Finding Home: To Prevent Squalid Housing, Charlotte Looks To Strengthen Code

Jun 10, 2019

Today, the Lake Arbor Apartments off Tuckaseegee Road are getting help.

After residents complained about broken air conditioners, faulty wiring, bugs, rats and mold, the city repeatedly fined the property owner.  Now the property owner is trying to get all apartments in the 296-unit complex up to code.

Jason Gibbons, who is working on the complex, said he has about 30 more units to renovate. He said some apartments were in poor condition.

"How you see it now with trash everywhere in here, man. Just like it is now. When people move out, they just leave all of their stuff here...," he said. "We have to hang up the doors in Lake Arbor apartments to try to prepare to get re-ready for people to move back in. We got a lot of work to be done."

After the problems at Lake Arbor, the city of Charlotte is looking to strengthen its Minimum Housing Code Ordinance for the first time since 2005.

Council member Larken Egleston said Lake Arbor made council members realize the city needs stronger rules to force property owners to make repairs.

"As we looked at Lake Arbor, that's when I think everyone realized that mold and mildew and things like that are not things that we have as much of a say on enforcing as maybe the public would have expected," he said.

One proposed change to the code is to prevent mold.

For example, if there is a stain on the ceiling, the proposed code would require the property owner to show that the cause of the water damage has been fixed - not just the stain.

There would also be a mandatory inspection of all apartments in a complex if a certain number of units have problems.

Lake Arbor apartments
Credit Steve Harrison / WFAE

Part of the city's new strategy for affordable housing is to preserve older complexes from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Lake Arbor, where rents are about $900 a month. In Charlotte, where the average rent is approaching $1,200, Lake Arbor is seen as a critical part of the city's affordable housing supply.

Pam Wideman, Charlotte's housing director, says the city must strike a balance between affordability and livability.

"My concern is that we hear from all members of the community who have a stake in this, folks like the real estate industry," she said. "And that's really important because we know that our largest supply of affordable housing exists in what is called NOAHs - Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing."

The proposed changes also would increase the fines for noncompliance.

Today, the city can fine a property owner $100 for a problem after the first day, but only $10 for each additional day. That would change to $100 a day.

The city could also levy a $500-a-day fine for serious violations.

Joe Padilla, of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, said he's worried added costs could pressure landlords to sell. If repairs are too costly - or if fines pile up - complexes could be torn down or converted to luxury units with a new owner, he said.

He said he is concerned that some proposed regulations are ambiguous, such as that air conditioners be in  "good working condition." He says that could trigger disputes over whether a working AC is cold enough.

"When you look at naturally occurring affordable housing - which is a lot of the stock we have in affordability today - you want to be sure that we're not making these regulations so costly and so stringent that existing property owners are now more incentivized to sell that property because the cost of maintenance has gone dramatically up," Padilla said.

The city has held workshops with landlords about the proposed changes. One that took place last week at Eastern Hills Baptist Church on Albemarle Road attracted about three dozen people.

Debbie Dryden, who owns a rental house, said the changes wouldn't be a burden.

"To me, this should not be more expensive if you are a landlord," she said. "If you are going to rent a property, it should be up to code. You shouldn't have to worry about moving into a place that requires  existing kitchen exhaust equipment to be operable."

Most of those attending only owned a rental house or two, and weren't corporate landlords.

The City Council could take a formal vote on the new rules in August or September.

[RELATED LINK: Finding Home Series on Affordable Housing]

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