One of Charlotte's biggest housing stories this year has been the effort to find homes for hundreds of displaced residents at Lake Arbor apartments in west Charlotte.
About half the tenants have left or been evicted since the owners announced plans to shut down and renovate the complex by the end of the year. Some have found housing, but for others, the search continues.
Jasmine Johnson is one of the lucky ones. With the help of two nonoprofits, she and her mother and 2-year-old son moved into a rented house off LaSalle Street in west Charlotte on Nov. 1.
"Here's my mother's room," she said as she gave a reporter a tour. "And as a matter of fact we didn't even have to worry about furniture. They actually had a church came in and furnished the whole place for us."
Johnson's troubles at Lake Arbor began two summers ago when she and her mother began battling their landlord over needed repairs. They joined other residents in complaining about health and safety violations at the run-down apartments off Tuckaseegee Road.
"We had water bugs. We had mold all in our apartment, mildew. Well, the air kept going out. The apartment used to get up to like 90 to 100 degrees in there," Johnson said. "We were complaining about it to the office. They didn't seem to care. They didn't care."
Then, in July, they were ordered out. Johnson said sheriff's deputies padlocked the doors. The management company said they owed $2,000 — money they didn't have.
"From July the 15th, me and my family was pretty much homeless," she said. "We was going from place to — motel to motel. It was times we didn't have the funds to pay for the motel. Me and my son were standing outside in a heat with all our clothes and all that stuff."
Community Link helped Johnson and her family stay in a hotel temporarily, then referred her to Supportive Housing Communities, which helped find the rental house.
Lake Arbor's New York-based owners notified residents of all 177 occupied units in July that they had to leave by year's end — and some sooner. Residents have been leaving weekly, some voluntarily and others by eviction. Local housing advocates say it's the biggest mass displacement of low-income renters they can recall in Charlotte.
The Charlotte lawyer for Lake Arbor's owners did not respond to requests for comment last week.
About a dozen local nonprofit agencies have stepped in to help, including the United Way, Crisis Assistance Ministry and Community Link. They raised $268,000 to help tenants with rent, security deposits and other moving expenses. They've assessed families' needs and helped them find new housing. And they've made some progress, said United Way CEO Laura Clark.
"We have seen about half of the families, of the households, find a new housing situation," Clark said. "We have about 75 units still out there with people living in them."
So far, they've spent about $175,000 of the $268,000 raised, Clark said. The remaining residents have until Dec. 31 to find housing or face eviction. With affordable housing in Charlotte dwindling because of redevelopment and rising rents, that won't be an easy task, Clark said.
"I would say this is the face of the affordable housing crisis," Clark said. "These are folks that, for the most part, are very low income. And it is exceptionally difficult to find housing for these families.
"And I think for all the good work that has been accomplished to address the affordable housing crisis — and there certainly has been a lot, especially in this last year or so — we cannot build it as fast as we're losing it."
Moving Out Of Mecklenburg?
Charlotte's affordable housing shortage means some displaced families may not be able to stay in the city, Clark said.
"We have heard of cases where folks are moving out of the county," Clark said. "We have people who we have found apartments for, and we have people in motels right now... I think it is likely we are going to end up with households that we have to make referrals to shelters.
"I think it's going to be very difficult in this time frame to find suitable housing, permanent housing arrangements for everybody who's still living there."
But sending residents to surrounding counties for cheaper housing creates a whole other set of stresses because Charlotte lacks a good regional public transportation system, said Floyd Davis, CEO of Community Link.
"Most of them have jobs," Davis said. "Those jobs are here in Mecklenburg County, here in the city of Charlotte. And if they're living in Gastonia, or if they're living in Kannapolis or Concord or down in Union County, the issue for them then is how do I get back and forth to work? You know, how do I get my kids to the schools?"
Maintaining a car for a daily commute is expensive, he added, and there's another issue: What happens if your child has a crisis at a school 30 miles away?
Thankful, But More Need Housing
For Jasmine Johnson's family, a feeling of stability has replaced the uncertainty of all the moving around this summer and fall. Jasmine's mother, Sherri, is a restaurant manager and the family's bread-winner. She's paying about 30% of their $1,000 monthly rent. A rent subsidy pays the other 70% for now. Eventually, they'll need to figure out how to pay the whole thing.
Johnson said it's a lot nicer than what the family had at Lake Arbor.
"Oh, yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir," Johnson said. "All I can say is thank you, God. 'Cause if you would've told me three, four months ago that me and my mom and my child will be off the streets and in a nice home and paid for, and all that I would've probably said, 'Shut your mouth.'"
Johnson planned to host Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of her family. And while she's thankful, she's also hoping for a similar outcome for her grandmother, and an aunt and her two kids. They still live at Lake Arbor but haven't found housing yet.
More Lake Arbors To Come?
The situation at Lake Arbor has been a tough one for these families, and it's no longer that unusual.
As housing and land prices go up, investors are buying up old apartment complexes like Lake Arbor and renovating or redeveloping them with much higher rents.
"I can't recall anything in recent years quite on this scale, said the United Way's Laura Clark. "We had an apartment complex on Monroe Road some number of years ago that there was a displacement. That landlord worked very closely with a lot of our agency partners to rehouse people. Since then, I'm not aware of anything that's been quite like this. I will say I don't think this is going to be the last time it happens."
That's an ominous prediction, and one that other Charlotte-area experts share.
At WFAE's recent public conversation on affordable housing, residents of Brookhill Village off South Tryon Street talked about the threat they're facing. There's a redevelopment proposal in the works for the complex, which could take another 200 units off the market.
Another displacement in the works is Melrose Place, an apartment block at Woodlawn and Park roads. It sold last spring and is expected to be torn down.
How Will Community Respond?
Agencies like the United Way, Crisis Assistance Ministry and Community Link have come together with the city to respond to Lake Arbor. Will this become a permanent thing?
Experts think some kind of standing response is needed as developers take away more and more existing affordable housing. Clark said she thinks the coalition that's helping Lake Arbor tenants is probably a template for future responses. She likened it to responding to a flood or another natural disaster.
Apryl Lewis is a tenant organizer at Action NC. She thinks the city needs a permanent response for all the displacements that are coming.
"A plan needs to be in place like these residents need to have somewhere at least temporary to be able to go or provided enough time to be able to relocate on their own," Lewis said. "But they're not actually equipped for this because this is something the city does not plan for."
The United Way could continue to coordinate these responses when they crop up, Clark said. But there are a lot of questions: Where will the money come from and where will we find housing people can afford?
CORRECTION: This story has been update to correct that Jasmine Johnson got help from both Community Link and Supportive Housing Communities during her search for housing.