Here’s How Queer and Trans People of Color Are Resisting Gentrification and Displacement

feature image is of Evana Enabulele

As I walk the streets adorned with rainbow crosswalks in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, I shake my head at the irony of a “gayborhood” where housing is too expensive for queer and trans people of color. Here in Seattle, I watch the endless cycle of gentrification and displacement in communities of color as the practices of unscrupulous tech companies and real estate developers drive up rents to some of the highest in the world. Housing conditions in Seattle are eerily similar to those in Oakland, a place shaped by Black liberation activism that’s rapidly morphing into Google’s playground. Both cities are incubators of QTPOC resistance against gentrification and displacement, a movement which I belong to as a member of a collective called Queer the Land that is working towards purchasing property in the Seattle area to house a community center and a transitional housing cooperative. Recently, I interviewed fellow QTPOC based in Seattle and Oakland who are reclaiming land while taking time to honor the Indigenous people to whom it belongs and the enslaved Black people who labored there. Our conversations led me to reflect on my own narrative of displacement and on how gentrification impacted the LGBTQ+ people of color who came before us.

I define displacement as an act of violence fueled by the spoils of capitalism and colonialism. My ancestors knew this type of violence intimately as captives shipped across the Atlantic from the West Coast of Africa to the Deep South. After cultivating land desecrated by the Trail of Tears as enslaved people and sharecroppers, they never reaped the 40 acres and a mule promised to them and other freedmen at the end of the Civil War. During the Great Migration, some of my family members joined millions of Blacks leaving the South for better economic opportunities up North, which resonates with me as someone who left Atlanta with my partner for the gentler economic climate of Seattle three years ago. Like many other people of color, my family has survived in the face of chronic displacement.

For more than a century, QTPOC have resisted displacement in U.S. cities by unapologetically claiming space for themselves. During the 1920s, Harlem served as a mecca for Black queer creators who sustained themselves via revolutionary art and rowdy rent parties. A Black lesbian named Ruth Ellis opened her Detroit home up on weekends as a safer space for Black queer and trans people in the mid-1900s. Trans women of color activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera operated the STAR House in the 1970s to shelter LGBTQ+ runaways in NYC, using money earned from doing sex work to fund their project. Creativity and resourcefulness have allowed QTPOC to establish sites of safety and resistance within cities that benefit from our cultural contributions and wage labor but neglect our needs as those who are most vulnerable to homelessness and interpersonal and state violence.

When Eri Oura, 31, looks out the window of their home at the 23rd Ave. Community Building in East Oakland, they have a front row seat to what happens when gentrification decimates historically oppressed communities.

“Gentrification in Oakland looks like homeless encampments in every nook and cranny that folks can occupy. There are several encampments near us, including one across the street,” Oura says.

Oura, a third-generation Japanese-American genderqueer person, says gentrification negatively impacts the mental health of many queer and trans people of color in their community. Surviving and meeting basic needs has become a tedious task for many of their peers. According to Causa Justa/Just Cause, a grassroots tenants’ rights group that organizes in the Bay area, Oakland lost almost half of its Black population between 1990 to 2011. It’s the fourth most expensive city in the country for renters and is located across the bay from San Francisco, which is the most expensive rental market in the world. Mirroring Seattle’s housing predicament, corporations, real estate developers, corrupt landlords, tech workers, local government and orchestrated acts of institutional racism in Oakland conspire together to displace people of color from their neighborhoods.

Photo of a group of people, shot from a distance and above, standing outside a building and waving at the camera

In a seller’s market like Oakland, most landlords sell their property to the highest bidder with little regard for their current tenants. So this January when the landlord of the 23rd Ave. Community Building, a people of color-led social justice center where Oura lives and works, told tenants the building would be placed on the market unless they put in a bid by May 1, tenants rallied to raise the necessary funds. Since 2003, the building has been anchored by a queer and trans people of color collective house and garden project called Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL). The building consists of residential units where collective members live and storefronts occupied by people of color-led organizations, including a community bike shop, a martial arts and self-defense studio and a maker/hacker space.

Oura and their fellow tenants created a crowdfunding page to raise the initial costs of acquiring the building, including their deposit, building inspections, assessments, consulting fees and staff time for the low-income QTPOC organizers leading the effort. Their crowdfunding campaign has now surpassed its $75,000 goal (you can still donate here!) and on May 1, the tenants entered a contract for purchase with the building’s owner. The group is working closely with Oakland Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that creates permanently affordable housing, for their financing needs and still figuring what owning the building collectively means for them.

“For us, it’s a long road ahead to figure out what our model will look like and all the things we want it to hold. The hope is to be able to create something that can be replicated,” Oura says.

“The ‘one percent’ are really the only ones to own land generationally, so being able to create a model of reclaiming land in this way feels super powerful.”

Van Dell, 27, is also reclaiming community space for people of color in Oakland and has been struck by the city’s failure to live up to its progressive image.

“Oakland kind of perpetuates an illusion of itself that it’s a kumbaya type of place,” says Dell, a Black and Indigenous queer person who moved from N.C. to do community empowerment and movement resistance work at the Qilombo, a Black-centered community center ran by a collective of Black and Brown folks in West Oakland’s Ghosttown neighborhood.

“The city doesn’t recognize how negligent and dehumanizing they are.”

Being a fellow Black queer living in a city that I’m not from, I can empathize when Dell says Black queers who are native to Oakland experience gentrification in the city in a different, more intense way. I also identify with Dell’s feelings of not really belonging anywhere, a dilemma resulting from grappling with their oppressed identities.

“As a Black and Native queer, I have so many experiences of feeling landlessness, feeling like I don’t have a home,” they said.

Speaking with Dell about their role as Qilombo’s Operations Manager, I got a sense they’re creating a home for themselves there. Qilombo is a rare space in Oakland where poor Black and Brown people can access resources, including free classes and workshops, a “free store,” free meals and a needle exchange. The center is the home of the Afrikatown Community Garden, a liberated plot of land that feeds the surrounding community (including a nearby tent city) and the collective’s first step towards establishing an Afrikatown district in the area. Formerly occupied by a mostly white anarchist group, the center transferred into the hands of revolutionary people of color organizers in 2014 after a series of transformative discussions on how the space could better address the community’s issues.

As Qilombo defends their neighborhood from gentrification and lifts up the self-determination of poor and houseless Black and Brown folks, they also counter threats of being shut down from the city for not being up to code. According to Dell, after a deadly fire on Dec. 2, 2016 at the Ghost Ship, an Oakland warehouse occupied by an artist collective, the city began strategically shutting down DIY and radical spaces. After a surprise fire inspection prompted by an anonymous complaint on Dec. 16, 2016, the city shut the Qilombo down. With support from community, the center is back up and running, but Dell says they’re still being unfairly targeted with baseless complaints.

“Landlords are able to anonymously snitch to the city, and they take advantage of the system,” Dell says.

“The city allows landlords to have ultimate power and does backdoor deals with them. We can do all the right things, but it doesn’t matter if the city’s not on our side.”

Qilombo’s landlord stands to gain if they’re able to shut the center down and move in wealthier tenants willing to pay higher rent. Despite the omnipresent threat of being pushed out of their space, Qilombo’s radical community work shows no signs of slowing down. When describing the future of the collective, Dell sounds more determined than ever in fulfilling their mission of reclaiming space for poor Black and Brown people.

“We’re going to continue being a living example of what relentless resistance looks like.”

Two photos, one of an outdoor mural featuring a smiling face and the words "We have the right to thrive... there are no throw away people!" and one photo of a community garden

Resisting gentrification and displacement can be exhausting, thankless work. As a Black queer woman, Evana Enabulele, 23, is tired of explaining the struggles of Blacks to white people in Seattle over and over again. One of these people is serial gentrifier Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s, a marijuana dispensary that sits at 23rd & Union, an intersection where Black people have long been arrested for selling marijuana illegally. To add insult to injury, the dispensary is located in the Central District, a historically Black neighborhood that is now majority-white. It used to be one of the only places Black people in Seattle could live due to racist covenants restricting them from moving into white neighborhoods.

“When I moved to Seattle 10 years ago, the Central District was full of Black people, and they all looked happy as hell. Now I go there, and it’s nothing but white people,” Enabulele says.

As a member of Seattle Black Book Club, a Black-led community organizing group focused on “the plight of the Black community to alleviate racial oppression,” Enabulele helped launch a direct action campaign to boycott Uncle Ike’s during the summer of 2015.

“Uncle Ike’s should have never been built. It’s illegal for them to be there,” Enabulele laments, alluding to the business being built next to a Black church and teen center in spite of a Wa. state law prohibiting dispensaries from being built within 1,000 feet of venues where children congregate.

Although Eisenberg has yet to concede to any of the group’s demands, which include investing in community-controlled low-income housing and legal defense for local people of color with drug cases, SBBC’s boycott campaign creates a powerful narrative around who wins and who loses in gentrifying neighborhoods. Within the past few months, the group has defended two Black institutions in the Central District by occupying space as part of an emerging coalition called Displacement Stops Here. SBBC is also engaged in ongoing campaigns to block the city from constructing a new $160 million police bunker in North Seattle and to stop King County from building a new $210 million youth jail in the Central District. These campaigns are publicly pressuring both the city and county to reallocate funding for the prison industrial complex to support social services and community-led alternatives to youth incarceration instead.

Being immersed in anti-gentrification and prison abolition work comes with emotional, mental and physical costs for Enabulele. She says she’s often put in the position of performing unpaid and undervalued labor for not only white people, but also cisgender, heterosexual Black men who perpetuate toxic masculinity and queerphobia. The toil of organizing against oppressive institutions puts stress on her body and makes her feel hopeless at times. In addition to organizing with SBBC, Enabulele works full-time for the city, with most of her income going towards renting a one-bedroom apartment, utilities, internet and other bills. Nice meals and vacations are not a part of her self-care routine because she can’t afford them.

Despite the uphill battle of fighting gentrification while being gentrified, Enabulele says seeing Black youth being able to stay in their neighborhoods keeps her in the struggle. She hopes to see Uncle Ike’s eventually leave the Central District and for those most impacted by gentrification to be at decision-making tables about the issue.

She believes that ultimately, for things to change, people must change.

“I want people to learn empathy.”

I agree that empathy is necessary for privileged folks to understand how their commodification of housing devastates communities on the margins. Would those who laud the “positive effects” of gentrification be moved by the stories of Marsha and Sylvia of STAR House and the sacrifices they made to keep a roof over the heads of queer and trans youth? Regardless, I know we can’t wait for people in power to recognize our struggle for housing and that what we need to defeat gentrification and displacement already exists in our communities. Listening to the stories of visionary QTPOC engaged in transformative anti-gentrification work gave me hope that we will win. My dream of one day claiming the land promised to my ancestors is worth fighting for.


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Neesha is a writer and community organizer currently based just south of Seattle and originally from coastal Georgia. Their interests include womanist literature, lowbrow reality TV, planning vacations around food and catering to their cat, Seven. Tweet with Neesha @womanistbae.

Denechia has written 5 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article. I’ve been struggling with these concepts of gentrification and how as a society we turn all these things that are necessary for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into commodities, that then allows us to ignore the effects when they hit the open market in pursuit of profits above-all-else.

    I can only try to imagine the feeling of having no home or roots due to consistently being forced out as communities gentrify. It’s nuts in Seattle right now.

    Also an interesting discussion of the affront that is Uncle Ike’s, and the pressure to create a situation where it contributes more to the community it is in. The argument that its location is illegal due to a “teen center” that hasn’t actually served teens in decades is probably a non-starter. Locally, most folks think the black church was motivated to protest due to losing their overflow parking once commercial development occurred in that location, versus any social causes, but this article did give me a perspective on why there is anger in the community (apart from the church right there, which may be stronger now after the unifying cause, but didn’t always seem that way when the debate started).

  2. So much great information here, and links I’ve already started following up on. I’m moving to the Bay area soon, so I’m glad to know what’s going on, who to support, and how to do it!

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful and in-depth analysis. I appreciate your work and your activism. I especially am grateful to read this as a white resident of Seattle. I have shown up for Block the Bunker and the No New Youth Jail movement, but I hadn’t heard of QTL, so thank you very much for sharing this. As Seattle transforms and gets more and more expensive because of gentrifiers and corporations like Amazon taking over the city, it’s so important to hear about and support the Black and queer activists taking a stand.

  4. i’ve just moved back to vancouver after years away, and there is a big fight to keep chinatown from being gentrified more than it already has been. i remember a friend blaming white hipsters for renting apartments there and changing the neighbourhood, which is a difficult tack since anyone with a low income will be looking for a cheap apartment where they can get one. the youth collaborative for chinatown had more actionable tips for people who don’t necessarily have a high income but who don’t want to contribute to the gentrification of the neighbourhood, which was to boycott the commercial venues that had opened in the area that had pushed chinese family businesses out. i thought it was a great suggestion: go to the chinese businesses, avoid the cafes with the sans serif fonts, and discourage queer organizers from planning their events at the new dance spaces there. and also listen to what the people of chinatown are saying and support their lobbying efforts.

  5. I’m only familiar with how this is playing out in the city I live in (Vancouver too) so I’m thankful to be educated and hear about what’s happening in some (nearby!) American cities. Hope to hear more from you Neesha on Autostraddle!

  6. One thing I feel like I hear a lot from those around me is this sort of idea that we don’t have a “right” to disrupt what they see as other people (i.e. developers) having a livelihood. Articles like this help me better articulate why we should care and help me have my own conversations to educate others. So thank you so much!

  7. Thank you for this article. My partner and I have the extreme privilege and opportunity to buy a house (well, she does, I have the privilege of being her partner and able to give her rent money), and how we play into and can push against gentrification as white people has weighed on my mind. Who are we buying from? Are we displacing anyone or taking an opportunity away? Are we subconsciously self segregating ourselves by avoiding affordable neighborhoods that are primarily poc owned, or avoiding gentrifying? Can we ensure our own safety as queer, trans people in a politicaly enraged southern state without endangering those less advantaged than us?? How do we use our powers for good while not getting kicked out of our house by any home owners association or putting our visiting friends at risk? It’s a lot to think about.

  8. Thank you for this article. So, where will the lgbtq poc move to? Another state where the laws protecting may not be as good as California, or will they move to a smaller city, where lgbtq resources isn’t as close as it is in larger California cities?

  9. The tech industry has done more to alienate themselves and their workers from any sort of real idea of city living. They are the worse kind of business people. The kind that doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. In the old days businesses located to business parks on the outskirts of town. That way the towns and cities still functioned normally. Sure prices in the suburbs went up but that was to be expected. The city is the last bastion of culture and good ideas left in the world. Here is the weirdest part of all it. They are locating to high tax high property value areas. I think they are doing it to tell the old money that they are better then they are. Old money gave libraries and performance halls in the cities. New Money buys up the property in the city and kicks everyone but their employees out.

    • I think your sense of urban history is skewed. When businesses located in suburban office parks, that was white flight and that also hurt cities terribly, by decimating the tax base, which led to declining services. It also led to suburban growth, which is an environmental disaster, and also, that’s the mindset that breeds Trump voters. It lessened demand for public transit. It created inaccessible cities where rich folks segregated themselves. Etc. etc. etc. The growth of suburbs is actually a disaster for a lot of progressive causes.

      Businesses and wealthy workers being located in cities certainly brings other problems. But businesses moving to the suburbs was too. We need to find intra-urban solutions.

      IMHO, a big solution would be zoning. There’s not enough housing because there’s not enough housing. If land-owning San Franciscans who control voting there would get off their high horses about making sure SF looks a certain way, developers could build up SF to actually be able to accommodate enough people. With strong affordable housing requirements to make sure people can be there.

  10. I am disappointed by the Seattle-based reporting in this article. Please research the campaign against Ian Eisenberg, whose Jewish family has deep roots in the Central District and is hardly a significant force for gentrification. It’s rooted in antisemitism, and antisemitic language has come out explicitly at a number of protests of Uncle Ike’s (calling Eisenberg a member of the IDF, telling him to go back to Nazi Germany). Displacement in the Central District and Black communities in Seattle is an extremely important issue, but it doesn’t need to take antisemitic forms. This is an ongoing failure of intersectionality.

    • Yes yes thank you! There is a lot of anti-Semitism in the conversation around Uncle Ike’s, and, I’d argue, the choice to focus on that one business so particularly.

      Even if the author is not Here for That, it was disappointing not to see the complexity and intersectionality of this issue mentioned.

  11. Sometimes I worry that our movements have gotten dangerously far from understanding the personal as political& this article reminds me of that. It is not just the work we do that tears down systems of injustice, it is the choices we make in how to participate in system of oppression. To me this article highlighted many folx who have the privilege of relocation with little or no regard for the impact of that choice. As someone born& raised in Oakland, it feels harmful that no one interviewed seemed to be born& raised in the city they live in. It feels different that I’m fighting to keep my family together, especially as my parents age. Our choices have impact& I’m not saying qtpoc shouldn’t move to Oakland& Seattle, but it hears hard to hear about work being done without much acknowledgement of the role they are playing in displacement with thier choices.

  12. Thanks for writing this. I was excited to hear about people doing constructive things in Seattle that I wasn’t aware of, and disappointed to read the same old thing about Uncle Ike’s. I don’t want to police the choices of the PoC working on that issue, but it’s not where I choose to put my energy. Very interested in Queer the Land and I’d love to read a whole article about what you’re working on in that group. Closing Uncle Ike’s won’t get us affordable housing. I lived near there for eight years and the area around 23rd and Union was already very white and gentrified when I moved there in 2005.

    Also I wish we used more nuanced terminology when we talk about tech workers displacing “people of color.” The tech workforce at large companies in Seattle is much less white than the city is in general. If you mean “displacing black, latinx, and indigenous people,” then say that. Recognizing the places the tech industry is not all white brogrammers helps us make common cause between tech workers and other communities. For example, there are a huge number of immigrants in tech, and I think there’s a huge corresponding opportunity for solidarity on immigration issues between tech workers and immigrants who are poor and/or undocumented. Tech workers of color from Asia and Africa have been harassed and detained at airports, and I see both fear and a contradictory “it won’t happen to me” model-minority denial from various immigrant coworkers of mine.

  13. Another possibility for positive impact is the very unsexy area of zoning. As this article points out, the issue is economic. Rich people and poor people are competing for limited housing stock, and the rich people are going to win most of the time. Even despite the efforts of the activists described here, whose victories mostly take the form of buying some property here and there. That’s certainly noble! But not enough to compete against the crushing impersonal sweep of economics in a capitalist society.

    So, what could a solution be? More housing stock! Gobs and gobs and gobs more. Oakland is gentrifying because people literally can’t find places to live in SF. And why not? Because zoning regulations limit the number of high-density apartment buildings. People who live–and therefore vote, and therefore control the zoning strategy–in SF are committed to having their city look a certain way, with lots of two-story homes.

    Yes, it would mean changing the “feel” of SF, but it would mean people could live. And a really good zoning strategy could mitigate the worst, requiring new buildings to have a certain look, to be in certain neighborhoods (like the ones tech bros have already ruined), etc. A key part of this strategy would be airtight affordable-housing requirements, so that not all of this new stock would go right to rich people.

    I understand why people might be reluctant to pursue this strategy. It requires faith that a good zoning strategy can be implemented, and the combination of special interests and bureaucracy can be tough. But economics is such a powerful force that IMHO this is the only way to make a sustained, holistic, community-wide change in the pace of gentrification, instead of scattered victories here and there.

    • Re-reading, I see this came off preachier than intended.

      First, I think activists are doing amazing work and I commend y’all; I’m just an economic pessimist.

      Second, the reason I can get preachy on this topic is that I work for a government agency, and we are required to hold a lot of open meetings about proposed regulations, and hardly anyone ever shows up–even on really hot topics that lots of people care about. I’ve long thought that if a large and determined group came to these meetings, again and again, they could really make an impact.

      Thanks for doing the work, and if you ever wanna crash a zoning board meeting with me, holla ☺️

  14. I don’t quite understand how gentrification is an “act of violence.” People can always move somewhere cheaper to live, and south Seattle and lower King County are far more affordable than Capitol Hill. I grew up in seattle, and Amazon has turned South Lake Union, which used to be super sketchy, into a much nicer place.

    Why is it a problem if housing is a commodity? A functional free market ensures that economic surplus is maximized.

    Before Capitol Hill was a gayborhood, it was mostly well-off white area that actually signed an informal agreement to not lease to non-whites. Now, because of time and change, it is the awesome place it is now. Why stifle change? Oakland too used to be a white affluent area before WWII before white flight; should we privilege those who were there then over the people there now?

    The author said she and her partner moved to Seattle from Atlanta; isn’t she partaking in the gentrification too?

    All I’m saying is that newcomers are welcome here!

    • Camp brain and work catch-up is keeping me from writing everything I want to say about your comment, but “people can always find a cheaper place to live” is a false statement, and wayyyy antithetical to your closing statement, “all are welcome here.”

    • Wow, this is a very tone deaf comment.

      Gentrification is exactly an act of violence. Displacement is an act of violence that impacts every part of a person’s mind, body and spirit. I feel this author nailed something down about this experience in calling it an act of violence that I have never been able to put my finger on.
      ALSO, MOVING IS SO SO EXPENSIVE. It is awfully naive of you to suggest that anyone can just move anywhere whenever they want to. Then there are school and work commutes to consider.

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