looks at house flipping, located at inclusivegvl.org.


Greenville’s special emphasis neighborhoods

Racial displacement in Greenville, SC

Inclusive Greenvlle: includes data on house flipping

About the Shi Institute at Furman University

About Meliah Bowers Jefferson

Related episodes:

Mata Crawford

Gentrification and affordable housing challenges


Katy Smith: If you’ve lived in Greenville, South Carolina for even a short period of time, you know that it is changing. Beautiful amenities such as Unity Park and continued development of Main Street have only enhanced Greenville’s appeal to visitors and new residents who are moving into new apartments, condominiums, and renovated single family homes within the city and throughout the county. There is one group that is leaving the city, though black residents. Recently released data compiled by the Shi Institute at Furman University document the decrease in black households in the city, especially in historically black neighborhoods.

The Furman study explores these population changes in detail and goes back in history to map deeds that explicitly prohibited black families from certain neighborhoods and homes, which is part of the foundation that makes their displacement and departure a feature of today.

Today’s episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County provides a look into this data. This is Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville. And today’s episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County provides a look into this data. Meliah Bowers Jefferson, executive Director of the Jolley Foundation, interviews the lead researchers from Furman University, Ken Kolb and Mike Winiski. On today’s episode page, you can find a link to the current Furman Research, which is at communitygvl.org.

There you’ll find a variety of interactive data tools and maps, including a place where you can see if your neighborhood includes one of the 12,000 deeds in Greenville County that expressly prohibited blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities from living in the home. You can also find a Furman study that looks at house flipping located at inclusivegvl.org.

Two other notes. In the conversation, you’ll hear about Greenville’s Special Emphasis Neighborhoods. We have a link to learn more about them and see a map of them on the episode page. And if you’d like to listen to other episodes we’ve done that are connected to the topic of housing and population changes, we have a list of them in the show notes as well.

Without further delay, here are Meliah, Ken, and Mike.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: Hello everyone. I’m Meliah Bowers Jefferson with the Jolley Foundation. I’m here today with Ken Kolb, professor and chair of Sociology at Furman University and Mike Winiski, director of the Center of Applied Sustainability Research. We are here today to talk about the changing demographics in Greenville, in the midst of the great revitalization of this once textile community into a booming center for innovation and technology, attracting industry and populations from around the world. But one segment of Greenville’s population has largely been left behind. It’s black population. So let’s just get into it. Ken, for the past year or so, you and your team at Furman have been analyzing data on the racial demographics of population shifts in the city of Greenville and surrounding Greenville County with a particular focus on the displacement of black residents within the 13 neighborhoods identified by the city as special emphasis neighborhoods. Why did you decide to take on this project?

Ken Kolb: One of the features of our report is that we’re trying not to point fingers specifically at Greenville. This is a nationwide phenomenon. The cities across the United States that had industries that left either through automation or outsourcing, they had to go through significant and traumatic economic transformations. And as their city center started to crumble and people left for the suburbs, and it came time for reinvestment where that reinvestment was initially targeted is where that growth began. And too often across the United States, that initial reinvestment avoided black neighborhoods.

And so you created this dichotomy between investment on one side of town and disinvestment on the other side of town, which is not ideal. But the problem is, is that it becomes a self reproducing cycle because that investment on one side of town starts to expand and that demand radius starts to creep into those previously neglected neighborhoods.

And those neglected neighborhoods become opportunities for real estate speculation. And so this is where. You know, in the story of Greenville, as we revitalized our main street, you know, these neighborhoods, Southern side, west Greenville, Sterling, Haynie Sirrine, Nickeltown are one two miles away. And so during the initial investment on Main Street in Greenville, those neighborhoods were still largely a avoided and neglected.

But eventually, as growth started to expand outside of Main Street, people started venturing for more affordable properties. Then they started to locate in those neighborhoods that they once avoided, honestly. And then you started to see this demographic transition. And so the story of Greenville is really an American story, and that’s what makes it so tragic.

We do have some unique features to Greenville but in some ways we can see this as a problem that the entire country needs to solve. And I’m hoping that our data-driven approach can spark new discussions to create new policies that other cities could look to us as a leader.

That they could say, you know, Greenville is special in a way that they had unique problems and they decided they weren’t content with it and they wanted to go back to the drawing board and draw new solutions that maybe we can replicate and be a leader in this conversation.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: So in thinking about the data that is summarized and published in your findings of your report, which I think is called Racial Displacement in South Carolina, I was wondering if you could share some of the most significant findings from that report.

Ken Kolb: We’re so happy to share our research.

We’ve been working on this a really long time. We start our story focused on the gentrification occurring in Greenville today. But actually our research begins much, much farther back in Greenville’s past. It shows that the residential racial segregation of Greenville’s neighborhoods was methodical and intentional.

To understand gentrification today, we need to understand there is no gentrification without prior decline. To understand how some neighborhoods are being gentrified today, we need to understand what caused their property values to drop so low in the past.

And so we need to go even deeper into Greenville’s history to examine the construction and the demographic composition of neighborhoods to begin with. Our project does this primarily with an investigation of the racially restrictive covenants. Now, racially restrictive covenants are contracts written into housing deeds that forbade the sale of houses to black residents.

And so the function of this was to create exclusively all white enclaves in pockets around the city where blacks were not permitted to live. And because in some areas they couldn’t live, in other areas, that was the only place they could live. And in those areas, those became the historically black neighborhoods of Greenville, the only place where they were allowed to live because they were forbidden to live in other places.

Mike Winiski: So our team wanted to know more about where were these racially restrictive covenants in place and when were they in place? And so the team searched through about 400,000 property deeds, which are publicly available from the county. We found about 12,000 instances of racially restrictive covenants in Greenville County.

And we map those. So if you go to communitygvl.org, you can see the map and there are purple dots on this map. And the bigger the purple dot, the more racially restrictive covenants we found in that particular area. So I think of these as almost like barriers. These are barriers to entry for the black community, for home ownership, for generational wealth building. And then there are gaps where black households could actually live in those homes. And what we’re seeing now is that those open spaces for black families are now the places where people are coming into the city, where white households are coming into the city, because those areas are now considered to be great places to live near a park, near public transportation, walkable city.

And so you can look at this map and you can see those property deeds. You can see the, the language that was contained in those deeds. And you can see the spatial pattern of where black families were excluded from living in Greenville. We found racially restrictive covenants up to 1970. That’s two years after the fair Housing Act said that these were illegal.

We found these after 1948 when the Supreme Court in Shelly versus Kramer said, the state’s not gonna enforce these racially restrictive covenants, but that didn’t prevent individual homeowners and communities from enforcing those through other means, besides legal means. And so it’s not just a handful.

This is part of our past. It explains part of why there’s this racial gap in income that the stage was set a long time. And we still see it today.

Ken Kolb: The reason why we focus on racially restrictive covenants is that they were really one of the first forms of exclusionary zoning. They created pockets and enclaves of, of white wealth generation. If you take the the McDaniel Avenue, Cleveland Forest, Subdivisions of the thirties and forties.

Those covenants were like homeowners associations. They basically set the terms for who could buy homes as a means for collective property value increases amongst neighbors. It was a collective pact that they promised I’ll only sell my property to white people. If you read these covenants, the language is stark and I’m hesitant to even use the language of them, but forbidding the sale of a house to anyone of African descent, forbidding the sale of a house to anyone with one drop of Negro blood. These are things that are horrific and tragic today, but if you look just close to it on the other side of town, you enter into the Nickeltown area and you can see that these were areas black residents were allowed to live. The only ones where they were allowed to live, and that became the area of disinvestment along the city. If you look at when we’re making decisions about which streets are we gonna pave, which sidewalks are we gonna fix, they’re going to these areas where wealth already existed and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

So you have these geographic, neighboring economic disparities and property values. And you can imagine if one area has lots of high property values and high demand. And another one which has been neglected for generations because it’s on the other side of a literal wall that prevented the passage of people from one neighborhood to the next into Nickeltown… as demands start to expand, people in the 2000s, 2010s are finally venturing back into the Nickeltown area, and they’re looking at those as prime opportunities to buy affordable real estate.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: You were talking specifically about the McDaniel Avenue, Cleveland Forest area that at some point was separated by a physical wall from Nickeltown, right?

Ken Kolb: Right. I mean, the wall is a physical structure and it could prevent passage of people. But what the racially restrictive covenants are, are an example of systemic or institutionalized structure, a form of exclusionary zoning that prevents the accumulation of intergenerational wealth that parents can pass on to their kids and to their kids.

And so it has a generational effect. And so we dig into the past, into these historical archives to show that those racially restrictive covenants shaped the racial residential segregation of Greenville to begin with, and it set in motion a series of problems where there was areas of investment where property values were able to rise and areas of disinvestment and neglect where property values ultimately fell. And in those areas where those property values fell, that was the precursor to the gentrification we’re seeing today. There is no gentrification without prior decline. Racially restrictive covenants sparked that decline.

After the textile industry started to slow down and collapse, the white population in the city center of Greenville started to leave for the suburbs.

And with them, they took their wealth. As a result, the urban core of Greenville really started to shrink and it lost its customer base. The consequences of this is that there was a choice to be made about which neighborhoods to invest in and which ones to neglect.

And these special emphasis neighborhoods as we know them today, were ones that were neglected for generations. As the populations dwindled, dilapidation on the blocks, cracked sidewalks, potholes ,burnouts, street lamps. These were the signs of urban blight. And dilapidation and, and demolition of this housing stock followed.

The city of Greenville decided to help these neighborhoods. Over two decades ago, they designated them as special emphasis neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with more than 50% of the population earning less than 80% of the area median income. And it set out to protect them by giving them a say in the development that was occurring in their neighborhoods.

So this was the promise to these neighborhoods, these historically black neighborhoods. And as our research shows, unfortunately, because of gentrification and racial displacement, these are the neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest. They’ve lost over half of their black population in the last 30 years, and so we tried to look at the changes that are occurring today.

As you drive through these neighborhoods, you can see that they’re changing rapidly. Most people know them as Southern Side, west Greenville, Sterling Nickeltown, Green Avenue, Haynie Sirrine. Our job is to provide numbers to those subjective opinions and observations and so we saw this as a turning point in conversations of Greenville about how we’re gonna move forward and we just tried to provide a little more data and evidence to support those conversations.

Mike Winiski: The biggest sort of thing that jumped out of the data was the impact on the special emphasis neighborhoods.

It was really surprising, and I should probably back up a little bit, that you know, when, when we talk about data, there’s a lot of data available from places like the US Census. I teach Geographic Information Systems. A better way to say it is GIS. And I’m interested in where change is happening.

And so when you start thinking about the, where you start looking at things like census tracks, and you can get data from the US Census on census tracks, but they don’t align nicely with special emphasis neighborhoods. They’re drawn by the federal government and the federal government probably doesn’t have a concept of Nickeltown, Haynie Sirrine, and all the other special emphasis neighborhoods.

So part of it was an interest in making the data more local to the questions that we have as a community. And so that was part of the process that we did. And so when we did that, you know, new things started to emerge when we looked at places like Southern Side instead of just census tract seven or census tract nine, which kind of obscures what’s really going on.

And what we saw was, like Ken mentioned, a 53% decline in the number of black residents in these special emphasis neighborhoods. During that same time, the white population has nearly doubled and it’s really increased over the last decade. Most of these special emphasis neighborhoods intersect with like a one mile radius around Unity Park.

So when you talk about Unity Park, you’re talking about most of the special emphasis neighborhoods as well. We looked at a one mile radius around Unity Park that’s lost almost half of its black residents, about 47% over the last 30 years. And then you have neighborhoods like Haynie Sirrine, which is probably the most stark change that we’ve seen in the data.

That’s lost 85% of its black population over the last 30 years And people that live there or had lived there probably know this just by intuition . And so we’re interested in the data for a lot of reasons. One thing I try to remind myself is that every time that I look at a dot on a graph, that’s a human being, a household, a family.

And it’s the stories like we’re hearing in the Greenville News of displacement, of hardship, of suffering. And so these numbers one, help me better understand the scale of the issue that we’re working with. It also helps me understand the where of the issue that we are dealing with. And what I think it can help us do if we’re really methodical or thoughtful and creative about it, is it can help us see trends before they become overcomeable, you know, they can help us see that.. maybe we look at the graph and we say, wow, west Greenville, the graph looks a lot like Haynie Sirrine did 15 to 20 years ago. We know what Haynie Sirrine is like now. What strategies can we put in place to make sure that there aren’t only 106 black residents left in a particular neighborhood?

And that’s the case for Haynie Sirrine. So I think it can help us not just stand back and analyze the state that we’re in. It can help us be forward thinking so that we can, we can catch these trends and put in creative solutions before things are unchangeable.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: You mentioned Unity Park, which is a major project that the city undertook to bring a community park, another one in addition to Falls Park, to Greenville and it’s located in the southern side community. About how much did the city contribute or how much did that particular park cost and what do you think was the impact of Unity Park on the southern side community?

Ken Kolb: Recent estimates of, of what I’ve read is that the cost of Unity Park is over $80 million. And that’s a reinvestment into communities that weren’t neglected for generations.

You gotta remember Unity Park sits on where the city used to park its garbage trucks. And so those neighborhoods for decades were the last on the list to get their streets paved, to get their sidewalks fixed, to get their street lamps replaced. And so that kind of reinvestment is the moral and ethical and just thing to do.

The challenge is, is that we need to put protections in place to keep people in areas where that investment is happening, because when you bring in public sector investment of that magnitude and that speed, the private sector is watching.

The private sector can see that. They can see that what’s coming is paved roads, widened sidewalks, underground utilities, new street lights.

These are all the amenities that make a livable and walkable community really desirable. They’re looking for those areas because they know that it’s gonna result in rising property values.

Now, rising property values are good if you own your home. You get to benefit from growing equity that you can pass on to your family, that you can borrow against to send your kids to college. All those things are good. The challenge with a one mile radius around Unity Park is that those communities were primarily renters and renters are the one group that don’t benefit from gentrification and rising property values.

So how can we keep people in place in the communities in which they grew up? We’re trying to make up for past misdeeds, but without protections in place to prevent displacement, we may end up with some unintended consequences. , we may end up displacing the same people that we’re trying to help.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: The median income for a white household in Greenville is almost three times that of black households. And you just mentioned about how in Southern side, one of the issues is that the majority of the people there were renters. The average rents in Greenville is probably two times that or more for someone of that income level of the median black household.

So, you know, what type of policy decisions or different decisions do you think we could be making to remedy some of this on the front end?

Mike Winiski: One of the things that I was trying to better understand is our criteria for affordable housing. You know, so you’ll read a lot online and in the newspaper about this affordable housing unit supports people at 80% of the area median income I’ll call it AMI.

And this particular one is 60% AMI to be eligible and so on.

In the City of Greenville, the median household income including everyone, is about $60,000 a year. For black households, it’s about $27,000 a year. For white households, it’s about $77,000 a year.

And so one of the things that I think comes into play is that that set of criteria apply to everyone. It doesn’t build in the fact that you just mentioned Meliah, is that the disparity between white household income and black household income is about three to one within the city with blacks making a third of what white households do.

And so when you apply criteria like that, I was curious to see, okay, at those different income bans for affordable housing, what’s gonna be the breakdown of the people that are available to get into that housing at that level given the income distribution in Greenville? Let’s say you set 80% AMI and you look at the number of white and black households that fit in those criteria.

At the moment, there’s about three white households for every black household that can meet that criteria.

So if you don’t set your bands without acknowledging the income disparity, then there’s a real possibility that you’re one not gonna recover black households, but you’re actually gonna make the problem worse.

Ken Kolb: I’ll just add, so you know when you see a development coming in and it’s saying that it’s gonna have a certain amount of units set aside at 80% AMI, you just have to think to yourself what that really means is they’re targeting a demographic that earns twice that in a median black household in Greenville.

Mike Winiski: So some of the, the talk that I’ve heard is that this, this is the criteria that other cities will set. We don’t have to do the same thing we have a bigger problem with income disparity than many of our peer, most, or all of our peer cities.

And so thinking in a more nuanced way about these eligibility for affordable housing is really important. And I, the other thing I want to mention too is that we, a lot of the times we’ll talk about affordable housing in terms of units. This has this many units and it doesn’t necessarily ensure that people that are being displaced from that particular neighborhood are the ones who are gonna move into those units. So when you talk about units, it doesn’t get at the problem that Ken talked about. You still may displace long-term residents and that has, you know, that has a lot of impact that we’ve read about in the Greenville News. It can reduce the amount of the, the cultural nature of that particular community.

It reduces social capital. So for example if my neighbor is watching my children where I go to work and one of us is displaced… If they’re displaced now all of a sudden my childcare is impacted by this person who no longer lives next to me and can watch my children. And so I think when we talk about units, we really don’t keep in mind or prioritize keeping people in place as much as we potentially could with more nuanced policies.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: That is really eye-opening and if you will go back in our Simple Civics podcast from December, Ma’Ta Crawford talks about her life experiences in dealing with some of these issues that you just talked about. And so I would encourage our listeners to go back and you know, take a look at that episode because it will help kind of shed some light on some of the things that you guys are talking about right now.

So what I’m hearing you say is that to move forward from where we are, we need to look at more inclusive policies as we redevelop and revitalize other parts of our city.

Ken Kolb: Yeah. We face a number of challenges. I mean, the, the challenges with inclusionary zoning in the state of South Carolina are well known. Our State Attorney general has written a memo just declaring them illegal if tried to be enforced. There’s been, there is currently an inclusionary zoning bill that’s been pre-filed with the South Carolina State Legislature.

But I’ll be honest with you, it’s gonna be a steep climb. So within those constraints, what can we do? There’s generally two sets of solutions you can help people increase their purchasing power by giving them coupons or vouchers that can enable them to meet rising rents. We see this through section eight, or if we were to create our own Greenville housing voucher program. We can also see remedies where we can divert tax dollars to create incentives.

Or mechanisms to incentivize developers to bring down the costs. So this is usually through affordable housing trying to, to ask them to set aside a certain number of units for 80% area median income, 60% area median income, 40% area median income. But really the long-term solution’s gotta be a two-pronged solution.

We need to bring housing costs down to where people can meet them today, and we need to increase incomes so that people will be able to afford property and housing on their own terms at market rates in the future. Now, this is a real challenge in Greenville because we have some of the starkest, the starkest racial income inequality in the Southeast.

But we need to to see housing as one part of a larger community development solution. We need jobs, we need childcare, we need workforce training. We need all the things that can allow people, crew, communities to thrive and grow. And eventually, one day the goal is to not need the subsidies. But we’re not there yet. Right now because of the, the stark inequalities that we see, we need to bring those rates down and we need to do it in a more targeted approach. We can’t use the one size fits all model of area median income and apply it to all neighborhoods. Because what our data shows is when you draw precise boundaries around these neighborhoods, area median income alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

You need to really break it down by demographics. If you’re trying to help a specific group of people, you need to target those solutions at those people.

Mike Winiski: And I’d like to, to plug a book that I read recently called The Affordable City by Shane Phillips. I really like the framework that he uses that he calls three S’s that you need to think about when you’re thinking about affordable housing. The first S is stability, and I think about that, that’s preserving existing affordable housing, but it’s also ensuring that people that want to stay in place can stay in place. So that’s the first one.

The second one is supply. That one’s pretty straightforward. You increase the supply of affordable housing perhaps. Reduce or you meet the demand. And then pricing is, is stabilized. There’s a lot more to supply than that. And the third is, is subsidy. And I think from having lived in Greenville for, you know, almost 21 years total, I think that’s the one that we seem to be resistant to.

You know, so for example, where these overlap in, in Los Angeles, I can’t remember the housing project name. Developer wants to come in and to build a apartment complex. Makes a certain amount of those available based on affordable housing criteria. This building is gonna displace existing residents.

So the way that they handled that was, is that they built in money. This is both from the developer and from the city. And they housed those individuals while that building was being developed. And they ensured that they had first right to the affordable housing when they came back.

So that this stability S is is being addressed through both subsidy and incentives for the developer. That’s an example of where public funds are, are utilized to help keep people in place. So again, I would, as we think about this, it’s helping me to see what we’re doing in terms of stability, supply, and subsidy.

And in some cases those make more sense in one area than they do in another. We’re not Los Angeles. We’re Greenville, South Carolina. And our, the solutions may be different, but they just help me understand and frame the many solutions that are possible as we look at this really wicked problem.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson: That framework is really useful because particularly when we think about the subsidy part of it, that actually is not something new.

I mean, we subsidize developers in creating these projects all the time, and so maybe we should think about how we use those incentives. On the other side would be called a subsidy when you’re helping people stay in place. But we’re really talking about the same pool of money that we could be using in a very different way to incentivize developers to make sure that when they are coming in and creating these great places to live, that the people who are already there, who’ve been there for decades can remain.

This data has been very enlightening to me, and I’m sure it has been enlightening to some segment of our audience. And, and of course there’s a segment that already knew about these statistics.

But I just want to thank you, Mike and Ken for talking with me today, for putting together this data that I think will enable us to really take a hard look at the decisions we make in Greenville going forward to really make Greenville a better, thriving place for everyone.

Ken Kolb: Thanks, Meliah.

Mike Winiski: Thank you so much for having us.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.

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