Low-income renters in the U.S. city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina face a matrix of interlocking oppressions, such as insecure housedness, hunger, and viral infection, which, owing to these oppressions' entanglements and interactions with one another, may easily be obscured. Reading the city as a palimpsest – a complex field of continuity, disruption, preservation, and destruction – helps to contextualize the (political and pedestrian) avenues through which urban oppression and marginalization are reproduced.
The story of Winston-Salem has, for the last century, been one of redesignation and redevelopment: the first decades of the 20th century witnessed racialized zoning changes implemented by the city’s entirely white Board of Aldermen; by the mid-century, policymakers began to fixate on slum clearance, urban renewal, and highway construction, which contributed to razing thousands of homes in predominantly low-income and Black neighborhoods; with the onset of pro-corporate federal trade policies in the 1970s and 80s, the city’s industrial infrastructure was emptied and thousands of manufacturing and adjacent jobs were lost; and by the 2010s, after a choking post-industrial transition, vacated industrial buildings in the city centre found themselves reanimated by early career professionals inhabiting newly built luxury apartments, while working class residents faced a meager labour market and a housing market in crisis.
Within the city’s timescapes of labour and housing, the home may be understood as both an artifact and executor of social power - a predictor of, and participant in, the educational attainment, mental and physical health outcomes, employment, and economic mobility of its residents. The home embodies and exerts history, it realizes its historical provenance and reproduces the hegemony of its milieu. To understand contemporary configurations of precarity and stability one must understand their historical context.
All You Can Holler About is Rent
For this reason, I endeavor to follow strains of capitalist production through the city’s twentieth century exercises in housing and urban policy, as well as in private sector developments, hoping to situate contemporary struggles for stability and housedness in relation to the timescapes of capitalism which shape them. For one year I canvassed tenants docketed for eviction with a group of grassroots housing activists, discussing the social and legal resources available to them, and, in some cases, their struggles for stability within the city’s rapidly changing private rental market. I also conducted a series of interviews with renters in the low-income neighborhood of East Winston, as well as longue durée research around the city’s housing and labour histories.
The ethnographic components of my paper are mostly structured around the experiences of Angela, one of my interview participants, an elderly Black woman who, in 2013, owing to tax-foreclosure, moved from Northwest Winston-Salem to East Winston, in so doing leaving behind a stable and tight-knit community for a far more precarious neighborhood. Her move dislodged her from a generative mutual aid network, wherein neighbors (long standing homeowners who’d known each other for many years) could be relied on to come to each other's aid in times of need. Angela’s new census tract reports the third highest eviction rate in her county. 74% of the homes in her tract are rental units, and between 2014 and 2018, 11.7% of renters in her community were evicted - a rate over 2.5 times the county average. Conversely, only 56% of households in Angela’s former neighborhood were rental units, and only 4.6% of renters were evicted during the same period. In her new home, Angela’s financial situation has been more troubled than ever, yet she has access to far fewer resources in her new neighborhood: she reports that she knows “the people on the right and the left, and that's about it. Maybe the people across.”
Angela’s housing situation is, moreover, fraught by the tradeoffs she is forced to make between her rent and utilities payments. She uses an oxygen tank to assist her breathing and relies on the functioning of her home’s electricity. If situations arise which seem to require that she pay either her rent or her electricity bill, the latter is consequently of greater importance. When the home is a site care – for one’s self or for those one lives with – renters are forced to negotiate potentially contradictory obligations to their landlords and utilities providers. However, when rent payments are neglected in order to ensure access to electricity, the tenant’s housing becomes compromised.
Angela’s current neighborhood is situated within a food desert, and she buys most of her food from convenience stores located along her street. Occasionally, she patrons a resident near the end of her block who sells snacks and candy from her home. The nearest grocery store to Angela is prohibitively far from her, and the commute is a risky one: although she pays for car-insurance, her vehicle tags are expired. Considering the legal implications of driving for Angela, her infrequent trips to the grocery store are one of the few occasions meriting such a journey. When she and her husband decide to make the drive, the couple prays “that nothing bad will happen.” When her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits arrive, Angela typically purchases the entire month’s worth of groceries in a single trip. She avoids using her benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables, however, given that they are prone to spoilage and are prohibitively expensive. Winston-Salem is one of the most food-insecure metropolitan areas in the United States, reporting 21 individual food deserts. Resultantly, Forsyth County records the seventh highest frequency of food hardship in the country, with approximately 18% of its population experiencing food insecurity.
Food scarcity is strongly correlated with housing instability, owing both to material hardship and geographic factors that have been shaped, in Winston-Salem, by a history of redlining, highway building, and slum clearance. Food store access and quality is consistently tied to neighborhood racial composition, illustrating the role of urban space production – mediated by racialized public policy and urban planning – in shaping patterns of neighborhood investment.
As has been briefly reflected upon here, housing precarity transects and is enfolded within the full array of pressures and disadvantages navigated by low-income Americans. In this sense, the home is situated simultaneously as an expression of historic social power and as an active and engaged participant in the quotidian experiences of homeowners, whose lives are deeply effected by housing politics and spatial governance. Housing should not be reduced to eviction and housedness data, to market analyses, or to considerations of value production and real estate investment. Housing precarity encompasses the breadth of marginalizations, and quotidian issues of hunger, caregiving, and aging, for example, must be brought to the fore when “housing” is under consideration.
In this sense, housing is both a historical process through which social power shapes the socio-material arrangement of urban space, as well as a quotidian experience which encompasses manifold experiences, affects, and emotions.
About the author
Jack Portman is a student at the London School of Economics.
Jack received a bursary to attend the Housing Studies Association Annual Conference 2022. As part of the bursary, recipients are expected to contribute to the HSA blog, and this blog post is based on the paper presented at the HSA conference.
Find out more about the HSA conference bursaries.