One mile from Golden Belt, housing prices in downtown rose 63 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to a Washington Post analysis. Connie Ma/Wikimedia Commons

In Durham, North Carolina, residents in the city’s last mill village are hoping a local historic designation will protect them from nearby real estate shifts.

In Durham, North Carolina, preservationists are hoping a local historic designation can prevent—or at least delay—gentrification.

The Durham City Council approved the designation for Golden Belt last fall, putting the neighborhood in a position to be a guinea pig in this experiment. Unlike most communities on the National Register of Historic Places, Golden Belt is a racially diverse area with a mix of renters and owners and has always been a mostly working class community. It hasn’t yet fallen prey to the intense market forces currently reshaping the city, and residents spent a decade striving to give the area protections that they hope will help both its people and its character remain in place.

Golden Belt is a former mill village built in 1900 for the workers of the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, which made packaging for tobacco products. The neighborhood is composed of roughly 10 square blocks lined with small homes built in styles typical of that era, with porches and gabled roofs and yards big enough for millworkers to keep gardens and chickens.

The factory closed in 1996; by then, the company had sold the homes to individuals and the neighborhood had deteriorated. In 2008, the mill buildings themselves were renovated to hold artists’ studios and a few retail spaces, and the area began to turn around. These days, there are a few professionals living in well-kept bungalows that once housed the mill’s foremen, but there are also Habitat for Humanity homes in the area and other low-income housing nearby. Most of the neighborhood is still unremarkable, featuring chain link fences, cluttered yards, and unimproved homes.

But in the past few years, Durham has experienced sudden and extreme gentrification pressure. The once-dormant downtown is lively again, and young families are flocking to residential areas nearby. Housing prices in the downtown zip code rose 63 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to a Washington Post analysis, and developers are responding by tearing down modest houses and replacing them with much larger ones.

Those changes haven’t yet hit Golden Belt, but since it’s only one mile from downtown, they most likely will soon. That was a big driver of the preservation effort. So was the desire to protect Durham’s last mill village; the city was once home to several of them, amounting to hundreds of mill houses, but most have been destroyed by development.

“If you don’t do this, you’ll start seeing gentrification in a bad way, people tearing down mill houses that can be protected and preserved,” former Golden Belt resident John Martin said in an interview with local blog, Bull City Rising.

Another motivator was the Durham Rescue Mission, a nonprofit serving homeless men and women that owns several properties in Golden Belt and has had vague plans to build a large community center there. Residents said they support the organization’s mission and weren’t responding out of NIMBYism; they simply felt the group hadn’t been a good neighbor, and didn’t want to see it compromise the character of their community.

The result was a years long, resident-driven process that finally resulted in approval by the City Council in September. In the future, neighbors will be able to delay potential house demolitions for 365 days; and new construction—as well as modifications to existing homes—will be required to conform to design guidelines.

It was a success on all fronts, said Ben Fillippo, executive director of Preservation Durham. First, the neighborhood will now have some protection from gentrification. “I think you’ll see it help mitigate against speculative local development,” he said.

Just as important, though, is the precedent Golden Belt’s example sets. “This is probably one of the only locally designated districts in North Carolina that is working class and has remained so for the entire 20th century,” said Fillippo, pointing out that not a single resident at the meeting opposed the designation. “From the policy side of things, we often talk about low-income neighborhoods as though they wouldn’t want nice things. I think this was a beautiful and poignant tossing away of that narrative.”

But will it work? Sure, the teardowns might not occur, but preservation limits growth. Won’t it naturally cause prices to rise?

Scholars Brian McCabe and Ingrid Gould Ellen, from Georgetown and New York University, respectively, studied historic neighborhoods in New York City and consistently found that a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status improves following designation.

New York, though, isn’t representative of the rest of the country, and most experts say it’s hard to predict what will happen in a given area; more development doesn’t always equal lower prices. “The reality is that there’s so many moving parts,” said Mark Treskon, a researcher at the Urban Institute. “It’s difficult to know how it’ll play out.”

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress who focuses on affordable housing and community revitalization, agrees. “To my mind, there isn’t a clear relationship between preservation and affordability one way or the other,” he says. Myriad factors play roles, from the size of the city and the rate that housing prices are rising, to a neighborhood’s distance from downtown and its relationship to other desirable neighborhoods.

Each situation is different and in Golden Belt’s case, its history might be its salvation. “There’s only so much you can do with some houses,” says Mallach, looking at Golden Belt’s homes on Google Maps’ street view during a phone interview. “They’re very small.”

Indeed, most of the neighborhood’s houses are around 1,000 square feet—petite by modern standards. Even an addition that meets the historic specifications probably wouldn't add all that much space. That puts a ceiling on how expensive the homes can get—which will be a good thing for Golden Belt over the next few decades.

And it means historic preservation could work for other vulnerable neighborhoods filled with small houses, including the thousands of mill houses dotting North Carolina.

According to Myrick Howard, executive director of Preservation NC and an expert on the state’s mill houses, “Most mill villages are [currently] occupied by working class whites and blacks and Hispanics.” They serve as affordable housing, that is, as they were initially designed to do. Many are physically declining, though. Given their small size, historic preservation might be a way to protect the homes without greatly threatening their affordability—while also celebrating their historic working class roots.

In Durham, Fillippo and his organization are planning to use the Golden Belt model to protect other threatened sections of town, including one with deep roots in the city’s African American history. In that case, the program will also include subsidized loans and free technical assistance to help the area’s elderly remain in their homes. But local historic preservation designation will be a key element.

In a field where historic designations often lead to fears of gentrification and displacement, that’s good news.

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