Heated meeting discusses gentrification concerns

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, August 16, 2023

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been modified to update a quote that was incorrectly attributed to LHA CEO Zsa Zsa Heard.

On Monday evening, Teara Harris, CEO of Communities for Tomorrow, hosted a community meeting at the William J. Griggs Recreation Center in an attempt to quell concerns over an alarm raised by City Councilman Leon Childs about residents potentially being displaced from their homes and gentrification of a primarily African American community in LaGrange.

The concerns stem from comments made about the Rail District currently under development by Phillip Abbott.

Harris said there has been some miscommunication about what she is planning to do, explaining that she only owns three properties, which are currently vacant. She said she isn’t pushing anyone out of their homes.

“What we try to do is put people in homeownership,” Harris said. “My main focus is how to make people feel empowered through homeownership and creating wealth, generational wealth.”

“For me growing up, my mom, my grandmother and my great-grandmother were all renters and my dad was a renter so there was no passing it down to us,” Harris said.

Harris said she added up the amount of money her grandmother had paid in rent, and it was three times the value of the home.

Communities of Tomorrow attempts to help lower-income residents by hosting homeownership workshops and working with them to receive USDA funds, Harris said.

Harris addressed comments on social media that the Rail District development was going to take property along McGee Street and Addie St. She said that Abbott currently has no plans for a residential component in the Rail District, which he later confirmed. Abbott said plans for the Rail District are strictly commercial with plans for office and retail space, a shipping container food court and an event space.

Abbott said a developer out of California has bought a number of properties near the Rail District, but he is not involved with that.

Concerns were raised that developers intended to renovate homes in the area, many of which are currently rental properties and price the current residents out of their homes.

Childs said he had no intention of scaring people with his social media post, which raised alarms that people in the community could potentially be pushed out of their homes. Childs said he became concerned during a previous meeting where he claimed Harris said people in the community would be pushed to the outskirts of LaGrange.

Childs said Harris had said she could help them get a USDA loan to build a $270,000 plus home on the outskirts of town, which she denied.

“Addie Street, Ware Street, McGee Street, Key Street all that community up in there, they are talking about tearing all those down and building $270-$320,000 homes. That’s what was said,” Childs said, noting he had sworn to inform the community about behind-the-scenes stuff like this.

Harris said the $270,000 homes were for the three properties that she owns, not any potential other developments. She said that she has spoken with builders, and she has to charge that much for the construction to be economically feasible. She said she had suggested USDA funds for those who could not otherwise afford the homes.

She said the California developer owns 294 properties and most of them are in the Rail District.

“We don’t own those properties. We have no desire to have those properties,” Harris said.

Harris also noted that she or other potential developers do not have the power to take people’s homes that they own. Childs later warned that homes could potentially be taken through eminent domain.

Several people attending the meeting also raised concerns about gentrification, where current community members could be pushed out even if they own their homes because of increased taxes on their property.

Harris said that most of the people living in the area are renters.

“So, that would be a problem then because if most people there are renters, they have no say so over the person that’s going to sell their home. They’re still going to be pushed out,” a woman responded.

“If people are bringing in $270,000 houses, isn’t it going to raise other people that own houses, their property taxes? That’s going to be a way that someone who’s on a fixed income that’s going to be forced out anyway,” another attendee said.

“Anytime you do a development, housing and commercial run hand in hand,” Debra Black, Director of Finance for the LaGrange Housing Authority said. “You’re not going to just fix commercial and not be concerned with the residential. You want it all built up.”

“If you don’t believe it, watch them get pushed out into the rural areas where there are no transportation, no stores, no way to get in town. That’s exactly what it’s called — gentrification,” Zsa Zsa Heard said. “Let’s take care of our people and show that we really mean when we say we’re going to do.”

At times, the meeting became heated and developed into a shouting match. LaGrange Police Lt. Monica Peterson had to step in to de-escalate the situation before it got worse. Peterson said she was at the meeting during her time off to find out information for herself.