Gentrification Spreads Through Houston's Oldest Communities

Gentrification has become a vicious and unruly force that’s reshaping Houston’s social fabric.

By Amarie Gipson Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Gentrification has become a viscous and unruly force that’s reshaping Houston’s social fabric. 

Over the Past 20 years, the Greater Houston area has experienced more population growth than any other major city in Texas. Gentrification, one of the results of this increase, has become a viscous and unruly force that’s reshaping Houston’s social fabric. 

Neighborhoods such as Third Ward, Fourth Ward (home of Houston’s first Black community, Freedmen’s Town), Fifth Ward, Studewood (Independence Heights), and Sunnyside are battling a disorienting tension between the past and the future. The stark changes are most evident in the built environment. 

One side of the decades-long argument is that gentrification’s revitalizing effects outweigh the consequences (for example, displacement and a loss of cultural/spatial familiarity). But the reality of those consequences overpowers the aesthetic improvements. Towering townhome communities erected in bulk have created a sharp, visible contrast with the much older, often dilapidated homes in parts of these communities. 

“I take gentrification and separate it into two parts: investment and displacement,” says Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Many neighborhoods that are now being gentrified have not had investment for decades. The bad part is that it can lead to displacement of people who have lived in those neighborhoods for a long time.” 

Between 2010 and 2016, gentrification had the largest impact on some of Houston’s oldest communities, according to Kinder’s 2021 “Re-Taking Stock” report. The analysis assessed the effects that new housing developments have on gentrification and displacement in seven neighborhoods. The new residential and commercial developments in these areas, which can include the welcome addition of green space and bike lanes, have continued to shuffle the demographics of the city’s historic neighborhoods and reduce affordability.

Says Fulton: “The question is how to mitigate the risk of displacement. No neighborhood stays the same over time, but you can make sure that there is enough housing available for people with lesser means to live in these areas long-term.” He suggests implementing property tax breaks for homeowners and creating permanently affordable rental housing to help combat displacement. 

Organizations within some of these communities are moving with the tide of rapid gentrification and privileging the need for authenticity. One well-known arts organization in the embattled Third Ward is Project Row Houses (PRH), a nonprofit founded in 1993 by artists looking to preserve, center, and uplift the Third Ward community. As the civic and social hub for Black life in Houston, Third Ward has been the site of dramatic demographic shifts in recent years. 

PRH is spearheading preservation efforts such as restoration of the Eldorado Ballroom, the historic Black nightclub venue. It is also helping the community by providing income-based housing for more than 80 families and affordable artist studios, and by working alongside the Sankofa Research Institute to document these changes beyond basic demographic data. 

“The work of the Sankofa Research Institute helps us have an accurate read on the thoughts and feelings of the residents, which helps us strategize displacement in the neighborhood,” Sol Diaz, lead docent at PRH, tells Houstonia. 

The role of artists and arts institutions has long been linked to gentrification. But why?

According to Fulton and Kinder’s research, artists are often the “pioneers of the pre-gentrification process” in their search for cheap work spaces, making underserved areas more attractive for revitalization. But as this pattern plays out again and again, the inclusion of the arts in fighting gentrification isn’t always a perfect means to an end.

“There’s a well-documented pattern of artists beautifying an area, which eventually leads to residents of a neighborhood becoming displaced,” Diaz says. “It’s understandable that residents would be wary about the artists coming into their space.” 

 “The irony in this process in the United States is that artists come in first, are followed by the gentrifiers, and the artists themselves become priced out,” Fulton says. “If you want the arts to thrive, you have to make sure it’s authentic to the neighborhood.” 

Not all grassroots community efforts yield the same results as neighborhood forces like PRH because of a lack of educational resources and willingness by elders to stay and defend their homes. 

“Gentrification is such a long process that by the time you feel the impact of it, it’s already too late,” says Miriam Heads, a native of Acres Homes, a documentary filmmaker (All Screwed Up, 2021), and an archivist. She’s working to document the lives of residents in the neighborhood she grew up in. “I don’t think we can stop it, but I do think we can bring attention to what’s happening and build something that keeps the essence of the community in place,” Heads tells Houstonia. 

Because of her neighborhood’s rich and deeply Black history, Heads calls it the last frontier for gentrification in the city. As one of the oldest settlements for Black Americans in Houston, Acres Homes and many other predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods have been deemed opportunity zones (economically disadvantaged areas where investors are eligible for tax incentives in exchange for development). 

As population demographics continue to shift and predominantly Black areas continue to lose their original populations, the future of Houston’s neighborhoods continues to unfold, one new high-rise townhouse development at a time. And the fight goes on.

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