Police and Affordable Housing Collide in Charleston
The South’s most picturesque city reckons with race and gentrification.
Tourists love Charleston, South Carolina — the “top city in the U.S.” receives roughly 7 million visitors a year for its massive historic homes, cobblestone streets and celebrity plantation weddings. But Charleston’s livability is reserved for those who can afford it. And for those who can avoid or overlook the racism deep-rooted in the city’s structure.
For the past few decades, Charleston has been experiencing a dire affordable housing crisis marked by displacement of residents, despite a tourism-aided economic boom. North Charleston was listed as the nation’s top eviction market in a 2020 study by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, and Charleston was deemed the “fastest gentrifying city” by a 2017 report by Realtor.com.
Despite the acute need for affordable housing, the Charleston Housing Authority (CHA) said last month that it’s turning over two public housing units to the police department for a substation, even though there is an already-existing police station nearby.
Activists and organizers see this as both a tone deaf misappropriation of resources and illustrative of a larger push to displace residents of the Gadsden Green community, the predominantly Black and low-income public housing community in the Charleston peninsula’s Westside.
“It reeks of pushing the community out and really creating a hostile environment. It’s precursor displacement,” says Omar Muhammad, executive director of Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for community development and environmental justice.
CHA CEO and President Donald Cameron says the move is a “community-oriented policing initiative” to decrease crime in the area. By providing a hub for officers to get lunch or host events he hopes to give the police the “opportunity to get to know the people who live there.”
Tamika “Mika” Gadsden, a local activist and radio show host who runs the Charleston Activist Network, sees no coincidence in the tactical efforts to engage community members in an area like Gadsden Green that’s earmarked for development.
“[CPD] has already articulated what their aim is — to preserve property rights — so I think any effort launched in that housing project or area has to be seen as a demonstration of force,” Gadsden says. “What I fear is that the people of Gadsden Green are going to be penalized for being poor and Black.”
Gadsden Green was a tight-knit and hearty Black neighborhood until the 1930s, when it became the target of land seizure by the city. Through an “urban renewal” project, the nearby marsh was turned into a municipal dump by the 1950s.
This month, Charleston City Council approved a loan for the public-private developer WestEdge Foundation to drain and develop those wetlands to build apartments near Gadsden Green, which community members view as further evidence of displacement efforts for higher-income newcomers.
The connection between over-policing and gentrification makes the police substation all-too anticipated, as over-policing and increased surveillance is particularly prominent as an area gentrifies. In an analysis of New York neighborhoods between 2009 and 2015, real estate-invested neighborhoods were more likely to see intensified misdemeanor policing. Alongside the increase of property values was an increase in arrests for offenses like loitering, disorderly conduct, and drug possession.
“It’s a project, but they’ve been trying to move the people and the community out of that neighborhood for a long time,” says Latisha Imara, the founder of Charleston’s Black Liberation Fund, an organization that focuses on raising bail funds for arrested protesters, connecting them to legal support, and providing resources. “They’re more focused on the way these neighborhoods look to possible tenants… It’s to give certain groups of people a false sense of security.”
Charleston’s police department, alongside state law enforcement, has also recently increased “pop-up” traffic checkpoints and SWAT action for “proactive interdiction patrol,” after an attempted robbery and shooting that killed a man downtown. But activists are concerned about how the expansion could reinforce disparities like how Black people in Charleston County are 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the same levels of usage as white residents.
“It’s consistent with what Charleston has continuously done — the presence of police so close in a community that has been impacted so harshly by generational poverty,” Gadsden says.
Charleston’s rising living costs, paired with the fact that South Carolina’s minimum wage sits at the federal $7.25 an hour, make it difficult for many working people to afford to live in Charleston. But Black neighborhoods and communities have been consistently left out of the city’s massive growth and disproportionately impacted by rental burdens. The makeup of the city shifted from roughly two-thirds Black to two-thirds white within 30 years, representing a 55% drop in Black population as individuals moved further from the downtown area.
Housing policy that does exist facilitates more landlord profit making — there are virtually no limitations to raising rents, and landlords are not required to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. Evictions are not only easy to file, but the process is carried out by magistrates, appointed by South Carolina’s governor Henry McMaster (a landlord himself), who are not required to have a law degree nor pass the state bar.
“This cycle of poverty keeps them from being able to improve their quality of life through home ownership, increasing their education attainment, and economic pursuits. It’s challenging,” Muhammad says. “Charleston’s role in suppressing African Americans from participating in wealth-building tools has resulted in what we see today.”
This suppression isn’t new. The city was built on slave labor; an estimated 40 percent of African slaves brought to America passed through Charleston. In 2015, Charleston saw both a horrific racial killing of nine Black worshipers in one of the oldest Black churches by a white supremacist and the police killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, in North Charleston.
“Charleston’s inability to reckon with its past is starting to bear fruit right now in very loud and unavoidable ways,” Gadsden says. “You don’t top the list of gentrifying cities accidentally. You don’t start racking up these unsavory stats accidentally. It’s a byproduct of the past and it’s a distinct inability to reconcile and repair that past.”
Charleston was also the birthplace of America’s first police force, established as a slave patrol. As calls for police abolition echo around the country, this disproportionate policing of Black Charlestonians endures.
“It went from pre-abolition of slavery, where they were making sure that enslaved people weren’t organizing to after slavery when they just figured out new ways to oppress Black communities and maintain the white establishment and wealth access of white people in Charleston,” says ACLU of South Carolina spokesperson Frank Knaack.
Following the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott by North Charleston police, the Charleston Police Department conducted a racial bias audit of the force, although North Charleston’s has yet to conduct its own. The City of Charleston’s audit, that was conducted in part by former law enforcement officials, found that Black community members were involved with nearly three times as many incidents of police force, racial disparities in traffic stop-rates, search decisions for stops in which a warning was used, and traffic stops that end in citations.
CPD has promised better training and policy changes, but a riot-gear-clad police force deployed tear gas and pepper balls against peaceful protesters on May 30. Thirty-five were arrested and Knaack, who attended as a legal observer, counted five police jurisdictions present.
“There was no deescalation taken at all by law enforcement… They were literally just, at random, shooting people with pepper bullets,” Knaack says.
Later that night, Knaack says the violence was taken to Charleston’s Eastside, another area that is experiencing gentrification. CPD defended the violence with a letter justifying the actions of the officers due to a last minute county-wide curfew and “numerous instances of assault, arson, burglary, and vandalism,” in Charleston’s central business district, according to a letter from the City of Charleston’s legal department.
Gadsden believes Charleston’s lack of accountability and aversion to reckon with its past will lead to an economic collapse, mirroring a cultural collapse she feels has already plagued tourists’ favorite town.
“Charleston’s priorities have always been to sell and to peddle its past, its history, but make it palatable for a huge tourist industry. You can’t do that if you actually reckoned with white supremacy,” Gadsden says. “This city is doubling down on white supremacy and systemic oppression in ways that will inevitably lead to its demise. There’s no way this is sustainable for anyone.”