Police and Affordable Housing Collide in Charleston

The South’s most picturesque city reckons with race and gentrification.

Patsy Newitt September 4, 2020

Jim Watson/ AFP via Getty Images

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 Real​tor​.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.”

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