Despite announcements of new projects this year, affordable housing remains in short supply in Charlotte as the city loses existing units to redevelopment. The housing squeeze got even tighter two weeks ago when owners of the run-down Lake Arbor Apartments on Charlotte's west side announced they're shutting it down for renovations and kicking out tenants.
The owners' lawyer says they hope the move will ease financial pressures from fines and lawsuits over building code violations.
Doris Deese has lived at Lake Arbor for four years and pays $780 per month. She likes the location because it's on Tuckaseegee Road on a city bus line, and she can walk to the Food Lion grocery nearby. Now that she has to leave, Deese isn't sure where she'll go.
"I've been looking, but that's a problem with us that can't afford the apartments. Some with health, and some older people. They can't, um, don't make that much income," Deese said, standing on a street corner near her apartment. "Me, I've been praying about it, sayin' help me, help us get out of these apartments."
Lake Arbor's owners told tenants in a letter July 30 they have to be out by the end of the year. The shutdown affects 177 of Lake Arbor's 288 units — the rest are vacant. Residents in about 78 units have been told to move out sooner — by the end of August — because their leases are expired.
Searching In A Tight Market
It's one of Charlotte's largest tenant displacements in recent years. Crisis Assistance Ministry, the Salvation Army and other social service agencies are helping Lake Arbor tenants look for new housing.
"What we're trying to do here is to assess these families so that we can help ensure that they remain housed and don't end up in a shelter or considered homeless," said Liana Humphrey, a spokeswoman for Crisis Assistance.
Humphrey said losing 177 units all at once makes the hunt for new housing all the more difficult.
"For this community, that's a lot of families that will have to find housing at a price point where housing is difficult to find," she said.
Lake Arbor's tenants pay between $500 and $900 a month, according to the owners. That's well below the citywide average (in various surveys) of more than $1,100.
Looking Beyond Mecklenburg?
Rising prices for housing have led to a big deficit in the number of available affordable units in Charlotte. Now-obsolete studies have put the number at 24,000 to 34,000 units. But city officials have said recently they aren't sure what the number is, and admit it's growing as more units are lost. About one-third of Charlotte households are now considered housing cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their incomes on housing.
Jessica Moreno, a community organizer with Action NC, also has been working with Lake Arbor residents. She said they're scared because they don't know where they're going to find anything comparable.
Moreno thinks many will have to move out of Mecklenburg County — and she speaks from experience. The Matthews mobile home park where she lived closed last December to make way for high-end apartments, forcing her and other tenants to relocate.
"I had to. I'm in Gastonia. So I'm assuming a lot of people [at Lake Arbor] are going to have to," Moreno said. "... If we couldn't find housing that was affordable, imagine all the residents here."
Moreno says her experience of displacement prompted her to become an organizer, to help other tenants.
In Need Of Repair
Lake Arbor was built in 1974 and is now owned by two limited liability companies — Lake Arbor 80M TIC and Lake Arbor Dean TIC — both affiliated with Read Property Group of Brooklyn, New York. The investors bought the property in November 2014 and have struggled to keep it in good repair.
Tomeka Barnes has lived here for six years and said she has complained about mold, roof leaks and other problems.
"This place is ridiculous. When I tell you it's ridiculous, you got raccoons running around here, water bugs coming in my house. I got health problems. It's mold in my ceiling. When it rains, my roof is leaking," Barnes said.
"They won't do nothing about it. I done told them a thousand times. I done called code enforcement, code enforcement won't do nothing. And I'm just ready to go. I'm ready to move. I've been ready to move."
The big question is where. Barnes said she and her husband live on her $700-a-month disability payments and his job, which pays $11 an hour. They pay a little over $700 a month in rent. It's been hard finding anything in Charlotte at that level, she said.
"Some of the apartments they want 8(00)-something, some of 'em want 7(00)-something. Some of 'em (are) doing waiting lists. Some of 'em you have make twice the rent and all of that. I don't want to sit back and be waiting on no waiting list. I want something, like ASAP," she said.
Troubles Prompt Order To Vacate
The Charlotte lawyer for Lake Arbor's owners, Erik Rosenwood, said they decided to push people out after a year of legal troubles.
A sweep by city housing inspectors last fall found dozens of violations and the city began assessing daily fines — now totaling several hundred thousand dollars and still accruing, Rosenwood said.
And then there are the lawsuits — some from individual tenants and, in June, a class-action suit on behalf of more than 100 tenants, filed by the N.C. Justice Center, Charlotte for Legal Advocacy and other advocates.
That all added up, said Rosenwood.
"It's sort of like a snowball rolling downhill. We've continued to accumulate problems as we move forward. Not only the class-action lawsuit but several lawsuits by Legal Aid. And so, again, it just every step of the way it was getting more and more complicated to continue to operate it as a going concern," he said.
Rosenwood said they hope by doing the construction without tenants, they'll get a reprieve from daily fines.
"One of the considerations is that when you go in and you close the property down and you turn it into a construction site, not only will we be finished faster, but there's some circumstances under which the fines stop accruing," he said.
Incentives To Leave
But first, Lake Arbor has to get tenants out. In that July 30 letter, Lake Arbor offered tenants an incentive package if they clean out their apartments and leave quickly. That includes cancelation of past-due rent and immediate return of security deposits — instead of waiting 30 days as allowed by state law. But residents also must sign a legal release, Rosenwood said.
"What we're offering people is an incentive package which is sort of a, you know, let's part ways amicably. And so it's just a broad general release," he said.
But legal advocates are warning tenants to talk to a lawyer before accepting the deal and signing anything. They could be giving up their rights, said Jack Holzman, a lawyer with North Carolina Justice Center.
"I have not seen the release, so I don't know specifically what is being asked for. But like I said, there are various rights under North Carolina law. A release could have tenants agree not to sue Lake Arbor for any past conduct. You know, that certainly would be a waiving of their rights in that regard," Holtzman said.
Action NC organized a community meeting this past Saturday with legal advocates so residents could ask questions about the incentives and any strings attached.
A Year Of Work
Lake Arbor's owners expect to spend at least $2 million on renovations, according to Rosenwood. They hope to finish by late next spring or early summer and reopen — with higher rents.
Action NC organizer Jessica Moreno says that means current tenants are unlikely to return.
"Once they fix the property, they're gonna raise the rents. The same people that can afford to live here now won't be able to afford it after they raise the rents," Moreno said.
But at least some tenants could be invited back. Rosenwood said the owners are considering offering below-market rents to make it possible.
"Anyone who had a good history with Lake Arbor in the past would be invited to reapply as a tenant going forward and someone who has a consistent and long payment history, that's somebody we value and we'd like to have back," he said. "And so I think there's going to be a consideration offered in terms of possibly below-market rent for those." people.
Lake Arbor's owners have a long way to go. That end-of-year deadline to have all tenants out is a goal, and they may not make it. Rosenwood said about 18 tenants have leases that expire in 2020, and they'll have the right to stay.
"Once we can get the property completely emptied then it would turn into a construction site only, until it was completely renovated. Then all inspections would be conducted. And once we had the entire property passed, then we could reopen without fear of continuing to generate lawsuits, complaints, bad press, all this other stuff," Rosenwood said.
And as for those lawsuits, they're still pending. Lake Arbor has moved the class-action suit from state court to federal court. Tenants are now weighing whether to oppose that, or let their fight go forward in federal court, said Holtzman, who is representing the tenants.