Finding Home: Rock Hill Developing Homes At Abandoned Mill Site

Jul 8, 2019

Charlotte’s affordable housing problems often spill over to surrounding communities as people move further out to those areas, driving up demand for housing and ultimately costs. 

Across the border in Rock Hill, South Carolina, city officials say the population there has increased by almost 11% since 2010. They say housing costs have skyrocketed, and they are experiencing an affordable housing crisis.

In an effort to address the city’s affordable housing needs, Rock Hill officials developed a new single-family complex for low- to moderate-income residents at an old mill site.

The Arcade Cotton Mill is located near the downtown area. It opened in 1895 and many years later became a textile mill, employing more than 300 people. Today, the site is called the Village at Arcade Mill and, for now, it is home to 30 completed and under construction single-family homes.

Rock Hill's housing Director Jennifer Wilford stands downhill from the last of 30 affordable homes being built in at the old Arcade Textile Mill site.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Initial Funding for the homes came from state housing grants. As the homes were sold, money from the sales was used to build additional homes. They were sold to first-time homebuyers who make at most 80% of the area’s median income of $44,000. That’s about $32,000 or less. Most qualified for closing cost assistance and are black.

Jennifer Wilford, Rock Hill’s Housing and Neighborhood Services director, proudly shows off the three-bedroom, two-full-bath homes — each with neat front lawns, front porches, and spacious backyards, surrounded by greenery and large heritage trees.

“We are selling the units for between $120,000 and $130,000 and all of the buyers have come from Rock Hill, so they've been renters somewhere in the community,” Wilford said.

That's a big difference from the average home price in Rock Hill, which is $210,000. Many homes in the area sell for twice that amount or more. Those who qualify for the homes get up to $5,000 to use on closing costs — like Indora Davis.

“It’s very good because it gives people a chance to own a home,” Davis said. “My home was the first one.”

Indora Davis says she bought her three-bedroom home for less than $100,000.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Davis, originally from Jamaica, loves the corner lot, two-story house that she shares with her son. Davis, who works at a local automotive plant, says she was not able to find a home she could afford prior to hearing about The Village at Arcade Mill.

“I got mine for under $100,000, so yes, I appreciate and am happy that they are doing this,” Davis said.

Davis told her sister, Ingrid Dujoy, about the development, and Dujoy bought a home around the corner from Davis a year ago. Dujoy, a mother of three, works for a health care company assembling medical kits for doctors. She paid $129,000 for her home and moved in this past December.

“We were looking at some houses, and they were running at $100,000 and something and they weren’t brand new,” Dujoy said. 

Markers are placed along a trail at The Village of Arcade Mill, noting the history of the former mill and the community.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

The Village at Arcade Mill was a long time in the making. When the mill was operational, it had 135 homes on the site for workers.  It looked very different than it does today. Mildred Douglas is the area’s school board representative. She says a few African Americans worked at the mill but didn’t reside there.

“At one time, that was a totally Caucasian neighborhood when the mill was there back during segregation,” Douglas said. “The African Americans did not live in the neighborhood. They came in to work and went back out.”

In 1997, the mill burned down, the white workers moved elsewhere and Douglas says mainly low- to moderate- income black families moved in. Over time, the neighborhood became run-down, and crime was high. To improve the community, at the request of residents, Wilford says a nonprofit group and the city got involved.

“This project started at the grassroots level. The mill was in private ownership, and it just sat there for three to four years,” Wilford said. “The neighborhood association contacted the Rock Hill Council of Neighborhoods and said, ‘Hey, we have this thing in our community and we need help.’ ”

Alexander Chisholm bought his home at The Village At Arcade Mill after spending a year looking for a house he could afford.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

That was in 2003. Through several federal and state grants, over the next five years, the neighborhood council purchased the mill site then turned it over to the city, hazardous materials were cleaned up, old homes were torn down and the first 10 affordable homes were built. Eight quickly sold for around $80,000 and then the recession hit, halting the project.

During the recovery years, many people with high-paying jobs in Charlotte moved to Rock Hill to take advantage of cheaper housing and gas, lower property taxes and its closeness to Charlotte. Retirees with large pensions relocated there as well. Much of the new housing in Rock Hill caters to those upper-income residents, and with the increased demand, home costs skyrocketed citywide. In addition, rental prices have risen by 14% since 2016.

Alexander Chisholm, a retired veteran, says rental units are too expensive, especially for those on fixed incomes.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn

“There's just a shortage of housing options available for people in the lower-income brackets — it is at crisis levels,” said Stephanie Barnette, a director for the Rock Hill Habitat for Humanity and chair of the local NAACP’s housing committee. “Trying to find an affordable housing option that doesn’t leave a family cost burdened with more than 30% of their total household income going for rent is just not realistic in this community.

“The average fair-market three-bedroom rental is $1,388 a month, and for our families bringing in $1,900 in total monthly income, that is just not feasible. We’re seeing families that are overcrowded, they meet the technical definition of homelesness, they're living with other families or they're living in substandard housing,” Barnette said.

Barnette says Habitat builds five homes a year but receives nearly 100 applications for them and even more requests for repairs on substandard homes. She is encouraged by affordable projects like Arcade Mill but recognizes that the need is much greater.

“Those 30 homes are a great start, but we need to be more intentional about preserving the units that are here and passing policies and ordinances at the local level that encourage affordable housing development and that mandate affordable housing development,” Barnette said.

Housing Director Wilford says they are working on that with elected and other city officials. She says developers have taken advantage of federal tax credits to build a handful of affordable apartment complexes in the city. One hundred fifty units have been built in the past year and construction on more than 50 other affordable units will begin this year, some specifically for seniors. She says they are trying to find creative ways to develop more affordable housing and convince developers to produce more mixed-income projects.

“The developers we’ve spoken to are responding really favorably. None of the ones with projects that are currently being talked about and negotiated have really pushed back. We've been very clear that that's part of our expectation — if this is going to move forward this is part of how we intend to do business here in Rock Hill,” Wilford said.

These are some of the homes developed in The Village at Arcade Mill by Rock Hill officials to ease the city's affordable housing crisis.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Back at the Arcade Mill homes, where construction continues on the last few houses, Wilford pointed out a trail they built along a creek for residents. It extends from near downtown to the smokestack, a remnant of the old mill. There are benches and markers along the trail about the community’s history.

67-year-old Alexander Chisholm, a retired veteran, says he occasionally walks the trail for exercise. Chisholm grew up nearby and says he spent more than a year looking for a home he could afford to buy.

“Matter of fact, I just bought it a year ago,” Chisholm said. “To rent is too expensive ... especially for elderly people living on a fixed income, and some houses are not worth it. Houses like this, people are grabbing them if they can get them.”

Chisholm says he is glad to see his community being revitalized with homeowners who take pride in keeping it that way.

“It bounced back. It’s lovely. You know, you're right back at home. It makes you feel good. It does,” Chisholm said.

City officials say now that The Village at Arcade Mill is sold out, they will use the remaining funds from the sale of the homes — about $400,000 — to build affordable homes in other areas of the city.

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