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'Where do they think I'm going to stay?' Soaring NC housing prices erase Black neighborhoods

Josh Shaffer, Anna Johnson and Tyler Dukes, The News & Observer on

Published in Home and Consumer News

RALEIGH, N.C. — In the last three years, J.C. and Telza Perry have watched construction crews tear down seven of 14 houses on their block of East Jones Street, replacing them with towering two-story moderns that have sold for more than half a million dollars.

It stings a little.

The Perrys bought their home for $9,000 in 1968, adding granite siding and a brick garage. A school teacher, Telza Perry would empty her coin purse so neighborhood kids could buy ice cream, which made J.C. shrug his shoulders and sigh. They knew everybody on the block: doctors, bankers, train porters — all of them Black.

These days, they struggle to name all but a few holdouts from the old days. Their new neighbors, all of them white, offer a friendly wave. But it isn’t the same. Telza’s niece tried to move back to East Jones from Atlanta until the price tags chased her away. Most every day, the Perrys get calls asking them to sell their sturdy granite home, now a dwarf on the block.

“I have no problem with the size of the house,” Telza said. “I have a problem when people can’t afford to live.”

The News & Observer is examining the cost of housing across the Triangle as its median home price hit a record-high $357,000 in the first half of 2021, rising 20% in a year. In a series of stories, the N&O will show the people left behind, the disparity in rising costs and the consequences of economic and social change.

The shift on East Jones is reflected across Raleigh, where the median home value now stands at $379,000, according to Redfin — a 67% jump in the last five years. In August, Realtor.com ranked a single Raleigh ZIP code — 27616 — the fifth-hottest market in the country.

A buyer fleeing rising prices would find them just as high across much of Wake County, where the register of deeds reports the median at $365,000, up 42% in the last five years. But the stark difference between shotgun-style homes and tall moderns topping 3,000 square feet of space is most obvious in the neighborhoods hugging downtown Raleigh, many of them dating to the city’s segregated past.

Longtime residents lament the change in character of Raleigh’s College Park neighborhood, where East Jones runs near St. Augustine’s University and professors once walked the streets speaking Greek and Latin. In the last decade, the census shows the Black population dropping from 89% to 56% while the number of white residents grew fourfold.

“This neighborhood is really extinct,” said Octavia Rainey, a Southeast Raleigh activist who grew up around the corner from the Perrys. “They really erased everybody out of this neighborhood. For Black families, all you have is your memories.”

Many say they welcome change, especially after so many aging College Park houses turned to short-term rentals that fueled street crime. But they wish for a more balanced solution that didn’t sacrifice history, affordability and respect.

For those who remain, they face a steep rise in property tax — nearly 30% for the Perrys last year — and nonstop offers from developers eager to make way for Raleigh’s new wave.

“I’m getting letters every day,” said Annette Murphy, the Perrys’ neighbor for 50 years. “People who want to buy this house. Getting phone calls so much I don’t even answer. I got this one call and said ‘I’ll sell it to you for a million dollars,’ and they hung up. Where do they think I’m going to stay?”

‘WE WANTED DIVERSITY’

Across Raleigh, nearly 78,000 households in Raleigh qualify as low-income by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development definitions. And about a third of those rank as extremely low-income, where a one-person household earns $20,100 or less a year and a family of four brings in less than $28,700.

Raleigh tried boosting its affordable housing stock through a property tax increase in 2016, netting $6 million, and last year, voters overwhelmingly backed the city’s largest affordable housing bond at $80 million, which will be spent to help repair homes, offer first-time homeowners financial help to build more homes in partnership with nonprofits and private developers.

One of the city’s first significant affordable housing endeavors was the East College Park development, only blocks away from East Jones.

Nearly all the homes in that development have been sold and of those buyers, 56% are white, 34% Black and 7.5% Latino. While some of those homes are income-restricted, none can be sold for more than $265,000.

“We wanted a mixed-income neighborhood,” said Larry Jarvis, Raleigh’s housing and neighborhoods director. “We’ve certainly achieved that. We wanted diversity in the neighborhood. We have achieved that. We wanted it to look good and it’s beautiful. So I think we achieved exactly what we set out to do.”

In East College Park, Raleigh intentionally restricts what materials the houses can be built with, for instance, hardy plank rather than vinyl siding. It was so people wouldn’t be able to tell the market-rate homes from the affordable houses, Jarvis said.

But longtime residents outside the city’s development, such as Rainey, blame those houses for driving up the prices everywhere else.

“Do you know they built homes all over Raleigh with aluminum siding?” she asked. “Not here. So the cost goes up.”

‘YOU CAN’T BEAT ECONOMICS’

But rebuilding a neighborhood in the style of the 1960s, or even putting up houses of comparable size, defies economics, homebuilders say.

 

Modern building codes require more “behind the walls” for energy efficiency, said Paul Kane, executive vice president and CEO of Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County. That can influence the size and shape of a house.

Then there are lot sizes, he said. They tend to be smaller in College Park, so builders go vertical, putting tall houses next to short ones. Even if the square footage is comparable, they look out of place.

But the biggest factor is land price. In-demand neighborhoods sell regardless of what’s sitting on the lot. One house on East Jones sold for $138,000 in 2017 — a price many middle-class families would consider affordable — and the buyers quickly demolished the house. The new one, twice as tall, sold for $509,000.

“You would think a small lot would be a good candidate for a less expensive house,” Kane said. “But if the lot costs more than what you want the house to cost, you can’t beat economics. ... You can’t buy a $300,000 lot and sell a $350,000 home.”

Another complication is many of Raleigh’s newcomers come from distant states with more expensive markets, and what might seem a fortune in North Carolina qualifies a bargain in California.

‘I FEEL SO LUCKY’

Even nearby Raleigh neighborhoods can easily outprice East Jones.

Two years ago, Jacqueline McKenna and her partner moved from a rental in Oakwood, unable to buy in the historic district, where homes can easily top $700,000.

She recalled looking at their house on East Jones, one block from the Perrys, and being directed to a senior citizen who had lived across the street for decades. When she and her partner went to the door, a car came screeching up and a woman got out shouting, “Why are you talking to my mama?”

It was the woman’s daughter, fearing McKenna was there to coax away her house.

“I’m sure there’s folks that are not happy about the way the neighborhood has changed,” McKenna said. “I don’t blame them. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Regardless of racial, cultural and economic gaps, she worked to be a good neighbor. She made good friends with her neighbors, learning all their names, visiting several times a week, building a little free library on the front lawn. The best of their neighbors would time her partner Ryan on his bike rides, letting him know when he’d slowed down.

“If you’re kind to people, typically people will show kindness in return,” she said. “I feel so lucky they’ve accepted us.”

On East Jones, Rod Hodge said he resists constant pressure to sell one of the last rental properties on the block. He resents the changes that sandwiched his 1,000-square-foot rental between a pair of giants.

“My house looks like a little hut,” he said.

Lucinda Dean has lived there for 15 years, working both as a home-health nurse and a cleaner. She doesn’t mind the change in principle. College Park suffered through years of drug traffic and sex workers, and the newer, bigger houses have chased much of it away.

She doesn’t mind that the neighborhood is shifting from Black residents to white, as long as everybody is friendly.

Still, she said, “They could have done something besides tearing all the daggoned houses down. Everybody deserves to live somewhere. I don’t know where they go. To a worse part of the neighborhood than they’re in.”

Down the street, Telza Perry wonders what will happen to her house when she is gone. Many sellers in College Park are the sons and daughters of longtime residents who inherit the houses but don’t want to inhabit or manage them. After a half-century on East Jones, they’d like to pass the house on to their daughter and grandchildren.

“Money don’t excite me,” J.C. Perry said.

But she can’t help but imagine it being cleared away in her absence, someday. She thinks of the tall crape myrtle in the yard, and the prickly pears and geraniums that grace the sidewalk.

“I was thinking,” she said, “when I’m not here anymore, they’re going to come through here and take my planters.”

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