Finding Home: Proximity To Uptown Brings Changes To West End Neighborhoods
Growth and development have brought an affordable housing shortage in Charlotte. You can see it in neighborhoods all over the city, especially those closest to uptown. In WFAE's series Finding Home, we're examining those challenges every Monday in 2019.
On this edition of Finding Home, we visit Charlotte's West End neighborhoods of Seversville, Biddleville and Smallwood — where new construction and renovations have pushed up housing prices, and where residents are still waiting for a grocery store and other services.
City council member Justin Harlow and his wife moved to Charlotte four and a half years ago after he finished dental school and she finished law school. He asked real estate agents where all the dentists and lawyers lived — and they pointed him to suburbs like Southpark, Huntersville, Mint Hill and Ballantyne. But they really wanted to be near uptown, where prices were sky high.
“We kept coming back to the West End, the Five Points area,” Harlow said. “And there are all these kind of cool craftsman homes [and] bungalows. Some were kind of refurbished remodels, and some were new builds that looked like the fit and the character — but they're brand new homes.”
They bought one of those new houses in Seversville - just over a mile from uptown.
Seversville is one of several neighborhoods in what Harlow calls the Historic West End, near Johnson C. Smith University. It’s bounded roughly by Martin Luther King Jr. and Seversville parks on the west, and Beatties Ford Road and Trade Street on the east. Tuckaseegee and Rozelles Ferry roads run through it.
Seversville was built in the 1920s as a white mill village. Biddleville/Smallwood began in the 1930s as a mostly black neighborhood for university faculty. White families later left for the suburbs, and blacks moved in — including some displaced by urban renewal downtown. So until recently, the West End has been largely African-American, filled mostly with older single-family homes. But over the past decade, that's been changing.
The sounds of construction now fill the air on many streets in the West End and the neighborhood is becoming more diverse, Harlow said.
“You've got, you know, white professionals moving in,” he said. “Now, there are also black professionals moving in — my wife and I included. And so some might call me a black gentrifier. And I'll embrace that. That's fine.”
NEWCOMERS BRING CHANGE
From 2000 to 2016, these neighborhoods have gone from 93 percent black to 56 percent black, according to U.S. Census data. Harlow said the area's changing income and racial profile is a challenge for longtime residents. It's a topic he said comes up at neighborhood meetings these days.
“Every conversation is about inclusivity and making sure that this is not an overrun of new neighbors coming to take over something,” he said.
That's something Dorothy Counts-Scoggins worries about. She's a longtime resident, best known as the first black student to integrate Harding High School in 1957. She grew up around Johnson C. Smith University, moved away, and then returned in 2002. She wants new residents to acknowledge the area's legacy and history.
“I know it can't stay the way it was when I was a child,” Counts-Scoggins said. “But at the same token, I want us to make sure that it's not forgotten."
"Instead of trying to erase the history, embrace the history and add on to the history,” she added.
Since 2002, Counts-Scoggins has lived in a restored 1930s house a few blocks from Johnson C. Smith. She would like to see more new residents at neighborhood events.
“Well I go to these things, but I don't see a lot of the white families come out," Counts-Scoggins said. "And that's how they're going to learn about history. That's how they're going to get involved."
RISING HOUSING PRICES
The influx of wealthier white and black homebuyers has pushed up housing prices for at least a decade now. Existing residents once scoffed at the idea of building more affordable housing in the area. As they saw it, there already was plenty, said neighborhood leader J'Tanya Adams.
“When they asked us then did we want affordable housing, the community said no,” Adams said. “We had no idea that overnight — through wholesale mechanisms — all of these vacant lots and properties, would be purchased and turned into $450,000 - $500,000 houses. You just would never have imagined it.”
A decade ago, you could buy a house here for under $100,000, said Adams. Now, tiny older homes and even vacant lots can cost double that. And the number of small, older homes is shrinking as they become targets for buyers who plan to tear them down and build bigger houses. That threatens the area's income and racial diversity, Adams said.
As we drove through Seversville last week, Adams stopped in front of a 10-unit apartment complex under renovation, where she expects monthly rents to skyrocket after the work.
“Whether they're going to remain affordable, I don't know,” Adams said. “But I can almost assure you more than likely these units are $800 (a month) or so. They're no longer $400, $500 and $300 (a month).”
Adams also pointed out several newer Habitat for Humanity Homes as well as subsidized apartments, which fill some of the need for low-cost housing. But more is needed, she said.
One idea she’s talking up these days is the West Side Community Land Trust. It’s a nonprofit still in the early stages, which could help maintain affordability on the West Side by owning and leasing land to people who build or buy houses built on it. They’d own their homes, but be required to sell them back to the trust at a below-market price.
There's another upside to all the new development: Crime is down. The non-violent crime rate fell from 53 incidents per 1,000 residents in 2011 to 46 per 1,000 in 2017, according to city data.
Adams recalled when she built her house here 11 years ago, drug dealers ruled the street behind hers. She was afraid to drive there.
“This was where you heard gunshots all night,” she said. “This is where people could not pass through the street because of open-air drug markets."
WANTED: FOOD AND OTHER SERVICES
Now, landlords are investing again and the neighborhood is attracting newcomers. But commercial development is still lagging. The neighborhood once had Harris Teeter and A&P grocery stores. But today, there’s no grocery store and few other neighborhood services — like coffee shops, restaurants or convenience stores.
Adams said the problem is that businesses look at what the neighborhood once was, not what it is now.
“So more than anything, I think what we need to do is inspire others to come and invest, because you have the residents here that have the desire, have the need and have the income,” she said.
Adams and other leaders believe most of the area’s commercial needs eventually will be met with development near the Johnson C. Smith University, along West Trade Street. But the road is torn up right now for construction of the Gold Line streetcar, and only a few businesses remain. When the streetcar starts running, neighborhood leaders expect it to bring more customers to the area and fuel business growth.
HOPE FOR AN OLD MILL
Inside these neighborhoods, there's not a lot of commercial property. The big exception is the century-old Savona Mill in Seversville. Developer Greg Pappanastos is seeking a rezoning to allow a mixed-use retail, office and housing development on the 30-acre site on South Turner Avenue.
“As a real estate professional, you like to do projects in neighborhoods that are on the uptick,” he said.
The first tenant 2 1/2 years ago was Blue Blaze Brewing. Its brewery and taproom are at the south end of the old mill complex opposite the Stewart Creek Greenway trailhead.
Running through the park and alongside the old mill is an old rail line where Pappanastos hopes one day to revive the Lakewood Trolley. That project would use the historic Car No. 85 that ran as a tourist trolley in Charlotte’s South End before the Blue Line opened. The trolley line would connect Seversville and uptown.
Blue Blaze co-founder and managing partner Craig Nunn liked the location and the old warehouse space.
“What we were after and what the community desired, was a community place that people could gather. You feel welcome, open arms, you could bring your kids and your families,” Nunn said.
Today, Blue Blaze not only produces beer on the site for shops and restaurants around the region but also has a loyal clientele from in and beyond the neighborhood. Blue Blaze hosts food truck nights and community events. In February, they’ll host weekly fundraisers for five neighborhood associations (Seversville, Biddleville-Smallwood, Wesley Heights, Enderly Park and Lakewood).
New tenants coming to the Savona Mill complex this year are vegan cafe and catering business Viva Raw, a company that makes metal and wood furniture and an event space that will be open during the NBA All-Star Week in February.
But Pappanastos said it could be years before the mill project is completely built out.
“There are certainly things that we're going to do on the site that I think are going to contribute to the neighborhood from an essential standpoint," Pappanastos said. "What we hope to do is create a destination that will be worthy for all Charlotteans, not just the folks in the neighborhood."
City officials share that vision. Council member Justin Harlow said the city is in the midst of a $20 million project to revitalize the neighborhood, including new sidewalks, lighting and other street improvements. The idea, he said, is "to make it feel like an extension of Uptown."