Ex-mayor: Some families losing their homes

Lincolnville. Source: Google Maps.

By Jeff Batt | gargoyle@flagler.edu
Some longtime residents of St. Augustine are being priced out of their homes as affluent homebuyers move in and snatch up prime real estate, says Tracy Upchurch, the former mayor of the town.

The impact of gentrification is particularly noticeable in a neighborhood known as Lincolnville, west of downtown St. Augustine.

“I think Lincolnville is the best example where I think many poor families are being priced out of there as more houses are being renovated or structures are torn down and new structures are erected,” Upchurch said.

“These are primarily single family homes. I don’t think many of them are being rented and so I think that forces the possibility for fewer options for poor people in Lincolnville, but historically again an African-American community was very by and large, very modest housing.”

St. Augustine, touted as the Nation’s Oldest City, was founded by Spanish settlers in 1565. It is part of St. Johns County, which was established in 1821 and takes up approximately 822 square miles of northeastern Florida.

The county is one of the wealthiest in Florida. The average median household income in St. Johns County from 2009-2013 was $64,876, well above the state average of $46,956, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Quality schools have helped draw many new residents to the county.

Tracy Upchurch. Credit: Flagler College.

Tracy Upchurch. Photo: Flagler College.

“Wealthy families demand good education and that demand has been directed at the public schools as opposed to creating private schools as I think it would happen to many communities,” Upchurch said. “The public school system has been the beneficiary of that, but I think it then continues a cycle that people attracted to the county because of the public schools. It has in some sense continued to propel the county forward. Disparity is not only the wealth of the county as a unit, but this variance within the county.”

Upchurch teaches history courses at Flagler College in St. Augustine and is also director of the school’s law program. He grew up in St. Augustine where his father was a prominent lawyer and judge.

Tracy Upchurch learned to swim in Flagler College’s swimming pool.

He later attended law school and became a lawyer himself. He was mayor of St. Augustine from 1990 to 1992.

One of the city’s landmarks is Hotel Ponce de Leon. Industrialist Henry Flagler began building the hotel in 1885 and it opened in 1888.

Flagler tried to turn the city into a resort for the elite, Upchurch said.

“Historically, St. Augustine has been a poor community,” he said. “It has never been a particularly wealthy place. That seems funny when we think of Henry Flagler coming here and building a hotel, but that was really an aberration.”

Some of the county’s less affluent neighborhoods are in Lincolnville and Hastings, which underscore the income gap between the wealthy and the poor.

As a child, Upchurch remembers Lincolnville and other low-income areas as having businesses that were well run, but as the economy changed most of those businesses went bankrupt.

“There were probably a dozen little neighborhood bars,” he said. “I don’t know if any of them exist anymore. They were grandfathered in under the current zoning codes. Once they closed, the right to operating them goes away. You can’t reopen them. It is just another implication of the gentrification of the neighborhood.”

As the economy evolved, the demographics of Lincolnville changed.

“It is not quite the mysterious neighborhood it was decades ago and was predominantly, but not exclusively an African-American community. It’s more gentrified now and I have trouble envisioning it as having a commercial area as it did historically. I think Flagler College has had a lot to do with it. A lot of faculty and students have rented and bought there. I think it has created an economic momentum that has driven in more people to actually purchase renovate and rebuild.”

Lincolnville. Source: Google Maps.

Lincolnville. Source: Google Maps.

The Lincolnville Community Redevelopment Area Steering Committee is trying to reduce gentrification.

The committee was founded in 2013 and is governed by the St. Augustine Community Redevelopment Agency, which is a part of the City Commission and is managed by a separate steering committee. The role of the committee is to address issues in the confines of Lincolnville, gather input from the residents of the neighborhood and eventually make recommendations to the redevelopment agency on what needs to be done to make improvements.

The committee’s main goal is preservation in an area that helps make St. Augustine one of the most historic cities in the nation.

“Lincolnville is home to beautiful Victorian homes and is very vibrant, where people are being priced out of there homes,” said Theresa Segal, head of the committee.

Segal, a Flagler College alum, and her husband moved into Lincolnville after graduation in 1998.

One of her committee’s most recent initiatives is called the Fix it Up Program. The purpose for the program is to give up to $7,000 in housing grants to low income homeowners.

“We want to help preserve the character and culture of the Lincolnville and the people who live here.”

The committee is also trying to restore the neighborhood’s sidewalks and infrastructure. Once the cracked sidewalks have been repaired, Segal says the committee will go on to assess the people’s concern with traffic and parking.

“We would like to bring a light commercial environment back to Lincolnville and with that we need to address traffic and parking in the neighborhood.”

Theresa Segal

Theresa Segal

Segal said Lincolnville has improved over the past two decades.

“When I first moved here, there were drugs and everything and the city did not pay attention to it. It was 70 percent white in 2010 and it has continued to go in that direction. I see less children, as the older generation passes away the kids go elsewhere,” she said.

“The people who typically live here are affluent white people and we can’t do anything about people buying where they want to be.”

Brian Thompson, the director of news and information at Flagler College, has been a resident of Lincolnville for nearly 20 years and is also a member of Lincolnville CRA.

“You’re seeing it change,” he said. “African-American population has dropped dramatically. It shocks me, but now you are seeing more white property owners moving in and for a lot of reasons. The concern for me is when the residents – not if they cannot afford to stay there, but if they are being forced out.”

Lincolnville is part of Census Bureau tract 204. Census figures show that there were 349 homes owned by African-Americans there in 2009. By 2014, that number had dropped to 192.

Segal said the committee continues to listen and find different strategies to help sustain the history and character of the area.

“Our goals are the plan, that’s what we are tasked with. We are rearranging the goals each day.”

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