The house had been a rental for years and years, in a neighborhood where it did not make economic sense for the landlord to spend too much money fixing it up. It had been built in 1964, part of a neighborhood built for working-class black folks. We are constantly reminded of this when we note the cost-cutting measures the builder made – it was designed to be cheap housing, to be built fast and sold fast.
Even the land serves as a reminder of this history. The house lies in Southeast Raleigh, in a neighborhood built in the remains of an old rock quarry, the same rock quarry where slaves cut giant blocks for the state capital building. The rocks that are dug up every time I plant something remind me of the slaves who cut rock here, the land that was thrown away and sat empty after it was used up until they could find a way to build houses on it for the poor descendants of those slaves 100 years later.
The house is a small three bedroom with one tiny bathroom. There is a basement that in the early 90’s was converted into two small apartments, forever sealing the house’s destiny as a “rental property”. When we moved in, it was obvious no one had loved this house in a really long time.
We didn’t pick this neighborhood – it picked us. The house was owned by a friend who owned a lot of real estate and was in the process of letting go of some of the lower end things he owned, and he offered it to us on good terms. Like most of our new neighbors, we moved here because it was where we could afford to live.
When we moved in this house 5 years ago, we were the only white people for three blocks. I know this because the black neighbors I would talk too would constantly tell me that. A neighbor once introduced me to another neighbor as, “The white guy that lives on Quarry St.”
Shortly after we moved in, the police were called by a neighbor for a domestic dispute. I recognized the officer – a white man – from my work, so I went over to say hi. He asked what I was doing there.
“Oh, I live here,” I said, pointing to my house.
He was amazed. “You live here? On this street? Why would you do that? I wouldn’t even drive down this street if my job didn’t require it. No way would I let my wife live here among these animals.”
* * *
Shortly after our moving in, we saw the ways the neighborhood was already beginning to change.
The vacant lot next to our house was bought shortly after our moving in, and the owners built a large duplex on it. The owner told me she felt better building there after she saw “the type of people we were.” I wondered if she meant because we were white, but I didn’t ask her. I wish I had.
A triplex down the street was owned by a woman who also lived on the street. Her aunt had left it to her in her will. She tried to manage it, but she had no talent for it, so when she got one of the hundreds of letters we get every year asking to buy our house for cash, she sold it. I looked it up, and she sold it for less than 1/3rd what a fair offer would have been. She bought a shiny new SUV with her proceeds.
The owner of a rent house on our street wanted me to meet some people from the suburbs who were considering renting. “They want to know what it’s like to live here, and I want them to see that normal people live on this street.”
While Renee and I were talking to the prospective renters, a car went by with a booming stereo.
“Does that happen all the time?” the prospective tenant asked.
It does happen some, I said. The thing to remember is that this isn’t our neighborhood. It wasn’t built for us, it isn’t our culture, and we weren’t invited here. We can’t really expect people to change to make us more comfortable just because we decided to live here.
“Well, it’s our now”, the landlord said.
The suburban would-be tenants didn’t move in.
* * *
The landlord to the house next door called me.
“I just wanted you to know that I called the police on the drug dealers on our street today.”
We haven’t had drug dealers on this block for years, so I was confused. “Drug dealers?”
“Yeah. I was over to look at the building and I saw a group of young black men all standing on the street corner, talking to one another. You could tell they were up to no good,” she said
I sighed. “Well, the reason they were standing there is that is where the bus stop is. They live on this street, and they were waiting for the bus.”
* * *
The next block over was the first to flip. A developer bought a run down fourplex for $100,000, tore it down, and built three houses on the lot that sold for $250,000 each.
Since then it has only gotten crazier. Houses are routinely being flipped after only cosmetic repairs, often bought for pennies on the dollar from poor folks who never dreamed of seeing a check that large who don’t know the value of their property.
The police cruise our streets now. Since tech workers from other cities have begun moving downtown, things have shot up quickly. People that have lived here for years and years are being forced to move.
Ms. Portia lives a few houses down from us – she has lived there now 15 years, and she rents. She has a beautiful yard, filled with rose bushes and flowers, and she is terrified that the owner of her home will sell it. “He says he won’t, but you can’t never tell what a rent man is gonna do,” she tells me one afternoon.
One of the things we are happy about is our decision to sell our house to another couple who will live in it, who will care for the flowers I planted, who plan to keep renting to the tenant in the basement apartment. We left money on the table by not selling it to flippers, but money isn’t everything.
* * *
I was working in the yard the other day when I saw a young white couple looking at the house for sale across the street.
It was bought last year by a flipper, who now has it listed for three times more than we paid for our house five years ago. They tell me they are waiting for their realtor.
“I love this house,” the woman tells me.
“Yeah, the husband said. “It’s great. And I like how close it is to downtown. Tell me, is it a good neighborhood?”
I smile. “We love this neighborhood. It’s been really good to us. I hope it’s good to you, too.”
And then I went back to working in my yard.