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Displacement Is Happening Now

by Andrew P.
April 10, 2024

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

In my twenty-two years as an apartment dweller, I’ve been displaced a few times.

The most recent occasion happened eight years ago, a couple of years after I moved to Asheville. I was living on Linden Avenue (a stone’s throw from Homegrown and Claxton Elementary School) in a large house that had been subdivided—probably a long time ago—to have four dwellings inside.

The landlord decided to sell the building to a new owner, who in turn decided that she wanted to live in my place. (It was the biggest unit in the building.) That meant that I was out.

I loved my apartment. I could walk downtown in one direction or to the “Brew and View” in the other. I had been living there for two years. My old landlord liked me. I had mapped out my early morning running routes that took me through Charlotte Street, Five Points, downtown, Montford, and the Reed Creek Greenway.

Now suddenly I had a new landlord who after giving me 60 days notice, started to harass me, insisting that she be allowed into the apartment repeatedly. (Presumably she wanted to measure for drapes.) After I let her know that she couldn’t legally enter my apartment without twenty-four hours notice, she began texting me expletives late into the night.

Renters get displaced. All the time. For all kinds of reasons.

Renters get displaced because buildings get old, harder to maintain, and they eventually fall apart. Renters get displaced because rents go up, and they can’t afford to renew their leases. They get displaced because landlords sell their property to new landlords with new ideas. Those new ideas can include redevelopment, condo conversion, conversion to single-family homes, and as I experienced, owner-occupying a unit in a multi-family building.

When a change to our zoning code is raised—in the context of potential “missing middle” reforms, for example—we dwell on the redevelopment part. We wring our hands over whether or not in the pursuit of increased housing supply, some people might be at risk for displacement. And it’s a part that’s worth addressing. But it’s also worth zooming out to think all of the ways that displacement happens every day.

(And if redevelopment-induced displacement is a real concern, “displacement” is also too often used as a rhetorical low-hanging fruit. Consider the treatment in this week’s Citizen Times article on planned “backyard lot” reforms. As presently drafted, the code revision under discussion actually prohibits existing homes from being torn down for the purpose of creating backyard lot homes. This fact didn’t prevent the paper from quoting someone, without clarification, in saying that these reforms might cause displacement.1 Further, as I’ve noted on this site, broad and shallow upzonings such as “missing middle” type reforms are the least likely to stoke speculation and displacement. This is one of the reasons why “missing middle” reforms are classified as an “anti-displacement” tool in the city’s own anti-displacement study.)

After my new landlord started going berserk on me, I accelerated my apartment search, and I found a home just around the corner from around where I was—literally a two minute walk—at a comparable price. I was so freaked out by what was going on, I bumped my moving date up a month. (At least the new landlord in my old place accepted this and didn’t ask for an extra month rent!)

Housing advocates sometimes talk about housing justice as constituting multiple factors: affordability, stability, and mobility. These are of course overlapping and intertwined. There’s no stability without affordability, we might say. But sometimes we tend to dwell too much on stability without considered how mobility is related. If I have more opportunities to move, that means that I have power over my landlord. And it means that if I am forced to move, I can find comparable—perhaps even better—accommodations.

Here’s the thing—we can’t stop displacement from affecting renters. We can’t even stop homeowners from having to move sometimes. Situations like natural disasters, economic calamities, and highway reroutings can force homeowners out of their homes too. I would add that people are often forced to move for reasons that we don’t label as “displacement.” For example, when a new job opportunity opens up in a different county, or when a family welcomes a new member and needs more bedrooms.

We can’t stop any of those things. But we can affect the relative power that tenants and first-time homebuyers have, and we can affect the conditions in which displaced people and people with changing housing needs are pushed back into the housing market.

That I was able to find a new home in the neighborhood that I already had friends in and enjoyed walking around and jogging through each morning reflected how mobility provided something like a counterweight to my lack of stability. That landlord around the corner needed me to fill her vacancy. So did the other landlords in Asheville that had vacancies too.

So mobility is correlated with vacancies. The more vacancies there are in an area, the more renters can have their pick. The more pressure there is for landlords to offer concessions. In other words, the more options there are out there, the greater the competition there is between landlords, and the less competition there is between renters. (Or between homebuyers.)

In short, mobility takes us towards affordability, and it shifts the power from landlords and property owners to renters and first-time homebuyers.

And the only way to get those needed vacancies in our core neighborhoods—the places where amenities, jobs, and other opportunities are greatest—is by allowing more infill and a greater variety of housing types.

When things get bad, as things are now, the tendency is to become more reactionary. We bear down, we want stasis. And we might turn on tourists, tech industry workers, migrants, and refugees—anyone that seems like an outsider—as a means to try to regain stability. But a single-minded focus on stability simply doesn’t work.2 Only a more holistic understanding of our housing crisis, and our housing goals, will bring us closer to something like housing justice. Displacement is happening now. And trying to stop change from occurring is only making it worse.

  1. To be clear, I don’t fault the person that was quoted—a resident of what the city calls a “legacy neighborhood”—for being apprehensive. I do believe, however, that it’s the paper’s responsibility to provide some better context than it typically does around these discussions. 

  2. To quote UCLA researcher Shane Phillips, a lone focus on stability does “little to accommodate future growth from native-born children, new residents from other cities and states, and immigrants,” and he notes that “[stability policies] may keep things from getting worse for many renters, but they have little power to make things better.” 

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

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